Tribute to boxer Moore finally at hand

The last time — at their much-trumpeted, turned-tragic 1963 meeting for the world’s featherweight title at Dodger Stadium — Ramos stood tallest.

This time — next Saturday afternoon in a gala dedication celebration at the small Southern Gateway Wedge Park just across from old South High School in Springfield — Moore will tower above everyone:

Literally, figuratively … finally.

That’s when a six-year project fraught with financial struggle will culminate with the unveiling of a stunning, eight-foot bronze statue of Moore that will be set atop a massive eight-ton, five-foot-high boulder that has been positioned on the grassy knoll near where South Limestone Street and East Pleasant Street come together.

A half century after his death, Moore remains one of the Miami Valley’s greatest sports legends. He is still our only Olympic boxer and our only professional world champion. After taking the featherweight crown from Hogan “Kid” Bassey in 1959, he fought and won and was celebrated all over the world including England, Venezuela, Italy, Spain, Japan, Finland and throughout Mexico.

He was a 2-to-1 favorite when he defended his crown in the nationally-televised bout against Ramos, a 21-year-old Cuban exile with a 38-1-3 record. In what Ramos’ co-trainer Angelo Dundee called a “rock-‘em, sock-’em affair,” the young challenger finally took control in the 10th round when he landed several unanswered punches. As Moore tumbled backward to the canvas, his neck hit the bottom ring rope which actually was a rubber-coated steel cable.

He was up by the count of three but got caught again and was draped on the ropes as the bell ended the round. His corner stopped the fight, Moore gave a TV interview while still in the ring and then retreated to the dressing room, where he quietly talked to reporters before suddenly announcing, “My head hurts something awful.”

He lay down on a rub-down table, fell into unconsciousness and was rushed to White Memorial Hospital in East Los Angeles.

As his wife Geraldine kept a bedside vigil there, she was visited by a tearful Ramos, who told over and over: “Lo siento…Lo siento (I’m sorry…I’m sorry).”

Geraldine told him he was not at fault — that it was “God’s act” — and some 72 hours later Moore died without ever regaining consciousness.

Before escorting her husband’s body back home, Geraldine heard from the Hollywood crowd that had so taken to the gallant featherweight — folks like Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr. all offered condolences — and once back in Springfield, Moore’s body was viewed by more than 5,000 people at Mt. Zion Church.

Thousands more then lined the streets for a funeral procession of 100-plus cars as Moore was taken to Ferncliff Cemetery and buried beneath a simple, flat gravestone that proclaimed “Featherweight Champ of the World.”

In the months that followed, several people — politicians, songwriters, even the pope — questioned the deadly nature of boxing. Bob Dylan penned a famous song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” that Sports Illustrated recently voted the No. 1 sports-themed song of all time.

Ramos eventually went on to fight another nine years, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and now, at age 71, lives in Mexico.

Geraldine, meanwhile, took a job in Columbus as a notary clerk for the state of Ohio, working there more than three decades as she raised the couple’s five children and later some grandkids.

Although much of Davey’s memorabilia was destroyed in a fire at the Springfield Cultural Center many years ago, memory of him wasn’t totally lost, especially since Geraldine moved back to town 18 years ago.

There’s now Davey Moore Park and the gym at Fulton Elementary, his old school, was renamed after him and the Chamber of Commerce sells t-shirts bearing his likeness and one of his nicknames, “The Springfield Rifle.”

And yet, he never quite attained the towering status he deserved … until now.

Community effort

Some 11 years ago Springfield launched a project downtown to erect bigger-than-life statues of prominent figures from the city and surrounding Clark County.

With Mike Morris heading the Sculpture Advisory Committee and The Turner Foundation and a couple of private donors providing much of the funding, nationally-acclaimed Urbana sculptor Mike Major was hired to make the likenesses.

Morris said the project had several purposes. One was the belief that pedestrian foot traffic — as people walk from statue to statue and take in the city’s architecture and stop in various businesses — adds to a city’s vibrancy downtown.

“Another point, and these are my words, is that Springfield, like a lot of Midwestern cities, has taken it in the gut the last 50 or 60 years with job losses,” Morris said. “And because of it you sometimes get people who now say, ‘There’s nothing here.’

“But they forget the people this community has and still does produce, people like John Legend, Jonathan Winters, Lillian Gish, Harvey Haddix, Johnny Lytle, Davey Moore … the list goes on and on. People say a lot of those were a long time ago and we say, ‘No, it’s in our DNA. This shows what our city can produce.’ ”

The first five statues honored George Rogers Clark, Tecumseh, industrialist O.S. Kelly, Wright Brothers attorney Harry A. Toulmin and 4-H Founder A.B. Graham.

The Davey Moore idea began six years ago, but then came the economic downturn of 2008 and private funding dried up after just over half of the necessary $92,000 for the statue was raised. Various money-raising efforts were tried, including the Punchers & Painters reception and fight show in downtown Dayton, but the project remained mostly stalled.

In the past several months, though, John Landess, the well-connected executive director of The Turner Foundation, and Rod Hatfield, the foundation’s creative director who had come back home a few years earlier from Seattle and years of world travel as a photographer and videographer, entered the picture and things began to happen.

“John thought it was a travesty that the project had gone unfinished this long and began to contact folks in the community and ask for donations,” Morrs said.

That effort was helped by Hatfield’s involvement in Springfield 50th anniversary remembrance of the March 1963 fight. He put together a slide show of Moore photos set to Johnny Lytle music and showed fight films he had digitalized, including the tragic final bout and the TV interview in the ring afterward.

Geraldine — who never liked boxing’s brutality and had sat ringside at only two of Davey’s 67 pro bouts — said she’d never seen the film of that Dodger Stadium fight.

“I watched as much as I could and when the parts got tough I just closed my eyes,” she said.

Her eldest daughter, Denise, who now lives with her, had a similar reaction:

“I had my head down and didn’t really want to see it. I had talked to him the night before the fight. I was a little girl then but I still get emotional about things like that.”

‘A certain beauty’

Talk about a cosmic confluence. Morris said one of Ramos’ handlers contacted Ferncliff Cemetery early this year and wanted to know exactly where Moore was buried:

“He said Sugar Ramos wanted to come from Mexico and pay his respects. They gave him the information, but they also said, ‘Hey, they are having a 50th anniversary remembrance in March and they are unveiling a statue of Davey later in the year.’ And so Sugar put the trip on hold and planned to come to the dedication.”

Ramos is scheduled to arrive in Springfield on Friday and take part in Saturday’s festivities.

“I’m glad he’s coming,” said Geraldine, who will be seeing him for the first time since they huddled in the hospital 50 years ago. “We’ve been in touch these past few months and I feel good about it. I don’t have any hard feelings. People keep asking me about the song ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ Nobody killed Davey Moore. He got in the ring. It was an accident. I’m not mad at anybody.

“Right now, I’m just very excited about all this. Everybody is.”

Mike Major, the sculptor, has a similar reaction: “There’s actually a certain beauty to a project that takes longer than expected. You get to know the family more. You get to contemplate the history and for me at least it’s made for a deeper, more enticing experience.”

With the help of Maine’s Towing, Major hopes to erect the statue atop the boulder on Monday, then quickly cover it with a veil.

“If you don’t want your surprise ruined, don’t drive by that day,” Morris said teasingly to Denise and Geraldine as they stood with him alongside the boulder the other evening. “That way you won’t really know what’s happening out here.”

Denise laughed and shook her head: “Oh, we’ll know. People will be driving by and seeing it. They’ll be coming to our house to tell us. They’ll be calling and leaving messages. It’s been so long coming and people are so excited that it would be hard not to notice.”

And rightly so. Davey Moore now will tower above everyone in Springfield:

Literally, figuratively … finally.

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