Archie Moore sits on the edge of the king-size bed in his room at the Riviera Hotel and stares out the window at a hazy gray field of rain clouds. He is wearing one of those crocheted beanies he likes so much, with a little gold bulldog pinned to its center. At least it looks like a bulldog, although it may be a mongoose, which Archie was once. That's what they called him a long time ago: the Old Mongoose. Ancient Archie Moore, light heavyweight champion of the world.
He wants to know something. He wants to know why it seems so close, yet so far away, that night in September 30 years ago when he took it to Rocky Marciano and Rocky took it to him and they both left the ring changed as a result, different in a way that made them bigger than life and time and memory? Bigger even than what history holds, which is the record of a nine-round fight between two men who both wanted something they knew neither could own forever.
Archie Moore is saying he loved Rocky Marciano, loved him like you'd love a brother. And he is saying, "But I could have taken it from him. I could have been heavyweight champion of the world, I could have been . . . " And his voice, once strong with possibility, fades into something far away.
For the most part, Moore, who is 71, enjoys talking about the old days; he's been doing it all week, sometimes over breakfast, sometimes in his room, sometimes on the floor of the casino. Larry Holmes hired him as a consultant, and that's his job, although Holmes, who admits to being both stubborn and hard-headed, seldom listens when it comes time for Archie Moore to consult.
Holmes is the world heavyweight champ preparing to defend his title against Michael Spinks at the Riviera Saturday at 9 p.m. (EDT), the 30th anniversary of the night Archie and the Rock took it to each other, and Marciano won the last fight of his life. If Holmes beats Spinks, the undisputed light heavyweight champion, he'll tie Marciano's 49-0 record, which Moore says would have been 48-1 had a certain something not happened. And that is why he's looking off through the window at the bruised clouds: because he can't forgive or forget, he can't let go of the memory.
He remembers: "It was comical, the way Rocky looked in the ring. He was like a bull with gloves on, trying to fight. From all I'd seen of him, his way was to come out like a swarm of bees, swarming over people. But this fight with me he did not come out that way . . . And I said to him, 'Rocky, I thought you'd come out to fight.' And that made him mad, so I jabbed him once or twice, and whistled a few over his head."
Moore assumes a classic boxing pose, fists clenched tightly. He takes a stab at the bright air, then asks you to picture the ropes around him. The window there is one side of the ring, the wall another. You can feel the crowd if you let yourself, the weight of the night like an anchor on your chest.
Moore remembers: "In the second round, he came out swinging, which was okay. A fighter can size up what's coming immediately, and I saw what was about to happen. I feinted him and he threw an overhand right, and it sailed off because I stepped back. Then I moved in and I hit him with an uppercut. I hit him and watched him fall."
Moore falls to the ground, but he is not Archie Moore at this moment, not the Old Mongoose looking for a neutral corner and staring wide-eyed into history. He is Rocky Marciano, his old friend, down on his knees and with both arms extended in front of him for support, waiting for the count.
Then Moore counts off two seconds -- the two seconds that referee Henry Kessler counted out above the roar of 60,000 in New York -- and he, Moore, who is Marciano, pulls himself off the ground and leans against the window, against the ropes. His eyes blur, he looks embarrassed, yet he is appealing to the crowd, to the distant bank of thunder clouds. He holds his gloves high and smiles as if to say you can't hurt me, you can't. I'm Rocky Marciano and you can't hurt me.
Moore steps away from the window and the emboldening light of a thousand years, which somehow have been whittled down to one. It is 1955 all over again; it is Sept. 21 and Archie Moore just dropped the heavyweight champion of the world to his knees.
"I thought, 'I got him now, I got him.' And he's standing up against those ropes, looking at the people as if he wants to apologize for going down. The referee looked for me to go to the corner clear across the ring, but I'm smart, you see. I'm in the one right here -- ," Moore hurries past the window and stands next to the television set.
"All I have to do is swing out and hit him again, but Kessler swings his butt between me and Rocky. He starts to count again and he grabs Rocky's gloves and he wipes those damn gloves against his chest. It takes six seconds, I know, and he's quit counting, and my corner's shouting for me to hit Rocky, they're saying that ain't no eight-count. Then Kessler pulls Rocky's gloves and snaps his head back. And that gets him going again, snapping his head that way.
"But I'm standing there looking (Kessler) right in the eyes and he's looking in my eyes. And he sees the hate in my eyes, he sees it all right. And he knows I hate him. I hate him to this day."
Archie Moore sits back on the edge of the bed and closes his eyes. The window is a window again, the television is no longer in the corner of a ring. And Rocky Marciano has been dead 16 years.
Thirty years ago Saturday, Rocky Marciano knocked Archie Moore down six times before the fight ended in the ninth. The last time he hit the canvas, the Old Mongoose, who then was 41, tried to pull himself up by the ropes but couldn't make it.
Moore had spent the best of three years trying to get the fight with Marciano, had spent long nights writing letters to newspapermen and congressmen asking them to help his cause by talking it up in the papers. He'd told everybody he could win, he'd put his reputation on the line. But his dream had died with the talk, and he found himself taking a seat against the corner turnbuckle and watching the Rock raise his arms in victory for the last time ever.
Thirty years ago came a big, hard night, and it would never die.
"In the final analysis," Archie Moore is saying. "Rocky Marciano's superior condition wore me down, and my age. I was angered by what the referee had done to me, and that didn't help. I began to fight Rocky Marciano's fight by trying to outslug him. I lost my cool. He outlaced me. I couldn't trade punches with him.
"What happened in the end, I was out there in deep water, and I had to swim or else. You know the rest."