When the National Boxing Association observed St. Valentine's Day last month by withdrawing recognition of Archie Moore as light heavyweight champion, the national reaction was as if it had sent one of those sick-humor valentines to a bishop. Everybody laughed but Archie, who knows how to take advantage of a situation like that. Having learned a bit about acting by playing Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and aware that no other champion has more friends, Old Arch cunningly played Camille. Coughing up tomato ketchup, he took to his bed and, rolling his big brown eyes in anguish, issued a few thoughtfully composed dying statements. His manager, Doc Kearns, took the cue from Arch and sobbed that he would demand justice from the United Nations, or maybe Jimmy Hoffa. In all public utterances, both men innocently mispronounced the name of the NBA president, Tony Maceroni, as if it were spelled Macaroni. Some ribald humor was extracted from the fact that Maceroni is an undertaker.
By the time these two magnificent con men were through with the NBA, that badgered body, rocked by the recent resignation of California, was wishing it had kept its big mouth shut. The specious excuse for depriving Archie of his title was that he had not signed to defend it within the mandatory, but usually dilatory, six-month period and that, specifically, he had ignored the NBA order that he defend it against Harold Johnson and no other.
As the NBA well knows, it's a rare champion who defends every six months nowadays, and it is all but unprecedented for a commission to insist on a particular opponent. Usually three top challengers are designated and the champion is ordered to take his pick from among them. The reason for this is that a promoter, and a champion as well, must have a little bargaining leeway. Some challengers, like Johnson, just don't draw well; indeed, Johnson draws so poorly that he was able to get only two fights in 1959. His style just does not bring a crowd up cheering from its seats. And Archie has beaten Johnson four times in five fights.
The real, not the phony, reason for the NBA's insistence on Johnson is that he is a Philadelphian, and the Pennsylvania boxing commission lately has been showing signs that it might follow California out of the NBA. Pennsylvania has not had a big fight since its commission a few years ago enlisted in a campaign against mobsters. Immediately Pennsylvania became forbidden territory to the mob guys and their friend, James D. Norris. The boycott seems to be still in effect, and the commission seems to be under some pressure to bring a big fight into the state.
So the decision to strip Archie of his title was patently a political sop to Pennsylvania.
Unsupported by anyone who understood the motives behind its precipitate action, the NBA was counter-punched silly. This weekend its executive committee met in New York to study how it could extricate itself from its self-made cul-de-sac.
Who showed it the way out? Archie and Doc showed it the way out. Like Napoleon, Kearns is a master at giving the enemy a road to retreat along. Admitted late in the day to the executive session, Kearns blandly apologized to the committee for having kept it in the dark about Archie's plans. While the NBA was threatening expulsion, he explained, he and Archie had been in the thick of negotiations of a most delicate nature, premature revelation of which could have wrecked them. They had been negotiating, on the one hand, for a defense against Erich Schoppner of Germany, ranked No. 2 behind Johnson, and, on the other hand, for a shot at Ingemar Johansson's heavyweight title. When it seemed that the Johansson shot would be unavailable they had closed with Humbert J. Fugazy, presumptive promoter of the Johansson-Patterson fight, for a Moore-Schoppner match.
The NBA breathed a sigh of relief. The way to retreat was now open. It could save its face, though its rear might be chewed up a little. Kearns had apologized, had he not?
Sternly, with Pennsylvania in dour dissent, the NBA announced it was withdrawing its withdrawal, provided that Moore and Schoppner posted bonds of $5,000 apiece to guarantee that the winner would sign to meet Harold Johnson, provided that Harold Johnson still is the No. 1 challenger after Moore and Schoppner get through with each other.