Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Who Sang For Davey Moore?

Davey Moore's father was the pastor at the Jesus Only church in Urbania, Ohio. The Jesus Only church was a Pentecostal group asserting the primacy of Jesus at the expense of the Trinitarian theology that was - and continues - to be the norm in Christianity. Rather than baptising in the name of "The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," Moore's father put all his faith in the Son.

From April 1957 through in St. Patrick's Day 1960, the pastor's son certainly seemed infallible. He ran off an 18-fight undefeated streak as a boxer, picking up the Featherweight world title along the way by upsetting Hogan "Kid" Bassey in March 1959 in Los Angeles.

Just five decisions into his win streak in early 1958, Moore was described by Sports Illustrated boxing scribe Gilbert Rogin, in not entirely complimentary fashion, as “a chunky, clubfighter who punches solidly but does not always maintain the pace.” By the time he defeated Bassey the following year, Moore's profile had risen and his notices were much more favorable. Dubbed "the Springfield Rifle" for his place of residence and for his bullet-strong punches, boxing writers and fans gravitated toward Moore, the rare American excelling in the Featherweight division, where fighters cannot weigh more than 126 pounds.

During Moore's career, the division was populated mostly by Hispanic and European fighters. Bassey hailed from Nigeria, and was the country's first boxing champion. The polyglot composition of the Featherweight ranks had Moore traveling the world to find fights. Not one to duck an opponent, Moore had unseated Bassey with infected tonsils and a 101 degree fever. After granting Bassey a chance to regain the top spot in the Featherweight division, Moore successfully defended his title an additional four times (while taking and winning many non-title bouts along the way).

Moore won a title decision over Kazuo Takayama in Tokyo in 1960. He then knocked out Danny Valdez in the first round in Mexico to keep the crown in April 1960 in Los Angeles and before winning a unanimous decision over Takayama in a return to Tokyo later that year to keep the world title. After a pummeling left-right combination to the jaw left Takayama essentially out on his feet in the thirteenth, Moore eased up in the last two rounds with the triumph assured and his foe visibly dazed. In August 1962, Moore again put his championship on the line against Olli Maki in Helsinki, Finland (where he had participated in the 1952 Olympics). He stopped Maki by TKO with three knockdowns in the second round.

By the time that the 29-year-old Moore climbed through the ropes of the ring situated above the pitcher's mound at Dodger Stadium on March 21, 1963, he had amassed a career record of 59-6-1. The WBC and the WBA Featherweight titles were on the line back in Los Angeles as were world titles in two other weight classes. It was big night for boxing in one of America's newest sporting venues, which had opened up less than a year earlier in Chavez Ravine. The opening fight paired welterweight champ Emile Griffith against No. 1 contender Luis Rodriguez. Griffith had regained that title a year earlier in a match at Madison Square Garden in which he inflicted mortal injuries on his opponent, Benny Paret. The death of a prominent fighter in a prominent fight that was televised nationally on NBC brought down a firestorm of criticism on the sport, with many seeking to ban it altogether.

In the opening match of the tripleheader, Rodriguez relieved Griffith of the welterweight crown, to the delight of the largely Spanish-speaking crowd, some of whom were likely displaced as the Dodgers bought out Chavez Ravine residents in advance of building their new home. Up next, Moore and Ultimo "Sugar" Ramos, a Cuban fighter by way of Mexico, took center stage.

The 21-year-old challenger started timidly against the established champion but grew into the match to the delight of the partisan crowd. Moore rocked his younger pursuer in the second round with a combination of punches but the crowds chants of RA-MOS, RA-MOS seemed to keep his feet beneath him. Thanks to a rapid-fire left jab, Ramos loosened several of Moore's teeth and shattered his mouth guard. For his part, Moore's right hand would pummel Ramos, swelling one of his eyes. Ramos' assault culminated in the 10th round, when series of upper cuts forced Moore across the mat to the ropes on the center-field side of the ring. Once his retreat route was hemmed in by the ropes, Ramos landed a left hook that knocked Moore to the seat of his shorts. As he fell, his head snapped back against the lower rope. Referee George Latka quickly approached Moore and began his 10-count. The battered but proud champ was up by the time Latka reached three. He returned to his corner after the bell sounded the conclusion of the 10th round. Before the 11th began, Moore's manager Willie Ketchum signaled that his fighter was done for the night.

Fully under his own power, Moore trudged to his locker room, where he chatted amiably with the press. Aside from a bloodshot left eye, he hardly looked like a man who'd had to throw in the towel a full five rounds before the fight was scheduled to be over. Defeated but not deflated, Moore told reporters "I'll take the rematch, you better believe it. Look, you guys know that when I'm right nothing gets to me. Not nothing. I was off. That's it. plain and simple."

Moore would go on to laugh and joke with reporters: "Just like you writers, if you'd only admit it. Can't write a lick some days. Well, that was me tonight. I just wasn't up to my best."

To the press, the 5-foot-2 Moore may have sounded like an aging fighter trying to explain away his inevitable decline like so many fighters before and since. After all, Father Time remains undefeated in all weight classes. When those reporters rushed back to their ringside seats for the third bout of the evening, they may not have believed that Moore would regain his belt from Ramos, but they likely believed that they would be there to see him try. And they certainly didn't expect that he was about to die.

Shortly after Moore was left alone with Ketchum and sparring partner Ronnie Wilson, he began experiencing sharp headaches. He called for his manager. Moments later, he collapsed into a coma. Seventy-five hours after the fight he was dead at White Memorial Hospital. The cause of death was massive trauma to the brain stem, presumably suffered when the back of his head hit the bottom the rope in the 10th round.

California Governor Pat Brown seized on Moore's death to (again) call for the abolition of boxing. Even the Pope spoke out, proclaiming the sweet science was "contrary to natural principles." Of course, most people were convinced that boxing was actually too close to the sort of base and violent natural principles that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes laid out in Leviathan. One of the voices that rang out in the aftermath of Moore's death belonged to a young folk singer named Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed a song entitled "Who Killed Davey Moore?"

The song was never on any of Dylan's officially released albums during the 1960s but was an occasional part of his live act. When introducing it to a crowd in New York on Halloween 1964, Dylan, in prototypical ironic fashion, said:

"This a song about a boxer...
It's got nothing to do with boxing, it's just a song about a boxer really.
And, uh, it's not even having to do with a boxer, really.
It's got nothing to do with nothing.
But I fit all these words together...
that's all...
It's taken directly from the newspapers,
Nothing's been changed...
Except for the words."

The prominence of topical songs during the 1950s and '60s and in Dylan's early folk/protest work made such a subject far less unusual than it might seem from the distance of nearly 50 years. Because other than Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and now of The Nightwatchman, I can't fathom any serious contemporary musician devoting an entire song (and space in their setlist) to asking "Who Killed Dave Duerson?"

"Who Killed Davey Moore?" by Bob Dylan:

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not I,” says the referee
“Don’t point your finger at me
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
At not gettin’ their money’s worth
It’s too bad he had to go
But there was a pressure on me too, you know
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not us,” says the angry crowd
Whose screams filled the arena loud
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
We just meant to see some sweat
There ain’t nothing wrong in that
It wasn’t us that made him fall
No, you can’t blame us at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says his manager
Puffing on a big cigar
“It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
I always thought that he was well
It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
But if he was sick, he should’ve said
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the gambling man
With his ticket stub still in his hand
“It wasn’t me that knocked him down
My hands never touched him none
I didn’t commit no ugly sin
Anyway, I put money on him to win
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the boxing writer
Pounding print on his old typewriter
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
There’s just as much danger in a football game”
Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
“I hit him, yes, it’s true
But that’s what I am paid to do
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
It was destiny, it was God’s will”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

(Happy 70th birthday, Bob)