When a champion rises from the canvas to toddle about like a baby learning to walk, when the roaring in his ears is not alone the roar of the crowd, when his opponent looms vague and ugly through red haze, when his arms neither block nor punch but only flop, when he is felled again and rises once more and then goes down a third time from still another crushing blow, he would be forgiven by any decent person if he then stayed down and sadly heard the referee toll the end of his championship, the final round of his career.
He would especially be forgiven if, like Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champion of the world, he was very probably the oldest titleholder in modern ring history, had held his title long and had defended it honorably against the best in his division. But Archie Moore has a kingly heart. To be able to rise and to rise are one and the same to him.
Some of the other great champions of prizefighting have risen from the canvas to retain their titles. Jack Dempsey did it against Luis Firpo, Gene Tunney did it against Dempsey, and there have been others. But none has risen so magnificently or from such deep depths as did Archie Moore last Wednesday night in Montreal.
He had entered the ring against Yvon Durelle, the hero of French Canada, with the published odds a prohibitive 3 to 1 in his favor. Small bettors may have observed those odds, but men with important money to wager could not find them. Big bettors were working at 1½ to 1 because those of them who favored Moore lacked full confidence in him. They suspected shrewdly that Archie, fighting only two days before what may have been his 43rd, his 46th, or his 49th birthday, depending on whose computation you accept, might have reached the end of his long, hard road leaning enfeebled on a concealed cane. (He arrived at the weighin, as a matter of fact, carrying a silver-topped walking stick but he was wearing a dinner jacket and his manner was as jaunty as the attire.)
So a syndicate of patriotic habitants from Durelle's home province, New Brunswick, was able to bet only $12,000 of the $27,000 they had carried to Montreal in the hope of returning with, say, $80,000 more. They returned with $12,000 less.
They were almost right. At the end of the first round they were regretting that they had not made good use of their remaining $15,000 by offering solid odds on Durelle. In the minute between the first and second rounds any of the 8,484 fans who had paid $89,940 to see the fight would have agreed with them.
After announcements in French and English to accommodate bilingual Montreal, Archie came off his stool slim-hipped and flat-bellied. In just two months he had, by witchcraft which is his secret, trained down from a gross 206 pounds to a trim 173¾. Durelle weighed 172.
At that moment the champion was all but insolently confident. Durelle, on the other hand, seemed to know his place in ring society, even though he is a successful commercial fisherman, owner of four fine boats, and the first citizen of New Brunswick's Baie Ste. Anne, owner of the town's first TV set and first flush toilet. But it is well known that when Durelle throws a hook it is more likely to catch a haddock than an experienced boxer. He is an awkward fellow, what they call rough and durable.
Archie carried his left hand low because some fighters are thereby tempted to throw a right-hand lead when they see the left side of his jaw so sweetly exposed. Archie then catches the right-hand lead in the palm of his right glove and fields them back a deadening left hook.
Fisherman Durelle almost took the bait. He threw the right, but he preceded it with a hook to the body that jarred Moore so that he was not able to get the protective right glove across his chin in time. He crumpled ingloriously. His custom-tailored black-and-gold trunks picked up rosin powder. His gray-flecked hair, so neatly combed when he climbed through the ropes in a robe of cherry red and silver, was shocked awry. So were his brains. The timekeeper pounded his mallet nine times before Archie could get on his feet again, standing on legs that now were only as sturdy as a pair of eels.
This was the moment for a knockout punch but Durelle, unprepared for greatness, could not bring it off. In the opinion of Referee Jack Sharkey he merely shoved the staggering Archie, who went down again. Sharkey did not rule it a knockdown. This time Archie was up at two, a sign that he was thinking bravely but not clearly. While he struggled to maintain a dignified attitude the crudely ambitious Durelle clouted him with a right hand that seemed to travel from Baie Ste. Anne and hard enough to kill a marlin. For the third time in that first round Archie sagged to the floor. At the seventh thump of the gavel he rose, totally fuddled, and lasted out the remaining seconds with only enough consciousness to feel embarrassed.
On the day before the fight Archie had made it imperiously clear that if he could not handle a fighter of Durelle's caliber he would retire after this, his 205th recorded fight in 23 years. That, he said, was why he wanted nothing to do with a mandatory return-bout clause in the fight contract. It was such a fight, however, that there may now be an outdoors return at Montreal in June.
But if between the first and second rounds he was planning a retirement speech he gave no sign of it as the second round progressed.
Instead, he stalled for time to heal his wounds. He staved off Durelle with a left jab that, though not nearly so deft as it became later, was quite enough for a curiously cautious Durelle. In this round Durelle lost the bout, apparently because of misconceived shrewdness in his corner. He should have swarmed over Archie, who was still weak, but instead he stayed away from him.
Durelle's manager, who is a grocer, explained afterward that he had told Yvon to be wary in the second round and avoid coming to grips with the sophisticated Archie.
"I told Yvon to watch him because Archie is so smart," Chris Shaban admitted. "So Yvon was careful in the second."
Moore thus survived and went on to win the fight.
Durelle tried a bit harder in the third, which he won while Moore retreated and gathered strength. In the fourth Moore broke into a light sweat for the first time in the very chilly, unheated Forum, where ice is permanently laid for hockey and fight spectators wear overcoats and hats. The sweat signaled that his bodily reflexes were returning to normal.
Durelle's big chance came again in the fifth. He knocked Archie down, again with a right-hand punch. Archie rose groggily from a count of five, and this time Durelle chased him. But Moore, warming to the evening's work, was able to mount his famous crisscross defense. By the end of the round Archie was chasing Durelle. His mouthpiece bared in an unaccustomed snarl, the champion suddenly crashed a right and a left to the challenger's jaw. Durelle was staggered and he may have been disheartened. He did not win a round thereafter on any of the three judges' cards. (Referees do not keep score in Montreal.)
The rest of the fight was astonishing in that the aging Archie seemed to grow stronger, while Durelle, who is only 29, weakened rapidly. A left jab bloodied his big nose, and hard right chops bruised his head.
Durelle landed one more good punch. It was a hard right in the seventh round and when the champion did not go down Durelle seemed to know that his dream was over. Moore then knocked Durelle down for the first time, using a right-left-right combination. Durelle was up at two and lasted out the round.
By the 10th, after two rounds in which he systematically stabbed Durelle with his left and battered him with his right, the rejuvenated Moore was all but prancing like a happy and vicious young goat. Eight seconds before the bell he dropped Durelle with a blood-spattering left hook.
Almost at the clang that opened the 11th, Moore landed a succession of right-hand punches and then, with a left hook, knocked Durelle down again. The fisherman was up at nine but fell almost immediately from a superb left-right combination to the jaw. This time he rolled over on his back and stayed there.
So the fight ended with Archie Moore still champion and, by any man's concession, one of the most amazing champions in ring history. Older than 43-year-old Champion Bob Fitzsimmons in some reckonings, perhaps even older than the 46-year-old Jack Broughton of the 18th century, Archie had set a new record for knockouts. With that llth-round punch he passed Young Stribling's mark of 126 KOs.
After the fight this fabulous man of boxing was his debonair self again, not even breathing hard while he twiddled his goatee and twitted Joe Louis on his age. Louis is 44.
Then, bowing from the waist, Archie extended his fateful right hand to Durelle, who had been weeping bitterly, and wished him a Merry Christmas.