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George Plimpton
October 24, 1977
In 1959, when participatory journalism and the author were both young, he was brash enough to get into the ring with the light-heavyweight champion
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October 24, 1977

The Youthful Plimpton Vs. The Wily Moore

In 1959, when participatory journalism and the author were both young, he was brash enough to get into the ring with the light-heavyweight champion

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I had about a month in which to get a questionable apparatus ready to fight Archie Moore, the light-heavyweight champion of the world. It was January of 1959.

I am not properly constituted to fight. I am built rather like a bird of the stilt-like, wader variety—the avocets, limpkins and herons. Since boyhood my arms have remained sticklike; I can slide my watch up my arm almost to the elbow. I have a thin, somewhat fragile, nose which bleeds easily. Once, in my military days, I brought up my hand in a smart salute that banged the tip of my nose and started a slight nosebleed there in the ranks. A bead of blood quivered at the end of my nose, like the drop at a shot bird's beak, before it fell to the dust of the parade ground. A lieutenant colonel stared at me solemnly. He sighed slightly and went on down the line.

Also, I suffer from a condition the medical profession refers to as "sympathetic response," which means that when I am hit or cuffed around, I weep. It is an involuntary reaction; the tears come and there is nothing I can do except dab at them with a fist. Charlie Goldman, Rocky Marciano's gnomelike trainer, once said of fighters built along my lines, "You know them fighters with long necks and them long, pointy chins, they cost you more for smelling salts than they do for food."

Yet, I knew that the first step in getting ready for Moore was to find a trainer like Goldman. I reached a man named George Brown; I had been introduced to him by Ernest Hemingway, who always spoke of him with the highest regard as a boxer who could have been a champion if he had been able to accept the idea that he was going to be hit once in a while. Still, Hemingway spoke of his skills with awe, saying that he could never remember having landed a good punch during a sparring session with Brown.

I also tried the theory that I could teach myself from books. I paid a visit to the library of the Racquet Club, on Park Avenue, where a small section is devoted to boxing. I first selected a thin volume, The Art and Practice of English Boxing, Containing Explanatory Illustrations of Pugilistic Attitudes in the Art of Attack and Self-Defence..., first published in 1807. The opening paragraph includes a reassuring sentence: "...both parties," it goes, referring to the contestants in the ring, "should keep in the best humour possible."

Then George Brown went to work. No more reading. In the Racquet Club gymnasium he began showing me boxing fundamentals—how to throw the jab and duck slightly behind the right to protect against the counterpunch. Though he taught me one or two combinations, he said we would "rely" mostly on the jab.

He also ordered me out into Central Park to run early in the morning. I hated getting up to do it. In my Racquet Club reading I had learned that one morning Willie Pep saw Jake La Motta spiking his prerun orange juice with a jigger of brandy. "Hell, Willie," La Motta explained, "I don't run good, but I'm the happiest guy in the world."

But once out there, I enjoyed it. I told Brown how lovely it was in the park; he made a face and said I was not tending to business. Always I had to remember why I was out there—and that I should try to work up a controlled rage against Archie Moore, seeing him always in my mind's eye, shadowboxing as if his presence were just beyond reach—and to hell with how pretty it was in the park.

I began sparring sessions with a friend, Peter Gimbel. We usually spent an hour in the gym. Once, when the three of us were in a taxi after a workout, Brown motioned toward the street and told me that I now knew enough to take on about 95% of the people out there. I looked out at the pedestrians, innocently hurrying along, and I thought, "Fancy that."

As the day of the fight approached, I began to get notes in the mail—quotations, usually terse, most of them signed with fighters' names and almost all somewhat violent in tone. I don't know who sent them. I suspected Gimbel, but he would not confess.

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