Friday, March 13, 2009

Once a Champ, Always a Fighter

Former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer pictured shortly before he retired from the ring.

It's not always easy being the former heavyweight champ of the world. For most of them, the time spent at the top is short. Sometimes it’s a rags to riches and back to rags type of story. When they’re the king of the world, the highs are exhilarating. But when it’s all over, when the title and the money and the friends are gone - things can be bluer than blue and sadder than sad.

Michael Moorer knows all about the highs and he knows all about the lows.

"Double M" had two brief runs as the heavyweight champion of the world in 1994 and again from 1996 to 1997. His two title reigns lasted a total of only 72 weeks, but during that time he went from the highs of upsetting Evander Holyfield to the lows of being knocked out by a 45-year-old semi-retired preacher named George Foreman.

By the time Michael Moorer turned 30-years-old his time holding what was once known as "the greatest prize in all of sports" would be done.

Within a very short span of time, Moorer collected paychecks that had more zeroes than most men will see in a lifetime spent working. He would go from headlining for the high rollers at Caesars Palace and the MGM Grand to grinding out nights against no-name pugs in places where the lights don’t glitter. Places like Burlington, Iowa and Concho, Oklahoma.

There were retirements and un-retirements. There were barroom scuffles. He was charged with assaulting police officers, he had issues with alcohol and there were always rumors of money problems. He’d be knocked out in brutal fashion by David Tua in less time than it takes to blow your nose.

Freddie Roach and Michael Moorer as they appeared back when Moorer was one of the top heavyweights in the world.

His last fight would come 13 months ago, a first-round knockout win against a no-hoper, in of all places, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Michael Moorer won his last six fights, four by knockout. He fought as a pro for exactly 20 years until one day he just stopped. And then he disappeared.

So some who are a little newer to what the great fight writer Hugh McIlvanney calls "The Hardest Game" were questioning who the big man was. Who was the big man in Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym with the towel draped over his thick shoulders? Who was the man with fists that looked like ham-hocks hanging from tree limbs? Who was the man with the size 16 shoes and dark eyes that looked as though they could still stare a hole in any heavyweight?

He simply showed up, practically out of the blue, to the doorstep of one of the most famous boxing gyms in the world. It’s near the corner of Vine St. and Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, California. He said he wanted something to do. He looks much the same as he ever did. He still has the bald head, the menacing manner and he still has the tendency to be a bit mercurial.

The cramped and stuffy gym, located above a laundromat, next to a Stop & Shop and across the street from a Social Security Administration office is likely not the place the 40-year-old Moorer thought he would find himself 12 long years after he last held a heavyweight title belt. But here he is and he seems happy to be back with his old mentor in Roach and a key part of the big events that are coming up with Roach’s protégés Amir Khan and Manny Pacquiao.

The Wild Card Gym is one of the most famous boxing gyms in the world and it has become a beacon in the night to fighters from around the globe.

He didn’t want to tell the story of what brought him here, all the way to California from Florida.

He once had so much money, way back in 1997, that when he trained out here with Roach for the rematch against Holyfield, he rented a Beverly Hills estate to live in at a cost of several thousand dollars per week. The rent was a mere pittance back then - he made $8 million for the fight.

"I just decided to come out here to California," explains the soft-spoken Moorer. "I wanted to come out here and be a part of Freddie’s team to try and further my career in boxing as a trainer. As you know, I’m retired from boxing and I wanted to learn from the master, in Freddie, so to speak."

Many forget that before he won his heavyweight titles he was a murderous puncher at 175-pounds. In 1988, he would become the first man to ever hold the newly created WBO light heavyweight title and over the course of two years he made 9 title defenses. Before he fled to the land of the big men he racked up a record of 21-0,21 KOs and no light heavyweight in the world wanted to step into a ring and face him.

Hall of fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who brought Moorer along as a young pro, still calls him, "The most awesome puncher I think I have seen at 175-pounds. The man could make mountains crumble."

Before he won the title from Holyfield, the young Moorer, who had a penchant for violence and gory movies, once told a reporter, "I want to break a cheekbone, to see what it looks like pushed in."

When he was young and on top of the world, Moorer was in the company of Evander Holyfield and Don King in Las Vegas.

Steward created a monster with Moorer. The young fighter, born in the Bronx, New York but raised in Monessen, Pennsylvania lived in a room in the basement of Steward’s Detroit home.

"I taught him how to shave so as not leave razor bumps on his neck. But in the end we ended up arguing about everything," said Steward, who is known to everybody as an all around good guy. "We argued over all the little things, and in the end it just became too much for us to work together anymore."

After the painful break-up with Steward it would be Georgie Benton, Lou Duva and finally Teddy Atlas that would eventually prod a sometimes passive, sometimes nasty Moorer to win his heavyweight titles. After some of the same problems with Steward reared their head with Atlas, Moorer eventually hooked up for a short stint with Roach.

Now a decade removed from his greatest accomplishments in the ring, Moorer has no illusions about where he finds himself at this point in his life. He has no pretensions and he’s appreciative when people recognize him and ask him how he’s doing. He can be as measured with the comments about his personal life as he was in the ring with Holyfield when he became the first southpaw heavyweight champion in boxing history.

When he was the champ he once complained that people didn’t take the time to get to know him. He would eventually give up trying to make them understand his complex personality. He was hard on the outside, but seemingly fragile on the inside.
Moorer only held the titles he won from Holyfield for a short time - 28 weeks - before he met the ancient but still dangerous George Foreman in 1994 on a cool November night in Las Vegas.

Moorer faced George Foreman in his first title defense and his title reign ended in a huge upset.

Moorer laid a tattooing on Foreman with right jab after right jab and he won every round. But unexpectedly, in the 10th, Foreman connected with what HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley called, "An unbelievably crimson right hand shot."

Moorer dropped to the floor as though he were cut off at the knees with a machete. As he lay there, splayed out on the canvas, an overhead camera zoomed in on Moorer’s face and it showed the blood welling up in the little space between his lips and nose. Meanwhile, Lampley screamed into his microphone from just a few feet away, "It happened! It happened!"

Michael Moorer, only 26-years-old, would be counted out by referee Joe Cortez.

All these years later, Moorer has matured and he is pragmatic about where he finds himself. After some struggles in his personal life, in which his own grandfather sued him for money, Moorer says, "I guess what’s important is that I’m here today and that’s the main thing."

He is acting in the official capacity of what he terms "Freddie’s first assistant." Moorer will be working with all of Roach’s fighters - including fellow southpaw and the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter, Manny Pacquiao - whom he escorted last weekend to a public event with the mayor of Los Angeles.

Along with Roach, Moorer is helping to work the corner of the world's best pound-for-pound fighter - Manny Pacquiao.

"I’m living out here in L.A. now," explains Moorer the understudy. "But I still have a home in Florida and that’s where my children are, where my family is. I plan to be out here for a good while, but I’ll go back and forth between here and Florida to see my family. But the long term is that I’ll be here, at the Wild Card. I’m working with all of the fighters, amateur and pro here at the gym. I’m here to be part of the team, to help Freddie and to point out things that I see that maybe the other guys don’t."

While Manny Pacquiao’s training camp for his May date versus Ricky Hatton is just getting underway, Moorer has been working with the young British sensation, Amir Khan who will fight Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera on Saturday night in Manchester, England.

Moorer is an active participant in the sessions with the fighters in the gym and whether he’s standing inside or outside the ropes, he has the instant respect from the fighters as they know that he has been there and done that.

Some, however, may find it curious that Moorer is training fighters. For it was Moorer who sometimes had to be pried from his Caesars Palace hotel room to come downstairs and train for the first fight against Holyfield. Teddy Atlas had to (on more than one occasion) confront Moorer, almost coming to blows, in order to get him motivated enough to collect his $5 million purse.

On the night they won the title from Holyfield, Teddy Atlas and Moorer were an inseparable and unbeatable tandem.

But all of that, was of course, a long, long time ago.

"That was then and this is now," says Moorer of the old days. "What I can do now, it’s good for the fighters. Because I can stand back and see things they are doing, or not doing, that they aren’t even aware of. That way we can help them correct it and if I happen to notice something a guy is doing wrong we can get him to correct it right then and there and that’s what it’s all about."

While Michael Moorer will likely never be remembered as one of the great heavyweight champions of boxing history, he will always be remembered as a fighter. In the second encounter against Holyfield, he was knocked down five times. At one point during the night, in a bout that saw him unravel slowly, as Moorer struggled to his feet he punched the canvas with his gloved fist. He cursed at himself under his breath and shook his head in disgust at why he kept going down.

But one thing you’ll notice about Michael Moorer is that he got up back then and it seems like he’s on his feet again now. He’s still here.

And like he said, that’s the main thing.

March 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece on Michael Moorer. A gifted fighter who did a lot, but could have done more. Like so many of the big men.