Essays - Summer 2008

The Bout

When George Plimpton, the boyish editor of The Paris Review, went three rounds with the light-heavyweight champion of the world

By Blair Fuller | June 1, 2008


In December 1958, British Empire light-heavyweight boxing champion Yvon Durelle, “the Fighting Fisherman” from Canada’s maritime New Brunswick Province, knocked down World Champion Archie Moore three times in the first round of a title fight in Montreal. Durelle floored Moore once again in the fifth. But Moore knocked down Durelle in the ninth and two rounds later knocked out the challenger to retain the championship. It was one of the most dramatic fights in the history of professional boxing.

Six weeks later, Moore, his cuts healed and bruises faded, traveled from his home base in San Diego to New York City, where he basked in the adulation of his fans and peers and attracted a lot of media attention by booking three rounds with the editor of The Paris Review, George Plimpton, then 31.

The bout was to be held one afternoon at Stillman’s Gym on Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue near West 54th Street. What would Archie choose to do with George? That question preoccupied us in the Plimpton camp, although, since there was no way of finding out the answer, we never expressed our worries above a mumble. I had been a friend of George’s since our Harvard days and in 1953 had a short story published in The Paris Review’s second issue. I joined the magazine as an editor five years later, and as the fight approached, I agreed to be one of George’s two corner men.

Early in 1958 Sports Illustrated had published George’s entry into the sports-publishing world with a piece about Harold “Mike” Stirling Vanderbilt, the skipper of three winning America’s Cup yachts in the 1930s, a champion bridge player, and a great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. George returned from one of his visits with Vanderbilt in Palm Beach having learned, presumably from his host, about sportswriter/novelist Paul Gallico’s challenge to heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey to go one round with him in 1922 when Dempsey was preparing to fight Luis Firpo. Dempsey obliged Gallico, who left the ring “shaking, bleeding slightly from the mouth, head singing, knowing all there was to know about being hit in the ring.” That was Gallico’s report in his memoir, A Farewell to Sport.

The Gallico-Dempsey round inspired George to try something similar, but he hoped first to experience one of the less-dangerous feats reported in A Farewell to Sport. Gallico had played golf with Bobby Jones and tennis with Vincent Richards. George was hoping to arrange to pitch in Yankee Stadium—something he’d dreamed of since boyhood. But after relating Gallico’s experience with Dempsey to many of his friends, it should not have wholly surprised George that an S.I. editor would seize the idea of contacting Moore. For his part, Moore postponed acceptance until after the title match against Durelle.

Whatever George may have initially felt about the prospects of this encounter, he didn’t back away from it, although there was no S.I. contract. He supposed that Moore would have an easy victory over the relatively unknown Durelle and accepted S.I.’s proposal. Looking around for a sparring partner that fall, George asked me if I’d had any training in the ring. I told him I’d boxed in the Navy, but that my time as a fighter had been brief and without glory. At that time I was still recuperating from earlier spinal surgery. George asked around and found another friend, department store heir Peter Gimbel, to teach him the manly art. Meanwhile, George Brown—a former gym owner, boxing teacher, and friend of Ernest Hemingway’s—agreed to join me as George’s second corner man. (George had mentioned the forthcoming bout while interviewing Hemingway for the magazine.)

I attended several of the Gimbel-Plimpton sessions and did not feel reassured. Gimbel was certainly enthusiastic enough and knew something about boxing, but George had a very long way to go. While I was present, at least, he would become distracted by magazine matters. We had recently been publishing Philip Roth’s early stories, including “Goodbye, Columbus,” and in the issue just out there was a fine story by the unknown V. S. Naipaul. The number of submissions to the Review was rapidly increasing. Work on the light and heavy bags and on the skip rope did not equally interest him. But who was I to judge his progress? I had been a less-than-mediocre college athlete—a substitute catcher/outfielder on the freshmen baseball team who also spent two seasons as a wing on the junior varsity ice hockey team and a season as the lowest-ranked player on the varsity tennis team. George, on the other hand, excelled as editor of The Harvard Lampoon and was an unusually gifted and popular student but had never gone out for a college team. I did know, however, that despite a fragile-looking jaw and a long, slender neck, the six-foot-four George was a natural athlete—quick, well coordinated, and strong. My losses to him on squash and tennis courts demonstrated this.

But to go into a ring with Archie Moore! That fall Moore was 42 years old—or was he 45? He had concealed his true age for some years, having entered professional boxing as a lightweight teenager and subsequently fought as a welterweight, a middleweight, a light-heavy, and finally a heavyweight. Throughout his career the champions of the weight divisions he passed through had routinely avoided giving him championship fights, and he became known on the sports pages as the uncrowned king of the light heavies until Joey Maxim finally gave him a shot at the title in 1952. Moore won that fight and the title, and the two men fought twice more, Moore winning each time. On a crisp October night in 1955 at Yankee Stadium, I saw him knock down heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano in the second round of a title fight and Marciano knock out arm-weary Moore in the ninth.

On the very cold afternoon of the bout in late January 1959, I was the first of the small Plimpton entourage to arrive at Stillman’s Gym. Under my overcoat I wore a sweatshirt that George had provided, Paris Review spelled out in black-and-white raised letters across the chest. George arrived next, by himself, in a serious mood, and perfectly composed. Last to turn up was the grandly smiling George Brown, carrying a black doctor’s bag and looking ready for the event. Lou Stillman, the gym owner, joined the three of us at ringside, where we shook hands all around. Now everyone was smiling, including me, but I realized how nervous I was for George.

Stillman showed us to a narrow, plywood-walled dressing room lined with wooden benches. Taking inventory of what was on hand and what we might need, Brown opened his doctor’s bag while I peered into a small medicine chest on the wall. Brown had rolls of gauze and tape, a greasy ointment to make the skin less likely to tear, swabs and styptics to staunch bleeding, and something like smelling salts. The medicine chest contained one partially depleted roll of tape. I was sent out first to get a water bucket from Stillman and then to buy sponges and more gauze and tape at a drugstore. People stamped their feet as they entered the gym from the cold, and the scene at ringside gradually grew lively, even if a little tense with anticipation.

George’s friends arrived singly and in pairs. Some seemed uneasy. Others greeted me or one another enthusiastically, but as they looked around the gritty, unfamiliar gym, their voices dropped, and they located the tiers of plank seating against one wall and sat down in silence. I was surprised to see Bee Dabney, George’s longtime girlfriend, because I thought they’d recently broken up. She told me she was going to pass a hat—an old fedora that she had in her hand and looked like the one George had habitually worn as an undergraduate—for donations to pay for the gym. Chintzy of S.I. not to have picked up that tab, I thought.

As I asked Lou Stillman a question, he whirled to block the passage of a slender black man elegantly dressed in a long camelhair coat. Stillman said to him brusquely, “Closed now. Training hours five to eight.”

“Mister Moore invited me.”

“Yeah? Who are you?”

“Miles Davis.”

Stillman silently lifted his arm and let Davis pass.

A little later an employee of Stillman’s said, “Jeez. We ain’t seen this many dames in the gym since the ’20s.” A small cluster of men stood near the entrance, watching the door, and when Archie arrived they came to life. “Hey, Arch! Champ!” Cheers, backslapping, and some applause from the spectators on the raked seating.

Stillman and several others greeted Moore. The only fighter I recognized was former champion Sandy Saddler, the featherweight who had fought a memorable series of title bouts with Willie Pep in the late ’40s and early ’50s before both retired. Moore and Saddler laughed and feigned knocking each other around a little. Others in the group were surely fighters or handlers. The champion’s smile was so infectious that I imagined everyone in the gym liked him.

Moore waved to the small crowd, and Stillman led the champion to the dressing area where Brown was readying Plimpton for the fight. We shook hands with Archie, who plunked down his gym bag on the bench opposite George. Once Stillman had left the room and the door was closed, Archie’s smile faded. As he started taking off his clothes, he said, “You know, George, most often the champion’d have his own room to dress in. I asked Lou to put me in here ’cause I wanted to talk to you before we go out to the ring. Okay?” George nodded. His mouth was open, and he looked stunned.

“Not every time the champion is dressing with the challenger,” Archie continued. “Not every time the champion’s going to tell the challenger what I’m going to tell you.” He smiled, and his voice became quieter. “I’m saying this to you, George: Go out there and do the best you can. I’m going to make you look good.” George nodded again but looked far removed.

“Y ’ understand what I’m saying now? I’m going to make you look good.” George nodded but continued to look very dim.

Brown was wrapping one of George’s hands with gauze and tape. “How’s that feel?” he asked. “Not too tight?” George started to speak but had to clear his throat. “All right,” he said.

As Archie undressed I saw that his bone structure was not that of a big man. He had reached the light-heavy limit of 175 pounds and then exceeded it by adding muscle on top of muscle. Once he’d suited up in jock, trunks, socks, shoes, and a sweatshirt, he sat down and reached into his bag for gauze and tape. For a moment I thought Archie was going to ask George Brown to wrap his hands. But no, he was going to do it himself, something I’d never seen.

Archie smiled again. “My saying what I said to you George isn’t much like what the guys I fought early on said to me. Those guys would come up with some great stuff. One guy’s talking to his manager, his trainer. He’s saying, ‘How’s he doing, that last guy I put away? He out of the hospital yet?’

“Another guy’ll say, real casual, he’ll say, ‘That lefty I took out. Has he got his sight back? I feel sorry for that one. A life of blindness . . . ’” Archie had a long laugh at that, all the while winding gauze on his left hand at amazing speed. He made a fist to feel its tension, tore off lengths of tape and hung them on the lip of the bench, then taped his hand solid. “If you’re young as I was,” Archie continued, “you don’t know what to believe. They’d tell you they’d had 10 more knockouts than they’d had fights. Anything.” George looked as though he had heard nothing Archie had said.

Brown had smiled while Archie talked, but now, as he finished taping George’s hands, he looked tired, and I imagined that he was seeing Archie at 16, waiting to go on for his first fight. He told George to get up and shake out his limbs, get loose.

“Y ’all set, slugger?” Archie asked. “Ready to mix it up?” He knocked one fist into the palm of the other several times and stood up, throwing shadow punches and loosening his shoulders. He bounced on his feet as he moved, shuffled a few steps, and threw a punch at the plywood wall. The medicine chest flew off the wall to the far side of the room and crashed to the floor. I couldn’t bring myself to look at George.

Archie told George Brown to tell Stillman that we were ready to go, and Brown went out to do so. “Remember what I told you,” Archie said to George. “Do your best; I’ll make you look good.”

We went out to the ring—Archie first, followed by George, George Brown, and me. Everyone in the gym seemed to move a little one way or another and there was a new rumble of noise. A man in a in a long-sleeved white shirt and a patent leather bow tie climbed up through the ropes into the ring, and I realized I’d forgotten about a referee. I’d never asked who would officiate, and neither George nor George Brown seemed to have thought of it either. Archie must have arranged for the referee and the man in his corner, and there they were, obviously professionals.

The champion climbed quickly into the ring and punched the air above him, grinning for the spectators. The crowd ate it up. George Brown went up on the ring apron and raised the top strand of ropes to let George pass through easily, and George imitated Archie, raising his right hand to the crowd and getting some cheers. He still looked mostly zoned out, I thought, but he did manage a smile before he sat down on the corner stool.

A conference of five—Archie, his handler, Stillman, the referee, and George Brown—was held in the center of the ring. Meanwhile, leaning through the ropes, I talked to George and kept on talking. I have no idea what we said to one another. The conference broke up. The referee came over to verify that there was no metal under the gauze and tape on George’s hands, to observe as the gloves went on and were laced up, and to examine the head protector George would wear. Then he crossed to the opposite corner and went through the same routine with Archie.

No one had thought to hire a timekeeper. The referee and Stillman came to our corner and asked George Brown to manage the clock. Three, three-minute rounds.

Brown got George to start bouncing on his feet and shaking his arms loose, and soon they went out to the middle of the ring for the referee’s instructions. From the corner I was looking at George’s back, which Brown was rubbing to keep him warm. Archie faced me, and I could see that he had put on the intimidating manner of one of his early opponents. Dead still, he stared into George’s eyes without blinking.

The referee looked back and forth at Archie and George, who nodded their understanding and returned to their corners. George was focusing on something, but on what? Where was he?

The opening bell rang. George and Archie advanced toward one another, and both surprised me. George had his chin tucked in and his gloves up in the classic defensive posture. His left foot moved forward, then his right foot moved up behind it. By contrast, everything about Archie seemed loose. His fists down by his thighs, he glided around in front of George and came in closer, moving his head from side to side as though tempting George to throw a punch, tapping George on the shoulder with an open glove, then stopping, staying where he was to see what George might do.

George responded by closing toward Archie and sticking out his left hand in jabs that Archie easily brushed aside or dodged. Archie seemed to want to appear defenseless so that George would go after him in an amateurish manner. Archie might then display his famous gifts as a defensive fighter and George would get a workout and a few stings so that he would have an idea of what could be done to him if Archie chose to do it. Or—I couldn’t entirely put the idea away—Archie might knock him flat.

But George’s . . . what was it: a strategy or simply the totality of what Peter Gimbel had taught him? Whichever, it made it impossible for Archie to treat the situation as a joke. George certainly looked cautious and harmless and unaccustomed to being in a boxing ring with gloves on, but he didn’t look foolish. He did not look as though he would willingly play the fool, and nothing Archie did succeeded in making him change his tactic.

One problem for Archie seemed to be that George towered over him, six-four to something like five-ten. If George kept up his guard, his head would be hard to reach.

The bell rang, and the first round, the very, very long first round, ended. I put the stool into the corner for George to sit on, towels draped on my shoulders for Brown to pluck off as he might need them. He did use one immediately to wipe off sweat from the parts of George’s face not covered by protective padding.

Brown was talking to George, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Was the room that noisy or were my ears playing tricks? Brown dug into his doctor’s bag for the tube of grease to slather on George’s face, and several times I said, “You’re doing great, George. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” He nodded, but I wasn’t convinced he understood what I’d said.

The 15-second warning buzzer sounded. George stood up and shuffled his feet, waiting. The bell rang. He went forward adopting his defensive stance, and Archie came out once again with his arms down, springing on his feet. After trying to tempt George to do something rash, Archie changed tactics. He feinted a jab to George’s head but tapped him in the midsection with his right. It was a tap, but I’m sure that the smack of Archie’s glove on George’s stomach was heard by everyone. I’m confident, too, that everyone could see that Archie could have hit much harder if he’d chosen to.

Archie repeated the sequence and then did it the other way around: feint with the right, tap the stomach with the left. That one surprised George, and he bent over, not very far, but his hands came down a little, then went back up.

Archie grinned broadly. He was enjoying this. He tapped George’s defensive hands and banged George’s middle, and George kept moving forward, sometimes sticking out the spindly looking left. Now Archie decided to go inside, to come so close to George that his head was against George’s breastbone, and he smacked George’s middle lightly with both hands. And then something impossible happened.

Archie Moore the champion was down on one knee. Had George reached him with a lucky punch? Pushed him? Had Archie’s foot slipped somehow? This was no place for a champion to find himself. George was towering over him, and the referee was moving up to step between them to start a count, but Archie bounced up quickly and with a punch so short and fast I could remember only the movement of his shoulder. He broke George’s nose.

Now the referee moved between them, took Archie’s gloved hands in his own, and rubbed the gloves against his shirt to remove whatever resin or dirt the gloves had picked up from the canvas floor. He then raised his hand to Archie to order him to stand still, turned, and looked hard into George’s eyes, then stepped aside and motioned to them both to continue. Blood bubbled from George’s nose.

Continue they did, in the same manner that they had before the knockdown or slip down, whatever it had been. Blood dripped from George’s nose, but everything else seemed the same. I could hear nothing until the bell sounded.

Brown was ready, Q-Tips fanned between the knuckles of his left hand and a towel in his right. Once he had George’s face cleaned up, he dropped the towel and dipped a Q-Tip into a small bottle he had open by the ring post and twirled the swab inside George’s nostrils. George made faces as though the experience was extremely unpleasant, but Brown repeated the procedure and the bleeding did not start again. The buzzer sounded while Brown was still working on George. He grabbed a new towel and wiped up sweat until the bell rang, and George got up as before, went forward as before, and assumed the defensive posture.

More of the same, but Archie made more of a show of it now, indicating his jaw to George, waiting for the jab, and batting the glove away. At a moment when George and Archie were at the far side of the ring, I caught some movement in the periphery of my eyesight and turned to see Brown advancing the hand of the three-minute clock. It took me a second to assimilate what I was seeing but no more than that, and I quickly turned back to George and Archie and kept my eyes on them. At the bell George had made it through the short round with no further damage. Archie reached for one of George’s gloves and held it up so that their hands were in the air together—winners both, a draw—and turned with George to face the ring’s several sides. There were cheers and whistles, some clapping. It was over.

People gathered quickly at ringside to talk to the fighters. George stood with his gloved hands on the top rope and leaned over it to chat with friends. Brown had removed George’s headgear, and soon he was laughing. I doubt that the broken nose was causing pain. It looked a little unusual, but only a little. Meanwhile, Archie dropped onto his corner stool and tossed off remarks while his corner man removed his gloves and hand wraps.

As we waited for George to come back to the corner, Brown told me that he had seen no point in having the round go any longer. “Glad you did it,” I agreed.

Archie had changed into his street clothes by the time we three were heading back to the dressing room, and he stopped to shake our hands and to tell George, whom he called Slugger, that he had what it took but should work on his jab. High fives to the challenger, and Archie headed out of Stillman’s, seeming as fresh as when he arrived.

George told Brown and me that friends were taking him out to a bar and asked if we wouldn’t come along. Both of us declined. George looked as though his day was just beginning, but I felt very tired and wanted to go home and lie down. We waved goodbye to George and paused to shake hands and have a private moment. So far as we knew then or later, no one but Brown, George, and myself knew what Archie said to George in the dressing room, and no one but Brown and I knew what Brown had done to compress the third round.

A month or so later George told me he’d learned from his S.I. editor that before Archie had agreed to the bout he had huddled with several confidants, including his longtime trainer Hiawatha Gray, to decide how to handle the bout. Some said George should be knocked out as quickly as possible, arguing that he wanted to know what it would feel like. Others pointed out that George was a member of the press; better to go easy on him. And that side won the day. Archie’s autobiography, Any Boy Can, written with Leonard B. Pearl, shows that Archie was always aware that journalists held power over his career and reputation. The decision to treat George gently is entirely believable.

Later that year, in August, Archie fought a rematch with Durelle in the New Brunswick city of Moncton and knocked him out in the third round. It was said that Durelle was not his good fighting self that night, that he was distracted and out of shape because 30 of his fishermen friends had recently drowned in a tsunami that had hit Canada’s coast.

As for George, the Moore bout convinced him that he could proceed to further adventures as a participatory journalist, and he soon was talking again about Yankee Stadium. I could not imagine any circumstances that would get him onto that field in a uniform, but to my astonishment, restaurateur and famous sports fan Toots Shor made it happen. Having learned of George’s wish, Shor bullied S.I. editor in chief Sid James into putting up a thousand-dollar purse as a prize for one of the two barnstorming all-star teams, a National League team captained by Willie Mays and an American League team led by Mickey Mantle, who would be playing against each other at Yankee Stadium in late October. The plan was that George would pitch to both starting lineups, and the team that hit the most total bases off his pitches would win the purse. The event would take place before the scheduled nine-inning game.

In September George began to think of getting in shape, and he and I played catch one afternoon on the broad sidewalk of the easternmost block of 72nd Street near George’s apartment and the Paris Review offices. I immediately saw that George had a good arm, with lots of snap in his throws and plenty of wildness. He told me he hadn’t played since 1946 when he pitched a game for an Army team against another service team in Yugoslavia—he couldn’t remember exactly where. He also said he’d recently had difficulty finding people to play catch. A couple of boys were throwing a ball on the sidewalk, but one disappeared before George asked the remaining boy to play catch. The kid was willing but asked why George wanted to get in shape. Not far into his explanation about all-star teams and Yankee Stadium, the boy turned and fled.

In another sense I, too, fled. I didn’t want to witness a debacle in Yankee Stadium, didn’t want to see line drives whistling by George’s head or, worse, wild pitches thrown by George that the stars would not swing at. I imagined George being led away from the pitcher’s mound in disgrace, and where was the story in that? I felt cowardly, but there it was.

As the stadium date approached I made up an excuse that George weighed suspiciously, I thought, and that seemed unconvincing even to my wife. “But he’s one of your best friends,” she said. “I know,” I said miserably.

As it turned out, George arrived in the Yankee Stadium locker room with only a child-sized fielder’s glove, out of which some of the padding was leaking. The glove that he had bought for the occasion had been stolen from the back of his car, and the teenaged son of a locker-room attendant had lent George his own glove as George went out to pitch. His name was announced as “George Pimpleton.”

George pitched to seven batters of the National League lineup, getting two of them to fly out. After more than 80 pitches he was exhausted and had the ball taken from his hand by Yankees manager Ralph Houk, who did the remainder of the pitching to the Nationals and all of the pitching through the American League lineup.

From this essentially disappointing and painful experience, George wrote his splendid first book, Out of My League. His great talents as a writer are there in full, including his wit, a willingness to reveal everything that is pertinent to his story, no matter how much it may cost his pride or dignity to do so, and his sympathy for all of those around him—until he’s on the mound.

The photo of George on the book’s cover shows him in his zoned-out condition, and he writes interestingly about this state of being. He eliminated the first two batters he faced, but then the going got much more difficult. As the pressure built to get the ball over the plate where the hitters could drive it but to do so with enough good stuff on it to keep the ball in the park, George began to hear an inner voice “mumbling inaudibly at first.” As his arm tired, however, he wrote, “I was acutely aware of this separation of mind and body. The mind seemed situated in a sort of observation booth high above the physical self. The mental self offered a steady commentary [in a voice that spoke with a Southern accent] which reflected how well the machine [his body] was doing.” It wasn’t doing very well, in fact, and this mind perceived only what the Plimpton body was doing, not anything or anyone else around it. Before long the voice was saying, “Y’all can’t pitch your way out of a paper bag, that’s what.”

An enthusiastic Ernest Hemingway blurb appears on the front cover of the book. “Beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, this account of a self-imposed ordeal has the chilling quality of a true nightmare,” it reads in part. On the back cover there is a second Hemingway quote. “After reading Out of My League it is very hard to wait for the true story of George and Archie Moore.” Sad to say, George never did truly write it.

Some 20 years after the Moore bout, George published a book on boxing, Shadow Box, that mainly recounts George’s experiences traveling with and covering Muhammad Ali. He does tell of the Moore bout but does not remember Archie telling him he would make George “look good,” or the Moore remembrances of his early opponents and their attempts to frighten him, the medicine chest flying across the room, or why Moore was down on one knee in the second round. The book includes a photograph of George, Archie, George Brown, and me (standing below the others at ringside in my Paris Review sweatshirt, but apart from that and other photos there’s little of the color of that afternoon with Archie.

I believe that George was feeling a great deal of pressure from the moment he saw Archie come through Stillman’s entrance and that his “mind” went up above and was saying to him in a voice with who-knows-what sort of accent, “You perfect fool. You can’t fight worth a lick, what are you doing here?” and that the “mind” was shutting out much of what was happening around him.

On his first try, after all, George (who died in 2003) was about to get the “feel” of the most frightening sport of all. Football, ice hockey, and perfectly hitting the gong for the New York Philharmonic in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony—other things he would try and then write about—would be relatively unthreatening. The glares of coaches or Leonard Bernstein were less dangerous than Archie’s gloved hands, which, in the course of a long career, accomplished 141 knockouts.

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