The Final Round
In 1963, Springfield resident Davey Moore took part in a boxing match that garnered the attention of California’s governor, Pope John XXIII and a 21-year-old known as Bob Dylan.
“A fight is never over with Davey Moore until the final bell is pounded!” shouts KGTV Los Angeles broadcaster Steve Ellis, his voice teeming with adrenaline. “Ooh! A right-hand shot on Moore’s chin. Moore’s hurt! Moore is absolutely hurt!”
Davey Moore, the 29-year-old featherweight champion of the world, is in superb fighting shape this March evening. Weighing in at “125 and a quarter pounds,” he looks as if he were chiseled from stone. Earlier, he had entered the ring energetic and confident, wrapped in his typical attire: a maroon-and-gold Keifer Junior High School robe — an homage to his alma mater. But here, in the waning moments of the ninth round, the champ seems dazed.
Moore’s challenger, a 21-year-old Cuban-Mexican boxer named Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos, is lankier and less experienced. But with a record that includes no losses and just one disqualification, he is a serious contender. The oddsmakers have Moore — the man they refer to as the “Springfield Rifle”— favored to win. But as the bell signals the end of Round 9, it appears Ramos is closing in on the featherweight boxing title.
“Looking into the corner again of the champion Davey Moore. The left eye certainly looks like it has a hard, hard-boiled egg all around it. It’s blown-up big.” Ellis continues in his hard, staccato delivery. “Willie Ketchum, his manager, is telling Davey to ‘go!’ ”
On March 21, 1963, Davey Moore fought Sugar Ramos in front of more than 20,000 boxing fans and a national television audience. The ring for the title bout was set above the pitcher’s mound at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, and those who saw it witnessed the first and last boxing card ever held at the then-new, $23 million venue.
It had been four years since Moore became featherweight champion of the world after defeating Nigeria’s Hogan “Kid” Bassey at Los Angeles’ famed Olympic Auditorium on March 18, 1959. He was just 26 years old at the time.
“Bless the Lord, my boy did it!” Jessie Moore, Davey’s mother, shouted that night as she watched her son’s televised title fight at her South Wittenberg Avenue home in Springfield. “I’ve been on my knees praying for Davey,” she told local sportswriter Henry Saeman.
“Davey’s father, the Rev. Howard Moore, sat quietly in a big red chair for 12 rounds, nervously twitching as the two boxers furiously bolted into one another,” Saeman wrote. “Brothers and sisters, relatives and friends — a total of 21 — had gathered in the Moore home ...”
ABC sportscaster Jack Drees conducted the post-fight interview with Moore, who came off as gracious and appreciative. “First of all I want to thank all the folks at home for their prayers,” he said, “especially my wife Geraldine and my kids … I’m sure the prayers of my mother and father and all my friends helped me. I was sure I could win.”
Geraldine Moore had been watching the fight from her mother’s West Grand Avenue home in Springfield. “I can’t stop crying,” she told Saeman following the fight. “We’ve been waiting for this day so long.”
The city went wild upon Moore’s return home. A caravan of cars met him at the Vandalia Airport. The Springfield High School band played a celebration concert, and city commission president Harry Strachan presented him with the key to the city. Davey Moore was a hero.
He didn’t take his title for granted. Moore kept a strict training regimen and logged 24 professional bouts while he was the reigning world champ, traveling to Venezuela, Mexico, Tokyo, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Finland and beyond. In that span, he defended his title five times, losing one nontitle bout to Carlos Hernandez on March 17, 1960. The fight was stopped due to a broken jaw — an aggravation of an injury Moore said he had sustained while training.
“[Hernandez] didn’t break my jaw,” he told Springfield Daily News sports editor Bob Sullivan. “He just finished what someone else started. That cat can’t hit that hard.”
Moore let the world know the Hernandez loss was a fluke.
One year later, on April 8, 1961, while defending his title, the 27-year-old champ pummeled young Danny Valdez, eliminating the contender in a mere two minutes, 48 seconds, with his powerful right fist. In 22 fights, Valdez had never been knocked off his feet. Davey humbly comforted his humiliated opponent after the loss.
“Don’t feel bad, Danny; it was just one of those things,” he told the 21-year-old Valdez, his arms draped around the younger man’s shoulders. “It could have been me just as easy — remember that.”
In the year leading up to the Sugar Ramos fight at Dodger Stadium, Davey met five different opponents, overpowering each one. On Aug. 17, 1962, Finland’s Olli Mäki hit the canvas three times before the referee stopped the fight. It was a two-round technical knockout. Davey Moore seemed unstoppable.
“David was very talented,” recalls Geraldine in her sweet, soft drawl. “He was one of the top-notch boxers of his time. He was an awesome fighter.” At age 79, she’s still proud of him.
“Number 10,” announcer Steve Ellis declares. “I just wonder how much punching power Davey Moore can retain with all the head shots that he’s been catching thus far.”
Blood and sweat glisten on the champ’s face, and the beat of Davey’s famously quick feet has visibly slowed.
“The stinging, pumping left-hand jab and left-hand lead, the mixture of both … has left Moore off-balance and, certainly, has broken the nose of Davey Moore. Davey’s having difficulty breathing. He’s been bleeding around the nose,” reports Ellis from his ringside perch. “But if he’s got the punching power, it’s still very much a fight. And if he doesn’t … it could be another story.”
Standing at 5-feet-2-inches tall, Davey is small, but many have deemed him the best pound-for-pound boxer around. But here, right now, his gait looks feeble. His feet are sluggish. The champ is drained.
His opponent, Sugar Ramos, stands a slightly taller 5-feet-4-1/2-inches. He’s puffed up around the eyes, but he continues to pop and bob. The tassels on his boots bounce in rhythm. On the left leg of his dark, highly drawn trunks is the word “Matanzas” — the name of his hometown in Cuba, the place he left a year earlier after Fidel Castro outlawed boxing.
“This is one they’re gonna remember for a long time whether they watch it in Tokyo, Japan, or Mexico City, Mexico, or in the Philippines or what have you,” shouts Ellis. “They’re gonna remember this one.”
By the time of his victorious 1959 title bout against Hogan “Kid” Bassey, Davey Moore had been boxing for years. He had quit high school to dedicate himself to the sport. It was pretty much all he knew.
“He started boxing in the Golden Gloves and they had quite a team here,” recalls Geraldine. She and Davey were teenage sweethearts at the time. “I never thought it was fun to watch, but my dad would go with me, sometimes, down to the Memorial Hall.”
In March of 1952, Moore married Geraldine in Liberty, Indiana. He was 18 years old and she was 16. To add to the excitement, the Olympic games were being held in Helsinki that year and Moore qualified for the team. A relatively unseasoned fighter, he lost a very close quarterfinal split-decision to South Korea’s Joon Ha Kang. The following year, in 1953, Moore went pro.
The 1950s proved lively for the Moores. The couple had three girls and two boys: Denise, Ricardo, David, Lynise, and Davia. “My dad was a disciplinarian, but he loved us. He really loved us,” recalls Denise Moore, the oldest of the five children.
“Wherever he would go on trips, he would always bring us something back. One time he fought in Japan. He brought my brother and I back transistor radios. His was blue and mine was pink.”
For a portion of the 1950s, Moore juggled boxing and side jobs. “He did a little bit of construction work, but he always had to take off and go to his boxing matches,” says Geraldine. “Before he really went full time, and professional, he worked for Crowell-Collier, a publishing company. They made encyclopedias.”
Although Geraldine didn’t like to watch Davey fight, she says she always supported his love for the sport. “The featherweights didn’t make a lot of money, but I tell you one thing: He took care of us,” she says. “We didn’t want for a thing. David was a wonderful husband and father. He went all out for us.”
“One minute to go in the 10th round. Davey Moore’s hurt again! That is not a knockdown, but I believe he’s losing steam! He’s absolutely hurt,” Steve Ellis screams.
Moore is noticeably stunned, as Ramos delivers a flurry of strong left-hand jabs and hooks, sending his opponent stumbling backward. The champ looks wobbly, as if he’s intoxicated, and free-falls backward toward the canvas.
Near the end of the fall, Moore’s head snaps hard against the bottom rope.
“That is a knockdown! Four on the floor,” yells Ellis.
Moore sluggishly lifts himself to his feet, placing his hands on his hips. He looks discouraged. He is certainly startled. So is the boxing world. Referee George Latka starts the count.
“Four, five, 30 seconds to go. Six, seven, 28 seconds to go. He’s okay at 8!”
Davey Moore was the youngest of nine children. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky, but the family moved to Springfield when he was young. His mother, Jessie Moore, was a wonderful cook and a loving mother. As the baby boy of the family, young Davey was doted on.
His father, the Rev. Howard Moore, was an apostolic minister. As the son of a preacher, Davey was raised on the Bible, and he kept his faith throughout his life. Growing up, he loved football, but he was too little, so he took up boxing, where he could face contenders his own size.
“They told me he started boxing when he was just a little kid,” says Geraldine. “They’d put him on a chair so he could hit the bag. That’s how he started.”
During interviews, Davey admitted that boxing helped keep him out of trouble. “If my parents had known some of the things I did,” he once said, “I don’t think I’d have lived to tell it now.”
“I remember hearing them talk about when he rolled the car down the hill and hit a tree,” Geraldine says. “He was quite a little mischievous kid. He was in and out of a lot of stuff. I went to the old Fulton School on Divert Avenue. They said that David was a student there too, but I don’t remember him.”
Geraldine didn’t officially meet Moore until she was “13, maybe 14” at Keifer Junior High, where she was a cheerleader.
“David and a group of his friends used to play football in the street,” she recalls. “They’d always ask for a drink of cold water. Then, they’d go on up the street ... That’s the way we met.
“You know how young people are. I said, ‘God he’s cute!’ you know?’ ” Geraldine adds with a warm laugh. “We just started talking and kind of hit it off and went on from there.”
“Can Ramos pull it out? Is the clock against Ramos?” Ellis shouts into the microphone during the final seconds of the 10th round. “Moore is still hurt! Moore is wobbling! Wobbling! 15 seconds, 14 seconds. A right-hand! Moore’s tired! Will he continue? Yes, he will! Four seconds to go! Three. He’s hurt!”
The bell tolls with several clangs.
A smooth and softer voice appears; it’s that of KGTV’s Jimmy Lennon. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please.” He explains that at the end of the previous round, the referee stopped the bout based on advice from Moore’s corner. “Winner by knockout. Round 10,” he declares. “The new featherweight champion of the world, Ultiminio ‘Sugar’ Ramos!”
An onslaught of police officers, reporters and photographers storm the ring. It’s mayhem inside Dodger Stadium. Making his way down from his seat, Steve Ellis is determined to interview both fighters and wades through the sea of people.
After a brief interview with Ramos, he moves on to Moore, who is slouched over and leaning on the middle rope, a towel thrown over the top of his head. Defeated.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a longtime friend of ours,” says Ellis, placing Davey’s chin in the palm of his hand, pulling his slumping head upward. “Davey, I know it’s a tough one. What’s the story?”
“It just wasn’t my night tonight,” he replies. Ellis asks if he’d like another shot at Ramos. “I think I can knock him out,” Moore says. “I just couldn’t get myself together for some kind of reason.”
Ellis wraps up the interview with a few respectful parting words. “Davey, you know you’re a champion in our book all the time, and we’ll see you soon.”
But Steve Ellis never talked to Davey Moore again. On March 25, 1963, the dethroned champ died at White Memorial Hospital in Loma Linda, California. He had been taken there soon after the conclusion of his bout with Ramos.
“I was in California at the time, but I didn’t go to the fight,” recalls Geraldine. “The next thing I knew, they were rushing me out of there, taking me to the hospital where he was. He never woke up. He never knew I was there.”
She learned that when Moore fell in the 10th round, the back of his head and neck struck the rope hard. The injury was much more serious than anyone realized. “They told me he was saying, ‘Well, this was not a very good day. Any other day, I could have won this fight,’ Then, all of the sudden, they said he told them, ‘My head hurts.’ And they laid him back. He never regained consciousness. … I was 27 years old at the time.”
Ramos came to the hospital to see Moore, and Geraldine vividly remembers his tears. “He cried and cried,” she says. “I just let him know that I never held it against him.”
Services were held in Springfield’s Mount Zion Baptist Church and an estimated 13,000 people came out to pay their respects. Comedians Eddie Foy Jr. and Bob Hope sent telegrams. Ohio Gov. James Rhodes came to the funeral. Afterward, he made sure Geraldine was taken care of. “Gov. Rhodes gave me a job,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Give Mrs. Moore a job. She’s got five children to take care of.’ And so I went to work for the state of Ohio in 1963.”
Davey Moore’s death also prompted an outcry against the sport from some. California Gov. Pat Brown and Pope John XXIII both shunned boxing in the wake of the fight’s tragic outcome, the latter calling for the outright abolishment of the sport.
Around the time of Moore’s fight with Ramos, a 21-year-old Bob Dylan was busy recording his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which featured the song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was around this time that he also wrote, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” forever immortalizing that March 21, 1963, fight in song: “Who Killed Davey Moore? / Why, and what’s the reason for?” (For a time, Dylan played the song live and it later appeared as part of “The Bootleg Series.”) Dylan poses the song’s title question over and over, sardonically allowing referee George Latka, boxing fans, manager Willie Ketchum, gamblers, sportswriters and Sugar Ramos to take turns skirting blame for Moore’s death. In 2011, Sports Illustrated named it the greatest sports song of all-time.
“Bob Dylan never talked to me,” says Geraldine. “The name of the song is ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ I always felt like no one killed Davey Moore. Davey Moore died doing what he liked and doing what he knew best and that was boxing.”
On Sept. 21, 2013 — exactly 50 years and six months after Davey Moore entered that ring in Los Angeles — Geraldine Moore, who still lives in Springfield, found herself on the way to pick up an old acquaintance. The city had worked six long years for this occasion: a statue of Davey Moore was to be unveiled in the park along South Limestone Street that bears his name.
“I got out of the car at the hotel, and I saw this man standing there,” recalls Geraldine, the anticipation of the moment still thick in her voice. “And he looked entirely different than he did the last time I saw him. And he had these dark glasses on. And I asked him, I said, ‘Are you Sugar Ramos?’ And he bowed his head. I hugged him. I think he knew from then on that there was no animosity at all.”
Along with Geraldine and Ramos, the crowd gathered that day at Davey Moore Park included Davey’s older brother, Sammy. They were there to celebrate “The Little Giant.” The 8-foot-tall statue of Moore created by Urbana sculptor Mike Major depicts its handsome subject at the height of his power — his world featherweight championship belt wrapped around his waist, his arms raised and ready.
Here, at this city park, just two miles from his old junior high school, Davey Moore stands frozen at age 29. In this space, he has in some small way triumphed over the sadly prophetic words that Bob Sullivan of the Springfield Daily News once recalled Moore saying about the sport he loved so much: “Only 10 seconds separate me from being champion and nothing.”