Max Matson, columnist
It’s 1983, and Roberto Duran is geared for a comeback following the large stain on his boxing record that was his “No Mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard. Over the years, Duran had fallen into a slump. He looked beat up, he looked old. But on the day of his championship bout with young Jr. middleweight champ from the Bronx, Davey Moore, Duran looked like a snarling animal, months of vigorous training culminating in one final moment of excellence. From the second the bell rung to the second that referee Ernesto Magana finally ended the beating in the eighth round, it was clear that Moore had no business being in the same ring as the elder Duran.
By the time that Magana pushed the two men apart, Moore’s right eye was swollen completely shut, his battered body slumping onto whatever surface presented itself in front of him (unfortunately for the majority of the eight rounds, that surface was Duran’s fists). It would be easy to romanticize Duran’s comeback as many people did at the time. But amidst the celebration there was an uneasy tension in Moore’s locker room that night – not the uncomfortable silence that typically follows a loss, but something much worse. Davey Moore from the Bronx wasn’t the first Davey Moore to lose this way…
Let’s jump back in time to March of 1963. Another Davey Moore is set to square off against Cuban ex-pat Ultiminio Ramos for the world featherweight title in Dodger Stadium. This Davey Moore was a native of Kentucky, approaching 30 years old – an old man in boxing years. He was a four-year champion looking to finally cash in on his long and successful career, but his 21-year-old opponent had the same look in his eyes standing across the ring from Moore that Duran would have 20 years later. The ensuing fight is best encapsulated by Bob Dylan’s 1964 protest song “Who Killed Davy Moore”:
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
Davey Moore never made it out of Dodger Stadium that night. It was a competitive bout, one which culminated in what appeared to be a routine fall by Moore following a torrent of strikes from Ramos at the tail end of the 10th round. Moore was on his feet and responsive before the count finished, but the fight was stopped shortly thereafter by the referee. Moore spoke to the press following the fight, and he appeared to be lucid and level-headed entering his locker room… but then everything changed. Moore began rubbing his scalp and complaining about a headache before suddenly slumping over in his dressing room. Rushed to the hospital, it was determined that Moore had severely damaged his brain stem. Three days after slipping into a coma, Davey Moore was dead.
Jump forward to June 1988, five years following the later Moore’s fight with Roberto Duran. Though Moore had survived the bout, he never recovered from the beating doled out to him that night, and by the time he was descending his driveway to grab the paper on the rainy morning of June 5, his boxing career was all but over. When his car suddenly began to roll down the driveway towards him, Moore froze. Anyone who’s seen the Duran fight can’t help but hold a sliver of doubt in their mind that had it been called earlier, Moore’s reaction time may have been enough to avoid his ensuing death from asphyxiation.
It’s an open secret that boxing kills. We all know the horrors that fighters experience in their old age, and as light has been shed on the true toll that brain damage takes on the human mind over time, the audiences for all but the most extravagant boxing matches have dwindled accordingly. Maybe the violence has grown distasteful for modern America…
Or maybe we just don’t like feeling responsible. Put two men in a ring and watch them beat each other to death for long enough and eventually the hand of blame comes back to the audience. Put those same men in brightly colored uniforms, pads and helmets and let them pound their brains into mush over the course of a season and you get the modern NFL. The next time you see a tailback wobble their way to the bench after a big hit, think about the two Davey Moores. How likely is it that they’ll meet a similar fate?