King of The Blue Horizon
By Bernard Fernandez from Max Boxing
Thanks in large part to the rise of talk radio, sports figures who would have qualified as heroes in an earlier, gentler time are now trashed daily on the airwaves not only by shock-jock hosts, but by couch potatoes who never played a down of football, had an at-bat above Little League or took a gloved punch to the face.
In Philadelphia, the yakkers on WIP-AM – where the big annual event is the “Wing Bowl,” where a bunch of fat guys try to shove as many greasy chicken wings as is humanly possible down their gullets within a specified time frame, and as scantily clad “cheerleaders” shake their, uh, pompoms – Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is regularly derided as a “bum,” strikeout-prone Phillies leftfielder Pat Burrell as a “stiff,” and 76ers general manager Billy King as a “moron.”
Not that anyone is above legitimate, constructive criticism, but might some of the rancor owe to the fact that all of the above are salaried at a level far beyond the comprehension of the average, if you’ll pardon the expression, working stiff? Is the venom being spewed by Joe from Kensington fueled in part by jealously? Whatever the rationale, he still gets his opportunity to have his call put through so he can vent his frustration at the object of his disaffection.
Longtime former middleweight champion Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins is, for the most part, spared the ignominy heaped upon athletes in team sports because he is a boxer, and boxing receives only a bit more attention on WIP than curling, dominoes and synchronized swimming, despite the fact that Philadelphia is still widely recognized as America’s foremost breeding ground of great fighters.
Given talk radio’s priorities, it’s easy to understand how someone like “Rockin’” Rodney Moore, a retired, B-tier fighter who never rose to the level of a Hopkins or a Joe Frazier, can spend his entire career out of the full glare of the spotlight. Oh, sure, his record 26 appearances, most of which were main events, at a certain historic venue on North Broad Street might have earned him the sobriquet of “King of the Blue Horizon,” but to some that is like being ruler of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Remember the 1959 movie classic, “The Mouse That Roared,” starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles? “Rockin’” Rodney is like that, beloved in a small fiefdom with only minimal contact with the outside world.
But Rodney Moore, now 42, had – has – talent, and he made the most of what he was given. He fought three times for world titles, even though he won none, and since 2004 he has given back to the community that nurtured him through the charitable foundation he established in 2004, “Fight to Learn,” which is committed to helping kids 8 to 12 years of age from low- to moderate-income families by facilitating academic and athletic growth, and building self-esteem, confidence and character.
Perhaps you appreciate your successes more when you have had to fight harder to attain them. On Sunday, Moore will be one of seven inductees into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, the second such state honor he has received. On Nov. 18, 2004, he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, the byproduct of his 15 bouts in Atlantic City.
Moore is a realist. He understands that the only way he will go to Canastota, N.Y., site of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, is as a tourist. But you don’t have to be a superstar on the scale of Roberto Duran – the most prominent name in the IBHOF’s Class of 2007, which will be enshrined on June 10 – to bask in the glow of a lesser honor that most fighters will never receive, or even be considered for.
“It’s the ultimate,” Moore said of his entry into his home state’s boxing Hall of Fame. “Realistically, only a handful of guys ever get that. I never in a million years dreamed that one day I would be a Hall of Famer, much less a Hall of Famer twice. It never even crossed my mind.”
Despite Moore’s undeniable popularity in his hometown, even he won’t get top billing for Sunday’s blue-collar shindig. That would be reserved for Bennie Briscoe, 64, the former middleweight contender who played to sellout crowds in the Spectrum and around the world throughout much of his 22-year pro career. “Bad” Bennie was a Philly icon, but his fame and his travels were so extended that he was introduced to Princess Grace in Monaco and dined with the president of Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Other living members of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2007 are Augie Pantellas, Dick Turner and Jimmy Sykes. Len Matthews and Danny Dougherty will be inducted posthumously.
You can make a reasonable case for Briscoe, who had the misfortune of competing at a time before multiple alphabet titles, and in an era when the great Argentine, Carlos Monzon, held the middleweight division in a vise-like grip, at least being worthy of consideration for enshrinement in Canastota. But Briscoe tops the marquee at Romano’s Caterers in Philadelphia in part because of his legendary reclusiveness; this will be the first public appearance in years for someone who might de described as Philly boxing’s Greta Garbo equivalent. At least some banquet attendees will be there for the chance to glimpse the rarely seen local legend.
The affable Moore, on the other hand, is readily available to meet and greet his fans and to possibly enlist donors to his foundation, which does commendable work but does not benefit from having a more recognizable celebrity out front.
Last night, for instance, Hopkins – back in Philadelphia for a stop on his nationwide media tour to promote his July 21 bout with Winky Wright in Las Vegas – hosted a fundraiser at the upscale Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the Bernard & Shirley Hopkins Make-a-Way Foundation. Among the guests was Hopkins’ business partner, Oscar De La Hoya, most recently observed as one of the principals in the highest-grossing prizefight of all time. The Make-a-Way Foundation recently oversaw the $60,000 refurbishment of a Philadelphia playground, and more such good deeds are sure to follow because, hey, B-Hop is a millionaire many times over and he has the clout to get things done.
“After-school programs are very competitive,” Moore noted with a certain wistfulness. “There are some local grants, but it’s tough when you try to get annual funding from corporations.
“Oscar (who also heads his own youth foundation) doesn’t even have to take it out of his own pocket. He just has to say the word and he can generate millions.
“I had to put in 3½ years of sweat equity before I really got this thing off the ground. Philadelphia has supported me very well, both when I was fighting and afterward, but it hasn’t always been easy to do what I need to do.”
Easy? Moore, who was born in Wilmington, N.C., and moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was an infant, always has had to take the uphill path. Like Hopkins, his pro debut ended in defeat. He was just 2-3 before winning his next eight bouts. He then again lost two of three only to take off on a 20-0-2 tear that made him a Blue Horizon fixture and guaranteed box-office.
“He was a solid fighter, and probably the most popular fighter at the Blue Horizon from the late 1980s through 1993,” said Moore’s former promoter, J Russell Peltz, who points out that the Jan. 26, 1993, matchup of Moore and former WBA lightweight titlist Livingstone Bramble – which Moore won on a unanimous, 10-round decision -- produced the only advance sellout of the 1,200-seat Blue Horizon during Peltz’s two-decades-plus association with the venue.
Moore did many things well, if not exceptionally. He could box a bit and punch hard enough. For a long time he wore only his “lucky” dusty-rose-colored trunks, which became his trademark. It also didn’t hurt that “Rockin’” Rodney’s outgoing personality connected with the public, and that he always could be counted on to give his best effort.
Coming off his points win over Bramble, Moore was 33-7-2 heading into his first world title bout, on May 15, 1993, in Atlantic City against Charles “The Natural” Murray for the vacant IBF junior welterweight belt. But Murray won a relatively close, unanimous decision.
“He’s so slick, so crafty, that I wasn’t able to get off the way I wanted,” Moore said at the time. “I couldn’t land the right hand consistently. That frustrated me a little bit. And he had a little more power than I expected, too.”
Before the bout with Murray, Moore already was envisioning life beyond the comfortable confines of the Blue Horizon. With a world title in his possession, he figured, he would have outgrown his preferred club site and be ready to move on to a more brightly lit stage.
“I’ll always come back to the Blue Horizon (as a visitor),” he said. “It’s where I came from. It’s always going to be a big part of who I am. I got my toughness from the Blue Horizon. I found my heart and my guts there.”
One wonders how it all would have played out for Moore, who said he was overtrained and wound too tightly for the Murray bout, had he been crowned a world champion then. But fighters who miss their initial grab for the brass ring sometimes don’t get another, and Moore and his manager-trainer, Fred Jenkins, decided the quickest path to a second try would be to sign with megapromoter Don King.
Peltz, who also lost another of his main-eventers, cruiserweight contender (and future WBA champ) Nate “Mr.” Miller to His Hairness, believes Moore acted hastily in joining King’s spacious stable of fighters.
“I know I could have gotten him a title fight with Jake Rodriguez (who had dethroned Murray via majority decision on Feb. 13, 1994), someone Rodney probably would have beaten,” Peltz said.
As it turned out, Moore – an extremely nervous traveler, especially by plane – fought for the first time out of his Philadelphia/Atlantic City/New York comfort zone when, in his first outing under King’s aegis, he stopped Pat Briceno in seven rounds on March 4, 1994, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Getting into the ring that night wasn’t nearly as big a deal to Moore as was boarding the plane for Vegas. It was Moore’s first time ever to fly to a fight, or anywhere.
“It was horrible,” he said of his introduction to the jet age. “Now I know why John Madden rides everywhere in that customized bus. I wish I had one of those things.”
Give King credit; he delivered on his promise to put Moore into another title bout. On Dec. 10, 1994, Moore challenged WBA super lightweight champ Frankie Randall, the first official conqueror of the great Julio Cesar Chavez, in an outdoor baseball park in Monterrey, Mexico. But Randall, claiming to be extra-motivated by events outside the ring, stopped Moore in seven rounds.
According to Randall, Moore had made a pass at Randall’s wife during a chance encounter in Las Vegas and thus had to pay for the alleged indiscretion.
“Why would she go out with this punk when she’s married to a real man?” Randall asked at the prefight press conference. “I’m going to have to whip his ass like he stole something.”
King, cackling at another real or possibly manufactured controversy, milked the situation for everything he could. He said it was “like `Knot’s Landing’ and `Peyton Place.’ It brings a soap opera quality to boxing. If you’re going to fight this man (Randall), who loves his job, stay away from his woman.”
Moore, who celebrates his 12th anniversary to his wife, Robena, later this month, said he can’t imagine where Randall was coming from. He said all he had done was pose for a picture with Randall’s wife, at her request, when she and several of her friends encountered him in Vegas.
More likely, if Randall had cause to be angry, it was over remarks Moore had made in the lead-up to the bout. Asked for his thoughts on his upcoming opponent, Moore said, “Everybody knows who Randall is because of his two fights with Chavez. But who is Frankie Randall anyway? Just a guy who came out of the blue and beat Chavez at a time when he was ready to be taken. Randall is a good champion. I can’t take anything from him. He’s the man who beat the man that nobody could beat. The world might look at it as an upset when I beat Randall, but I won’t consider it an upset. I know I can beat Frankie.”
Whatever the truth is or was, Moore – who never held any championship belt other than the one given him for winning the Pennsylvania junior welterweight title – was now 0-2 for recognition as a world alphabet champ, a bad place to be for someone whose career admittedly was winding down.
But Moore would receive one more chance to ascend to the top of the mountain. After three victories, all back in Philadelphia, Moore was paired against undefeated IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad on Feb. 10, 1996, at the MGM Grand. And although he spoke hopefully of winning as much of a stunner as had been Buster Douglas’ takedown of Mike Tyson six years earlier, Moore seemed steeled to the likelihood of another disappointment; after all, Trinidad was such a prohibitive favorite that the Vegas sports books had the seeming mismatch off the board.
“I wouldn’t be the first fighter to shock the world,” Moore said on the one hand, while acknowledging that “there comes a time when every fighter has to walk away. I’ve had close to 50 fights. I’ve been in wars. The wear and tear on your body doesn’t show on the outside, but every fighter is damaged on the inside. I don’t want to walk away punchy. I’m going to leave the same way I came in.”
The damage to Moore’s innards increased significantly when Trinidad floored him twice in the fourth round, prompting Jenkins to signal to referee Mitch Halpern that his gallant but no-chance fighter would not be coming out for the fifth round.
King left the door open for Moore to keep plugging away – “Go ahead and knock a couple of guys out and I’ll bring you back,” he said at the post fight press conference – but the erstwhile “King of the Blue Horizon” seemed to realize he had run out of chances. He fought only once more, taking a three-round technical decision over Tony Ortiz way, way off the beaten path at the Felton Supper Club in Philly. Shortly thereafter he retired, with a 38-10-2 record that included 20 victories inside the distance.
Moore took a run at another line of work in 1998 when, with Michael “Besco” Graddick, he formed the singing duo Baby Blu, which recorded 21 songs, some of which got air play on Philadelphia radio stations geared to black audiences. Former middleweight contender Dave Tiberi, who had trained alongside Moore at Champ’s Gym in North Philly, served as the duo’s manger/agent.
“When I heard (the demo tape), I immediately got excited,” Tiberi said at the time. “The guy can really sing. We’ve cut some cassettes and the response has been incredible. It’s a really nice sound. I guess you could call it a crossover. It’s not exactly rhythm-and-blues, it’s not exactly rap.”
Maybe it should have been all one genre or the other. Aside from an incredibly clever headline (“Float Like a Butterfly, Ring R&B”) authored by copy editor Doug Darroch for my paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, Moore and Baby Blu never broke through to anything close to the big time.
“It was a long shot,” Moore now says of his aborted singing career. “It’s like anything else. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I got that demo tape into a lot of people’s hands, but maybe not the right people or the right hands.
“I think our songs were good – better than some of the ones I’ve hear on the radio – but I wasn’t going to waste any more time on something that wasn’t ever going to happen.”
Fortunately for underprivileged kids, Moore redirected his considerable energies into his foundation, which he believes is making a difference, one child at a time, in making Philadelphia a better place.
I’ve always enjoyed being around “Rockin’” Rodney. Sure, professionalism dictates that you can’t allow yourself to become too close to any of the fighters you cover, but sports writers are human too and we know who we like. Even though I’ve had to tell it like it was whenever Moore was in over his head, I think I became a fan of his on Aug. 3, 1989, when he scored a unanimous, 10-round decision over Miguel Santana in an oppressively hot Blue Horizon. By the way, the hammer headline for that bout – also, I think, created by Darroch although I’m not sure – was “Swelterweights.”
Asked by a very earnest young radio reporter if he had any advice to offer the young people of North Philadelphia, Moore, still gasping for breath, contemplated the question for a few seconds before answering, “Never fight in an unair-conditioned building in August.”
We media types just have to love somebody who gives usable quotes – and good headlines – like that.
Some time back, when HBO was casting about for a former fighter to serve as an analyst for its Boxing After Dark telecasts, I recommended Moore and another uncommonly articulate Philadelphia-area guy, onetime super middleweight contender Tony “The Punching Postman” Thornton. And although I think both could have done the job, HBO went with former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, whose name recognition dwarfed those of my write-in candidates. Like the man said, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, or at least who you are.
But Moore clearly is a man who knows boxing. Before Hopkins’ 2001 fight with the favored Trinidad, Moore picked B-Hop, even though he still had painful memories of his battering by Tito.
“I’m going with Bernard,” Moore told me. “He’s a harder puncher than Tito probably expects, and he takes a great shot. Tito gets frustrated when he lands and you don’t react like you’re hurt. Bernard will take him out of his game plan.”
If you will recall, that is exactly the way the fight played out.
Moore has his regrets, to be sure, that list topped by his oh-fer in world title bouts. He also wishes he had gotten a crack at Chavez, and his hoped-for 1995 matchup with a better-known Philadelphia fighter, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and two-time former world champion Meldrick Taylor, fell through when the ghost of Taylor was upset by Darren Maciunski in Taylor’s only bout ever at the Blue Horizon.
On Sunday, my wife Anne and I will be at the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame dinner. I’ll schmooze and work the room, which sort of goes with the territory, and of course I’ll take the requisite notes for inclusion in my Tuesday column. But I also will clap loud and hard for Rodney, who long ago became my friend, and not just an interview subject.
Sure, the Pennsylvania Hall is sort of Triple-A compared to the major leagues represented by the IBHOF in Canastota. It’s not nearly as exclusive – How can it be? I’m in it – but it is another affirmation of how fortunate we were that this man, a better human being than he was a fighter, came our way.