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"Maybe he'll think it's sweat," Brown said cheerfully.
After a while he reached for the gloves and said it was time we went out.
The place was packed, or so it seemed to me; the seats near the ring (a utility from the days when the great fighters sparred at Stillman's) were full, and behind them people were standing along the wall. I remember thinking how odd it was that they had come. I had few illusions that the fight was going to be any sort of artistic triumph. An execution, perhaps, but more likely nothing more than someone going through an interesting variety of an initiation ceremony.
Moore was waiting in the ring, wearing a white T shirt and a pair of trunks. As I climbed into the ring he had his back to me, leaning over the ropes and shouting at someone in the crowd. I saw him club at the ring ropes with a gloved fist and I could feel the structure of the ring shudder. Ezra Bowen, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED editor, climbed into the ring to act as referee. He provided some florid instructions and then waved the two of us together. Moore turned and began shuffling quickly toward me.
I had read somewhere that if one were doomed to suffer in the ring, it would be best to have Archie Moore as the bestower. His face was peaceful, with a kind of comforting mien to it—people doubtless fell easily into conversation with him on buses and planes—and to be put away by him in the ring would not be unlike being tucked in by a Haitian mammy.
I do not remember any such thoughts at the time. My memory is that he came at me quite briskly, and as I poked at him tentatively, his left reached out and thumped me alarmingly. As he moved around the ring, he made a curious humming sound in his throat, the sort of peaceful, aimless sound one might make while pruning a flower bed, except that from time to time the hum would rise quite abruptly and bang! he would cuff me alongside the head. I would sense the leaden feeling of being hit, the almost acrid whiff of leather off his gloves, and I would blink through the sympathetic response and try to focus on his face, which looked slightly startled, as if he could scarcely believe he had done such a thing. Then I'd hear the humming again, barely distinguishable now against the singing in my own head.
Halfway through the round, Moore slipped—almost to one knee. It was not because of anything I had done. His footing had betrayed him somehow. Laughter rose from the spectators, and almost as if in retribution, he jabbed and followed with a long, lazy left hook that fetched up against my nose and collapsed it slightly. It began to bleed. There was a considerable amount of sympathetic response and though my physical reaction—the jab, jab ("peck, peck, peck")—was thrown in a frenzy and with considerable spirit, the efforts popped up against Moore's guard as ineffectually as if I were poking at the side of a barn. The tears came down my cheeks. We revolved around the ring. I could hear the crowd—a vague buzzing—and occasionally my name being called out. "Hey, George, hit him back; hit him in the knees, George." I thought how inappropriate the name George was to the ring, rather like "Timothy" or "Warren" or "Christopher." Occasionally I was aware of the faces hanging above the seats like rows of balloons, unrecognizable, many of them with faint anticipatory grins as if they were waiting for a joke to be told that was going to be pretty good. They were slightly inhuman, I remember thinking, the banks of them staring up, and suddenly a scene from Conan Doyle's The Croxley Master popped into my mind: his fine description of a fight being watched by Welsh miners, each with his dog sitting behind him, so that when the fighters looked down, everywhere among the human faces were the heads of dogs, yapping from the benches, the muzzles pointing up, the tongues lolling.
We went into a clinch. I was surprised when I was pushed away and saw the sheen of blood on Moore's T shirt. Moore looked slightly alarmed. The flow of tears was doubtless disarming. He moved forward and enfolded me in another clinch. He whispered in my ear, "Hey, breathe, man, breathe."
The round ended and I turned from him and headed for my corner, feeling very much like sitting down. Lou Still-man had not provided a stool. "There's no stool," I said snuffily to Brown. My nose was stopped up. He ministered to me across the ropes—a quick rub of the face with the towel, an inspection of the nose, a pop of head-clearing salts, a predictable word of old advice ("Just jab him, keep him away, keep the glove in his snoot, peck, peck, you're doing fine"). He looked out past my shoulder at Moore, who must have been joking with the crowd because I could hear the laughter behind me.
For the next two rounds Moore let up considerably, being assured—if indeed it had ever worried him—of the quality of his opposition. In the last round he let me whale away at him from time to time, and then he would pull me into a clinch and whack at me with great harmless popping shots to the backs of my shoulder blades, which sounded like the crack of artillery. Once I heard him ask Ezra Bowen if he was behind on points.