The Precise Boxing Analogy for Tomorrow's Presidential Debate

Obama's ratcheted up expectations by performing poorly, just like Archie Moore did more than 50 years ago.

boxing fetter obama 615.png
AP Images / The Atlantic

Debates have long been associated with boxing, and it's easy to understand why. In a prizefight, just as in the presidential and vice-presidential debates, there are two contestants, facing each other, alone under the hot lights, shaking hands beforehand and well advised to protect oneself at all times. There is a referee—err, moderator—who is sure to be blamed either for losing control of the proceedings (by the loser) or for intervening too assertively (again by the loser). And boxing manager Joe Jacobs may well have been the first spin doctor when he shouted "we wuz robbed" to the radio audience listening to a heavyweight title fight after the decision went against his fighter.

Of course, the analogy has its limits. A debate will run its course whatever happens in the ring—I mean, at the podium. In 1988, for example, a poleaxed Dan Quayle had to stagger along until time expired. It would have been more humane for the proceedings to be stopped and Lloyd Bentsen declared the winner on a TKO.

Thinking about tomorrow's Obama-Romney debate, I'm reminded less of the presidential-lookalike prizefighters on the cover of the September Atlantic, and more of a specific, historical boxer: the great, light-heavyweight champion of more than a half century ago, Archie Moore.

So far in this year's debates, the highly touted and odds-on favorite President Obama suffered a surprisingly lopsided—and to his supporters immensely disheartening—loss to a lightly regarded Mitt Romney in their first encounters. That set the stage for an unusually high-stakes vice presidential encounter, in which Joe Biden overpowered Paul Ryan and allowed the Democrats to regain some of the ground—at least in terms of energy and confidence—given up by the president. Which has in turn raised the ante for this week's second presidential debate.

But why is this triggering memories of Archie Moore? Because the debates have unfolded in a way that's reminiscent of Moore's gamesmanship towards the end of his career. Moore was a fighter of great skill and astonishing longevity. He first fought professionally in FDR's first term and was still fighting during JFK's Thousand Days, when he was probably (his birth date was shrouded in self-generated mystery) in his 50s. But his problem was that he was a light heavyweight, which never was the most glamorous or lucrative weight class, sandwiched as it is between the more-popular middleweight and heavyweight divisions.

After winning the light-heavyweight championship in 1952, Moore made a couple of attempts to win the heavyweight title but lost to Rocky Marciano in 1955 and Floyd Patterson in 1956. He then turned back to his own division with a careful strategy for both preserving his well-being (by then he was well into his 40s) and maximizing his income. Avoiding top-ranked contenders, he instead would enter the ring against a less-threatening opponent who was given no chance to dethrone Moore, and then—through, at the least, excessive confidence and under-training—either struggle to win (eventually stopping Yvon Durelle after being knocked down three times in the first round in 1958) or suffer an astonishing lose (as he did against Giulio Rinaldi in 1960). In either case, the groundwork was thereby laid for a highly promoted and more financially remunerative rematch—which Moore then easily won.

It was a business plan that proved quite successful while it lasted, but it came to an end when Moore was stripped of his title by the sport's authorities for failure to defend it frequently enough. The current contenders for politic's heavyweight championship cannot be accused of similar inactivity. They will either lose or win the title by the decision of the electorate, not the fiat of a commission. But in orchestrating the debates thus far to confound expectations, generate suspense, and build an audience for the upcoming second presidential debate, they are following in the footsteps of canny Archie Moore, the "Old Mongoose." Not that either President Obama or Congressman Ryan set out to do that—right?