A comebacking Ingemar Johansson, who had just seen his reign as heavyweight champion halted by Floyd Patterson, hardly inspired his supporters when, in a huff, he ejected one of his livelier sparring partners from the ring. The “Hammer of Thor” had been cuffed around before a cluster of reporters at his West Palm Beach training camp. And who was it that had made the usually affable Johansson lose his cool? It was a cocky middleweight with shincrack footwork and a jab that flapped and fluttered as fast as the wings of a hummingbird: Joey Archer, a cocky Pelham Parkway Fancy Dan who was as quick with the Bronx cheer as he was with a right cross. “Give me a few more pounds and I could take that bum,” Archer boasted after being sacked from his twenty-five-dollar-a-day gig with Johansson.
Even with blazing Muhammad Ali setting alight headlines and newscasts from one end of the country to the other, boxing was barely simmering in the mid-1960s. The televised Kefauver hearings and the death of Benny Paret had laid bare the dark heart of boxing for Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America to see and, as a result, the straight world turned away from the graft, the grift, the grime. There was Ali, of course, and the bruising Los Angeles scene, dominated by the Chicano and Mexican afición. There were also a handful of microstars who fought in Madison Square Garden: Jose Torres, Dick Tiger, Emile Giffith, and Archer, the last of the fighting Irish. Archer was a New York favorite—like a pastrami hero or a bagel with lox—but although he was a bona fide box-office V.I.P., Archer was less popular among boxing insiders. “Archer is a stinking, rotten national disgrace as No. 1 contender!” bellowed Carmen Tedeschi, a New Jersey-based manager whose fighter, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, had lost a hairpin decision to Archer in 1963.
For most of the 1960s, Joey Archer was a stalwart middleweight contender, but he was denied a title shot until he was twenty-eight years old and on the downside. During that era, the 160-pound scene was dominated by a handful of fighters who played salugi with the middleweight title: Gene Fullmer, Dick Tiger, Emile Griffith, and Nino Benvenuti, with cameo appearances by Paul Pender, Terry Downes, and Joey Giardello.
Archer was born on February 11, 1938, and dropped out of high school to haunt the local gyms that dotted the Bronx in those days. As an amateur, Archer reached the Golden Gloves finals as a sub-novice on the same night his brother, Jimmy, won the open division title. After turning pro in 1956, Archer, now with Jimmy acting as his manager, was a regular at the St. Nicholas Arena and on the undercards of Madison Square Garden bills. Then, suddenly, Archer disappeared from The Big Apple and spent the next eighteen months fighting in Texas, roughly 1,500 miles from Eighth Avenue. When Archer returned to New York in 1960, he was sidelined after straining ligaments in his knee. Eventually, he would remain idle for almost a year and a half. In his first fight back, Archer dropped a grueling decision to one of the most hazardous middleweights of the 1960s: Jose “Monon” Gonzalez. It was his first loss in thirty-one outings. Two months later, Archer won the rematch, and zoomed into title contention—where he remained in a frustrating holding pattern. Over the next few years, wins over Don Fullmer, Holly Mims, Rubin Carter, and Dick Tiger brought Archer no closer to his dream of being champion.
After scoring an upset over Dick Tiger in 1963 to win the middleweight title, Joey Giardello lollygagged on his return clause. Nearly two years would pass before Giardello faced Tiger again. In the meantime, Giardello, already in his mid-thirties when he won the title, was less than enthusiastic about facing Archer. When Giardello chose to make his first title defense against Hurricane Carter, even other contenders noted the absurdity of skipping over Archer. “Giardello took the easy way out,” Dick Tiger said. “He picked Carter instead of me. Why, even Archer deserved a shot before Carter, but I guess Giardello figures Archer was too much for him.”
If Archer is remembered at all, it is probably as the answer to a trivia question regarding one of the immortals: Who was the last man Sugar Ray Robinson faced in the ring? In 1965 Archer made headlines by forcing Robinson, after more than twenty-five years, to finally retire. By then, Sugar Ray was gray at the temples, frayed from the rigors of two hundred bouts, and lugging a battered suitcase around (in lieu of a rowdy entourage) from backwater to backwater during his dreary last days. Archer floored Robinson in the fourth round en route to a leisurely (and, no doubt, merciful) 10-round decision, but not even a win over faded boxing royalty could vault Archer into a championship bout.
By late 1965, Archer had amassed a record of 45-1, with eight knockouts. He specialized in pirouettes, ronds, arabesques; his deft steps in the ring, combined with his flicking jab, could frustrate some of the best middleweights in the world. But his right hand carried less pop than an old can of Dr. Pepper. That, combined with a stingy work rate and his tendency to cut, often made it hard for Archer to definitively outstrip the competition. Narrow wins over Mims, Carter, and Tiger drew as many boos as cheers from the rafters in Madison Square Garden and opponents found themselves muttering near-philosophical aphorisms to the press. “I thought I won,” Rubin Carter said after dropping a decision to Archer, “but I lost.”
Archer was inactive for most of 1965 and closed out the year with a dubious loss to Don Fullmer in Boston. Still, a longstanding kvetching campaign engineered by Jimmy Archer—one that included snarky ads placed in local newspapers—finally drove Emile Griffith, who had beaten Dick Tiger for the middleweight crown in April 1966, to offer Archer what he wanted more than anything: a shot at history.
On July 13, 1966, Griffith and Archer headlined Madison Square Garden, where more than thirteen thousand raucous spectators braved a 100-degree summer day to watch two of the most popular fighters in New York City create their own mini-inferno in the ring. After fifteen seesaw rounds, Griffith was declared the winner by majority decision. It was a close fight, with Archer opening up an early lead and Griffith bullyragging through the middle rounds, but the last third of the bout belonged to the champion. All those long years of waiting had led Archer to his bitterest defeat yet.
Seven months later, on January 23, 1967, Griffith repeated, scoring a unanimous decision over a more defensive Archer. This time a crowd of 14,838, most of them rooting for Archer, packed the Garden, and just as they had the previous summer, they left disappointed with the decision. “I thought I won both fights,” Archer told The Ring in 2001. “But he was a great fighter and he’s a nice person. Today, it doesn’t mean anything.” Back then, however, it must have meant everything. Joey Archer never fought again.