Griffith, Emile Alphonse
GRIFFITH, Emile Alphonse
(b. 3 February 1938 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), one of the greatest boxers of all time, and only the third in history to earn both the welterweight and middleweight titles during a career that included 112 bouts and spanned nineteen years.
One of eight children born to mechanic Emile Griffith and his wife Emelda, Griffith left the Virgin Islands for New York City sometime between 1954 and 1957, taking a job as a stock boy in the millinery factory where his mother already worked. Boxing manager Howard Albert, whose father owned the factory, encouraged Griffith to try boxing and sent him to legendary trainer Gil Clancy's Times Square Gym. Together Albert and Clancy managed Griffith's career, guiding him to fifty-one victories in fifty-three amateur bouts and to the New York, Eastern, and Intercity Golden Gloves championships in the 147-pound division.
Under the tutelage of Clancy and Albert, Griffith turned professional in 1958 and enjoyed quick success as a welterweight (141–147 pounds). Winning seventeen of his first nineteen fights, he lost only to Randy Sandy and Denny Moyer. Subsequent victories over Jorge Fernandez, Florentino Fernandez, Willie Toweel, and Luis Rodriguez raised Griffith's record to twenty-four wins against only two losses, and brought him a shot at the welterweight title then held by the rugged but erratic Benny "Kid" Paret of Cuba.
In their first fight, at the Miami Beach Convention Hall on 1 April 1961, Paret was ahead on points until the thirteenth round when Griffith stunned him with a left hook and followed with swift right that dropped Paret to the canvas. Griffith successfully defended his welterweight title against Gaspar Ortega on 3 June 1961 and won a nontitle fight against Yama Bahama before a rematch with Paret. In a controversial split decision, Paret regained the welter-weight championship on 30 September 1961.
A genuine animosity existed between Griffith and Paret. At the weigh-in before their third meeting, scheduled to take place at Madison Square Garden on 24 March 1962, Paret intensified this rancor by calling Griffith a maricon, Spanish slang for homosexual. Griffith vowed revenge, and from the opening bell the fight was a savage brawl. A right from Paret floored Griffith near the end of the sixth round, but he rallied and took control of the proceedings. In the twelfth Griffith trapped Paret along the ropes and administered a fearful beating. The helpless Paret absorbed more than twenty blows before referee Ruby Goldstein intervened to stop the fight. Rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, Paret, who had not fully recovered from injuries sustained in his previous fight with Gene Fullmer, underwent emergency brain surgery but never regained consciousness. He lapsed into a coma and died on 3 April 1962.
The clamor to abolish boxing rose to a crescendo in the wake of Paret's death. Millions of Americans had watched the fatal bout on the Gillette Fight of the Week. "Apparently," explained ringside announcer Don Dunphy, "people were calling friends and telling them to tune in, that a guy was getting beaten to death on the TV." When he learned of Paret's condition, Griffith tried to visit him in the hospital, but Paret's family refused to permit it. A distraught Griffith nearly retired. "I would have quit," he recalled in an interview, "but I didn't know how to do anything else.… I've never stopped anybody since then, really."
Griffith resumed his career, defeating Ralph DuPas on 13 July 1962 to retain the welterweight title he had taken from Paret. On 21 March 1963 Griffith lost his welter-weight title to Luis Rodriguez, but reclaimed the crown seventy-nine days later, on 8 June, with a fifteen-round decision.
In a disastrous nontitle fight on 20 December 1963, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter knocked Griffith out for the first time in his career. Yet Griffith returned to the ring in February 1964, again vanquishing DuPas before defending his welterweight crown against Luis Rodriguez, Brian Curvis, Jose Stable, and Manuel Gonzalez. On 20 August 1965 Griffith lost a unanimous decision to Don Fullmer for the vacant World Boxing Association (WBA) middleweight title, but in April 1966 he faced Nigerian Dick Tiger for the world middleweight (155–160 pounds) championship.
Griffith bested Tiger for the title in a disputed fifteen-round judgment, then survived two exacting title defenses against Joey Archer in July 1966 and January 1967. In a raucous contest with Italian Giovanni "Nino" Benvenuti, Griffith lost the middleweight championship on 17 April 1967 only to recapture it five months later, pummeling Benvenuti in what was one of the best fights of his career. Benvenuti, however, prevailed in their third encounter on 4 March 1968 to retake the middleweight title.
At thirty, Griffith apparently gave no thought to retirement. After falling to Benvenuti, he returned to the welterweight division and, on 18 October 1969, fought Cuban Jose Napoles who inflicted a decisive beating. Following the fight with Napoles, however, Griffith put together an impressive string of ten consecutive victories that earned him another shot at the middleweight title, this time against Argentinean Carlos Monzon who had wrested it from Benvenuti. In their first engagement on 25 September 1971, Monzon scored a technical knockout in the fourteenth round. Two years later in June 1973, Griffith punished Monzon, who barely escaped with the victory. Spectators at ringside greeted the announcement of Monzon's triumph with boos and catcalls; Gil Clancy alleged that officials had falsified their scorecards to Monzon's advantage.
Griffith finally stepped out of the ring in 1977 at the age of thirty-nine. His last title fight, for the World Boxing Commission (WBC) light middleweight crown, came in Berlin against Eckhard Dagge on 18 September 1976. He lost a split decision.
Having squandered most of the purses he had won, Griffith worked as a juvenile officer in Jersey City, New Jersey, but often took jobs as a bouncer at assorted New York night clubs to support his wife, Sadie Mae, whom he had married in 1971, and his large extended family. In 1992 a gang of thugs beat Griffith senseless with a baseball bat and robbed him of $800 outside a bar on Forty-second Street. He recovered only after several months in intensive care.
Criticized throughout his nineteen-year career for lacking the "killer instinct," Griffith used a blend of speed, truculence, and courage to post eighty-five victories. Although not blessed with a devastating punch (he recorded only 23 knockouts in 112 professional bouts), Emile Griffith was a consummate fighter. He used his fists briskly and intelligently and could alter his tactics to suit his opponent. Five times a world champion in two separate weight divisions, Griffith battled through 339 rounds in 22 sanctioned title bouts, more than any other boxer in history. By the 1980s he had begun to impart the wisdom of his experience to a new generation of fighters, including such hopefuls as Wilfred Benitez, Simon Brown, Juan LaPorte, and James "Bonecrusher" Smith. A sage of the "sweet science," Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Books that contain information on Griffith include Gilbert Odd, Boxing: The Great Champions (1974); Nigel Collins, Boxing Babylon (1990); Peter Walsh, Men of Steel: The Lives and Times of Boxing's Middleweight Champions (1993); and James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book (1998). Magazine articles include Chandler Brossard, "A Most Unusual Champion," Look (18 Apr. 1967); Milton Gross, "Camping out with the Champ," Sports Illustrated (7 Nov. 1966); and Bruce Benderson, "A Champion of Times Square," Village Voice 42, no. 31 (5 Aug. 1997): 118.
Mark G. Malvasi