Tonight on HBO, Antonio Tarver and Glencoffe Johnson square off once again to determine who is the best 175-pound fighter in the world. The first fight was a tough ebb and flow battle, and equally tough to score. I’m glad both put the alphabets to the side where they belong, and I’m glad they’re stepping up to the plate again. The stakes for this battle are higher than the first fight. The winner will likely take on Bernard Hopkins if Hopkins can get by Jermain Taylor on July 16, or engage in another bout with Roy Jones.
Both possibilities equal significant box office appeal, but I believe a proposed bout with Hopkins is far more intriguing and lucrative. Jones is coming off back-to-back KO losses to both men, and his stock in the eyes of the boxing public has plummeted. Conversely, a middleweight champion like Hopkins stepping directly up to 175 to challenge the best light heavyweight champion in the world is quite rare. Hopkins is also a rarity. He is 40 years old and currently considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world by most experts.
Realistically, these are tricky and treacherous waters for even the inordinately bright and resourceful Hopkins. Bernard has been a nonconformist gambler throughout much of his career, and this gamble might prove to be as volatile as a North Philly dice game. Historically, middleweight champions typically don’t do well against light heavyweight champions. Additionally, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler remained at 160 for their entire careers instead of testing the waters against Foster and Spinks, respectively. The odds just don’t look appealing at first glance. Tarver is a huge light heavyweight with one punch knockout power. Johnson is the more preferred opponent than Tarver, but he is more seasoned, stronger, and better than he was when he was TKO’d by Hopkins at 160 pounds eight years ago.
To complicate matters, Bernard fought at 177 pounds in his first professional loss. After his first loss, he took time off, regrouped, and hooked up with Bouie Fisher. He gradually melted down to middleweight after he and Fisher determined that light heavyweight and super middleweight weren’t the optimal weight classes for The Executioner.
It’s a tough endeavor from multiple perspectives. As Bernard has hinted recently, perhaps rematching the depleted Jones might be the better route.
In 1952, Sugar Ray Robinson stepped up to challenge light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim. Maxim was a solid light heavyweight champion, but not one of the best in history. Robinson outboxed Maxim in the searing heat, and appeared to be on his way to a 15 round unanimous decision. Unfortunately, Robinson didn’t pace himself well, and suffered from heat prostration during the bout. He couldn’t answer the bell for the fourteenth round. Robinson was far ahead on all cards at the time of the stoppage. The tallies read 10-3, 9-3-1 and 7-3-3.
Robinson retired after the bout, but returned to the ring in 1955. He won the middleweight championship three more times before the end of his career, but never challenged for the light heavyweight championship again. What many don’t know is that Robinson actually came close to challenging for the light heavyweight title in 1959, but the contracts never got signed to make it happen. Perhaps subconsciously, Robinson knew 175 was a bridge too far.
In 1958, Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle engaged in one of the greatest fights of all time. In my opinion, Moore vs. Durelle 1 is the standard by which great fights are measured. By contemporary standards, the fight would’ve ended in the first round. Durelle brutally deposited Moore on the deck three times in the first round and had him in deep and dire straights.
In the following rounds, Moore used all of his tricks, traps and experience to work his way back into the fight, but teetered on the brink of defeat once again when Durelle put him down for the fourth time in the fifth round. Moore weathered the onslaught, and gradually established control when he put Durelle down for the first time in the seventh round.
Moore mixed up his attack and used more angles to daze and dumbfound the battered Durelle in the following rounds. After suffering successive knockdowns, Durelle took a ten-count in the eleventh round. In total, eight knockdowns occurred in the fight. The bout defined brutality, skill and will. Archie later called it his finest hour. Boxing writers agreed. The middle-aged Moore was named Fighter of the Year and was awarded the Edward J. Neil Trophy.
Regardless of the outcome, although the younger Durelle was on the losing end of the war, the physical toll might prove to be more taxing on the older Moore. A rematch was a natural, but it almost didn’t happen.
After the first Durelle fight, Sugar Ray Robinson invited Archie Moore and his wife, Joan, to his house for dinner. The two had been friendly over the years, but Archie had a premonition that there was more to the dinner invitation than meets the eye. Archie had heard rumors around town that Sugar Ray wanted to fight him. In Moore’s autobiography, Any Boy Can: The Archie Moore Story, the Ol’ Mongoose described his meeting with Robinson.
After dinner, Sugar Ray asked to speak with Archie in private, and the men convened in a separate room. Archie knew this wasn’t a simple and friendly after dinner chat. As the two men departed, Archie addressed Sugar Ray as Walker, because he knew that penetrated Sugar Ray’s psyche just as much as Ali was perturbed when opponents referred to him as Clay. Archie cut to the chase and asked Ray what was on his mind.
Sugar Ray abruptly but politely asked Archie if he wanted to fight him. In the form of a savvy, true counterpuncher, Moore “nonchalantly” replied that he “wouldn’t mind.”
As many know, Sugar Ray Robinson made Oscar De La Hoya look like Mahatma Gandhi at the negotiating table. From the beginning of the negotiation process with Moore, Sugar Ray put himself in charge of the financial details, and attempted to dictate terms to Ageless Archie. Specifically, Robinson and Moore would each be guaranteed $500,000, and they would be fighting exclusively for Archie’s light heavyweight title. Archie realized he couldn’t melt down to 160 pounds, and didn’t see a problem with the bout being for his title only. However, he knew there was more behind the details with the proposed guarantee of $500,000.
Moore proved to be a better negotiating opponent than Robinson realized. Moore inquired about theater television incentives, and Ray quickly stated, “That’s included in the half million you get.”
Moore instantly replied, “I understand that. The price is right, Ray. But inasmuch as we can’t walk away with that half-million each, why don’t we work out a deal with those people where we could invest $250,000 of our purse in the theater television? This would set us up economically for life.”
Robinson was emphatic and unyielding. His reply was visceral and unequivocal. “They won’t do it!. They won’t do it!”
The negotiation ended there. Moore felt something was wrong, and detailed his thoughts in retrospect.
“Well, I was surprised that Ray could answer my question before he had even discussed it with his people. How did he know what they would or wouldn’t do? This was the first time it had been proposed to him, and he tells me flat-out that they wouldn’t go for it. Well, I didn’t like that, so I accepted an offer of $250,000 to fight a rematch with Durelle instead of waiting around on Robinson. This kind of made Ray mad, but if he would have at least talked to the theater-television people about this and given them my proposition, I would have gone for the deal even if they had refused. I just didn’t like the idea of his flat refusal to even approach them with my proposition. And so that is why I never fought Sugar Ray, and I’m sorry about that because I think that we could have made boxing history. I felt sure that I could have beaten him, and he probably felt the same way about me, and that’s the way he should have felt. If he had taken up my suggestion and the television people had gone for my idea, we both could have been rich men today. But anyway, I still like Sugar Ray Robinson. I think he’s a great guy and a great boxer.”
On August 12, 1959 Archie Moore met Durelle in their rematch in Montreal. Moore deemed their first fight his finest hour, and it’s hard to dispute his assertion considering that he overcame extreme adversity in a historic battle. Truthfully, I don’t believe this was the best Archie Moore we ever saw.
The Archie Moore who met Durelle in the rematch was a better and sharper version of the Ol’ Mongoose than we saw in his self-proclaimed finest hour. His reflexes, timing, defense and tactics were far superior to his previous performance against the rugged, hard-punching Canadian. To this day, I haven’t seen a tape of Moore looking better than in his rematch with Durelle. He simply blew Durelle out of the water. He was in complete control from the opening bell, and blasted Durelle to the canvas several times in the third round to end the bout. His hand speed was that of man twenty years younger, but coupled with the ring knowledge of an old-time trainer. In short, it was a mind-boggling display of ring artistry.
If Sugar Ray Robinson would’ve met Archie Moore in 1959, I strongly believe he would’ve been knocked out. I don’t believe Moore would’ve gotten to Robinson as early as he did Durelle. I believe Archie would’ve set some traps, lured Robinson into a false sense of security, and knocked him out in the mid-to-late rounds. Moore’s punching power and craftiness would’ve been too much.
Even though he was in his mid-forties, Archie exhibited less wear and tear than Sugar Ray in 1959. Robinson was 39 years old and coming off his two epic battles with Carmen Basilio. After the Basilio wars, he was never really the same. He scored a second round knockout over hapless Paul Young in 1959, and then lost his middleweight title to Paul Pender in 1960. He lost a rematch with Pender later that year, and drew with Gene Fullmer in his next fight. Fullmer successfully defended his title against Robinson again on March 4, 1961. Robinson never challenged for a title again.
In my opinion, Sugar Ray Robinson was lucky he allowed negotiations with Moore to break down, because his second shot at the light heavyweight title would’ve proven to be more disastrous than his first foray with Maxim. As stated above, Robinson retired for a few years after losing to Maxim. I believe the Archie Moore who destroyed Yvon Durelle in their rematch would’ve retired Sugar Ray Robinson for good.
If Bernard Hopkins prevails over Jermain Taylor next month, it is a given that negotiations with the winner of Johnson vs. Tarver 2 will be contentious. Bernard is known for being difficult at the negotiating table, and with Oscar De La Hoya at his side, Bernard’s proposed take will probably be bigger than what he collected for his 19th defense against De La Hoya last year. Before Bernard starts planning his negotiating attack with Oscar, both should study boxing history first. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson came up short both against a middle tier champion like Joey Maxim. He also came up short at the negotiating table with Archie Moore.