You can depend on the sport of boxing for one thing: it can sink to the occasion. As if ring deaths were not enough of a problem, boxing now is developing the bum decision into a fine art. The year started off badly with a disputed Ray Robinson win over Ralph Dupas in Miami Beach in January. Then there was the Dick Tiger-Gene Fullmer "draw" in Las Vegas. Two weeks ago there was the Willie Pastrano-Harold Johnson decision in Vegas. Last Saturday night in Madison Square Garden came the latest, as Luis Rodriguez lost his world welter-weight championship to Emile Griffith.
For a week before the fight, the inside word was " Griffith." Unless Rodriguez made a rout of it, said New York's wise ones, Griffith would get the Garden decision. Rodriguez heard the word. His friends heard the word. And even Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, heard the word. For the majority of 15 rounds last Saturday night Rodriguez outmaneuvered and outfought Griffith. And yet when the fight was over, there was Announcer Johnny Addie standing in the middle of the ring proclaiming Emile Griffith the welterweight champion of the world for an unprecedented third time.
It is a shame that this latest bad decision had to come in a fight involving two of the nicest athletes around. Griffith, 24, is an amiable Virgin Islander now fighting out of New York, and he still speaks in the soft accents of the islands. "I beg your podden, sir," "The pleasure was all mine," "You're very kind to say that, sir"—the phrases flow naturally. His manners are impeccable, his hospitality gracious. He is the spirit of gentility in a rough game. His managers are Gil Clancy, a schoolteacher and longtime trainer, and Howie Albert, a millinery manufacturer.
Rodriguez is a clown, a friendly clown. He has the furrowed forehead of a bloodhound and the nose of Cyrano. "Cyrano and I," he says, "have more in common than our noses. We are both poets." A Cuban exile, Rodriguez now lives in Miami and boxes out of Angelo Dundee's vast stable. He likes to sing, play the piano and dance. He is simpatico. At his training camp, Tamarack Lodge up in the Catskills, he appeared in the nightclub where his act included "an old song from my country," Bei Mir Bist du Schoen, in Yiddish.
Griffith trained at the Concord, 10 miles away. He and Rodriguez had fought twice before, and both decisions were close and controversial. Griffith had won the first fight two and a half years ago in the Garden, and Rodriguez had won the second—and the welterweight title—last March in Los Angeles. Both are splendid boxers: fast, smart and graceful. And they know each other so well that much of what they do best tends to get neutralized when they fight against each other. Griffith's plan for the third fight was to put constant pressure on Rodriguez, a cutie who usually fights in round-ending flurries like his former Cuban townsman, Kid Gavilan. "I never go into the ring trying to knock a guy out," Griffith said. "But if the opportunity comes, I try to take advantage of it. I'm going to keep the pressure on him."
In midweek Griffith and Rodriguez drove into Manhattan and put up at motels flanking the Garden. In Tuesday's New York Mirror, Sports Editor Dan Parker devoted a blunt column to the fight. "A welterweight championship match has been arranged (or, as the British newspapers would say, 'fixed') for Madison Square Garden Saturday night," Parker wrote. He hinted that Teddy Brenner was not exactly unknown around the Griffith camp and that the Garden seemed like the place for "a perfect trap." Still, with all the counterskullduggery that goes on in boxing, Parker warned his readers: "On the surface it would seem that this would be the spot where Griffith would get his title back. On the other hand, this line of thought could make suckers out of those who back it with their rent money."
By Thursday the inside word was still " Griffith." On Friday, Teddy Brenner was asked if the Garden show wasn't losing some of its bloom because of the talk. Brenner is a onetime shirt salesman who has become the shrewdest, most capable boxing matchmaker in years. "There's always talk," he said with a resigned air. "Who makes talk like that? With the friends that boxing has, boxing needs no enemies." He denied that he was "pieced in" with Clancy or any other manager or fighter. "It has never been as easy in the history of boxing in Madison Square Garden for a manager to walk in and get a fight with no giving up of pieces, making deals or tie-ups. It's strictly on merits.
"They say I have a piece of Emile Griffith, that I maneuvered him. Nobody maneuvered nobody. As far as a monopoly, everybody talks, but remember this. With all the investigations in boxing, I don't think anyone has ever been checked out more thoroughly than me, and I've never been before a grand jury or the district attorney. Oh yeah, in the last investigation I got called down for 20 minutes, then I left."
Brenner denied that he bets on fights. "That's bunk!" he exclaimed. "I don't bet on fights at all." Had he ever bet on fights? "No!" He leaned forward. "You know how this began, this betting business about me. When I first started, when I made a match, people would say 'What do you think?' I'd give an opinion. Then I'd hear, 'Teddy likes so and so.' A lot of that has gotten around. Or I am trying to convince a manager, and I'll say, 'Angelo, I think Pastrano has a chance to win this fight.' And he says, 'Aaahhh, I don't know.' And I'll say, 'I'll bet you a hat.' A hat! It's only an expression! You get used to people sniping at you in boxing. The first club I was matchmaker at, a little place in New Brunswick, N.J., an oldtime manager, Eddie Walker said, 'You're starting out in this business with the same enthusiasm I had. But if you stay in it long you will only be in it for one reason—revenge!' " In sum, said Brenner, all the Griffith talk was from "have-nots" airing their grievances.
At the weigh-in Saturday, Rodriguez said he felt great. "I will win easy," he said with a smile. Griffith was grim. He glowered at Rodriguez while they posed for photographers. "I'm here for business," he said. That night, the crowd of 8,000 was partial to Griffith, who entered the ring to tremendous cheers. Rodriguez, decked out in a flossy white robe with a cerise belt and blue velvet collar, got thunderous boos. He gave a deep bow. The first five rounds were comparatively dull. Griffith was the aggressor. He forced the fight as Rodriguez backpedaled. "Ya big fraidy cat bum!" a hoarse-voiced Griffith fan shouted. Rodriguez, although off to a slow start, still did enough work inside for the fight to be even at the end of five.