(Re-written July 2010 by MJ Law)
Think back to 1989. You’re reading the May issue of “The Ring” and Michael Moorer is on the front cover. It’s the year-end awards for 1988 and he’s a recipient, winning the award for "Most Progress". At the time he seemed like a light heavyweight version of Mike Tyson and had everything going for him; power, a love of violent movies, and he was from Detroit’s legendary Kronk gym and therefore had the renowned Emmanuel Steward in his corner. Before his first year as a pro had ended, he had picked up an alphabet belt. Okay, just about anybody can win an alphabet belt and he won his by flattening the undistinguished Ramzi Hassan in December 1988, but we had to marvel at his progress. At the time, who could have predicted the path his career would follow? And looking back now, just how good was he? Where would he rank in history?
As a light heavyweight, he was never beaten and won all his fights by KO. Let’s forget his blowouts of no-hopers like Adrian Riggs and Dennis Fikes. Who did he beat that would make us sit up and take notice? Well….. there was Victor Claudio, who fought in the 1984 Olympics (anybody remember this guy?). There was Marcellus Allen, who was undefeated but, somewhat pathetically, had only one stoppage on his record and so couldn’t punch through porridge. There was also Leslie Stewart, though he was a bit faded at the time. Frankie Swindell nearly ruined Moorer’s unbeaten record in February 1989 before Moorer came roaring back from the brink of defeat to pummel him. So the conclusion was that there wasn’t really anybody who would make us sit up and take notice. No Yvon Durelle or Chris Finnegan (in other words a real classy opponent).
The best in the world back then were Virgil Hill and Charles Williams, but Moorer never fought either of them. Who avoided who and how much effort was actually made to match Moorer with these guys is another debate for another time, but the fact is that Moorer did not face them, and that hurts his legacy. Ultimately, he should be remembered as an exciting light heavyweight with a penchant for brawling, but he doesn’t rank alongside Bob Foster, or Michael Spinks, or Tommy Loughran or any of the other elite 175 lb-ers. His record simply does not stand anywhere near as tall and he would be pushed to find a place in the top twenty of all time. But whether or not he could have beaten the greatest in history is open for debate. With Moorer’s power coupled with his suspect chin, anything could have happened. He could have pole-axed Georges Carpentier or Jack Dillon and they could just have easily pole-axed him. In terms of in-the-ring thrills he certainly would have given Matthew Saad Muhammad a run for his money.
I don’t blame Moorer for skipping over the dreary cruiserweight division; he would have been wasting his time in that desolate wilderness. But at heavyweight he blasted out Alex Stewart and Bert Cooper and appeared to be a contender who could really bring a spark to the world title mix.
Moorer outpointing Vaughan Bean in Las Vegas in March 1997
Incidentally, he did pick up another alphabet belt in his give-and-take shootout with Cooper in May 1992 but that was utterly pointless because everyone knew at the time that Evander Holyfield was the one and only true heavyweight champ. But then Moorer underwent a strange “Jekyll and Hyde” transformation. He split with Emmanuel Steward and hooked up with Lou Duva and George Benton, but this team never really clicked. His new trainers seemed to want to turn him into a heavyweight version of Pernell Whitaker. He transformed from a barnstorming slugger into a methodical technician and often seemed to lose inspiration mid-fight, like it was too much effort to try to blow his opponent away.
Apart from one brief exchange, his bout with Bonecrusher Smith in February 1993 was a cure for insomnia. If you ever have trouble sleeping just think about the Moorer-Smith clash and you’ll zonk out straight away. His points win over Mike Evans in December 1993 induced yet more snoozing. Not exactly the best way to build up to a shot at the world heavyweight championship.
Now with Teddy Atlas, Moorer became the first southpaw lineal heavyweight champ in history by beating Holyfield in April 1994. It was quite memorable to witness the shouting and bawling between rounds that Atlas had to do to keep Moorer from fighting in slow motion. Holyfield was lethargic and suffered from either a heart ailment, a shoulder injury or dehydration (or all three) depending on whatever sources you hear from. Having said that, Moorer survived a second round knockdown and showed a useful jab and impressive technical skills. At the time I thought he would be pretty difficult to dethrone and I admit I liked the guy. He came across as moody and somewhat disillusioned in a Marlon Brando sort of way, and I figured he would make at least two or three successful defences. There were major obstacles in his path, namely Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, but somehow I could never picture him in the ring with either of them. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to face them but I remember having a feeling that those match-ups would never take place. It was pretty obvious he would pick a relatively easy opponent for his first defence and it turned out that an ancient, bald fat man would get the gig. Yup, that’s right, it was George Foreman. What exactly had Foreman done to earn a title shot? Well……he’d lost a close decision to Tommy Morrison in June 1993 and then remained inactive for over a year. But his worthiness as a challenger meant zilch when marketability played a role. For Moorer, it was big, easy money against a name opponent for minimal risk. The only problem was that he ended up getting flattened.
Moorer’s loss to Foreman was a huge upset
The loss to Foreman is a huge blemish on his record but it should be noted that he won every minute of every round before Foreman landed his punch-in-a-million in the 10th round. You had to feel for the guy; he was incredibly unlucky to get caught like that. After this, Moorer put together a winning streak of sorts, though he wasn’t exactly tearing through the division. He did manage to pick up another alphabet belt and he looked quite good when he beat Frans Botha in November 1996. Then he lost a rematch to Holyfield the following year and that was pretty much it. There was the usual extended absence following a loss which preceded the obligatory comeback, which in turn led to a blitzing by David Tua in August 2002.
So where does he rank in heavyweight history? Certainly not on the highest level, which would include the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey. Nor on the next level, which would include Joe Frazier and Ezzard Charles. In other words, there isn’t a place for Moorer in the top twenty. I reckon he fits in with the likes of Ingemar Johansson and Tommy Burns, both of whom seemed to enjoy their luck while it lasted.
Obviously, Moorer didn’t dominate his own era. He never fought Bowe, or Lewis, or Tyson, and would probably have been levelled by those guys anyway. He also never fought the likes of Tommy Morrison or Ray Mercer. But on the positive side he beat Holyfield, he held the true heavyweight championship for seven months in 1994 and he’s the only southpaw to hold it. That’s not bad for a guy who came up from light heavyweight lumbered with a suspect chin and motivational issues. And in the current version of the heavyweight landscape, a prime Michael Moorer would be a welcome addition. That might say more about the lacklustre heavies during this year than it does about Moorer himself.
But it's not always about being the greatest. In the simplest terms, it takes courage to step into a boxing ring. Not many people can claim that. If anyone asks Moorer what he should be proud of, he should reply, "I was probably the most exciting light heavyweight of the 1980's, I was the heavyweight champion of the world and I beat Evander Holyfield while he was still in his prime years." Even less people can claim one of those, never mind all three. In fact, only Moorer can.