A mood of genial graciousness pervaded the dialogue between Emile Griffith and Luis Rodriguez moments after they had fought for the world welter-weight championship one night last week in Las Vegas. Champion Griffith, in another split decision, had just retained his title, but both men fell into mutually profuse apologies for anything inflammatory they might have said or done before or during the fight. Rodriguez, for example, was sorry he had called Griffith a Black Bull, and Griffith was sorry he had taken offense and butted him. "We are both such good fighters," he said warmly now, "that both of us deserve to be champion. It's too bad we are fighting at the same time."
The observation was impressively apt. Few boxers are as considerate—outside of the ring—as Griffith and Rodriguez are, and rarely have two men been so evenly matched so often. That one of the judges of last week's fight did not know whom he had picked until his own votes had been tallied (see next page) gives an idea of just how even they are. This fight, in fact, was their fourth together, and though Griffith has now won three times, he has never won unanimously.
Luis Rodriguez, a Cuban living in Miami and managed by Angelo Dundee ( Cassius Clay's trainer), was, of course, bitterly disappointed that he lost the decision and concluded that he is somehow cursed. All the more so, he thought, because of the curious dream he had one night shortly after he had come to Las Vegas. Rodriguez is a highly religious man and reads daily from a large, three-inch-thick Bible he carries with him on trips. The Bible, in Spanish, is liberally illustrated with colorful paintings, and one of these shows King David in a military pose with sword and spear.
"I am sleeping and I hear the voice calling so quietly, 'Luis, Luis, listen to me,' " Rodriguez said, "and I look around me and I know it is King David from my Bible. He said to me, 'I will be in the ring with you and together we matadors, we will kill the Black Bull.' " Rodriguez, a frustrated actor, singer and musician ("Do I like to fight? Well, it is what I do best"), portrayed the role of King David with a flourish on a local television station. Emile Griffith, as might be expected, did not take kindly to Rodriguez' dream. "It is not a matter of race," Emile said, "for what is the difference in us? It is the word he used: kill, kill the Black Bull. Has he forgotten my accident with Benny Paret, may he rest in peace, or does he mean to taunt me? Well, the Bull is ready and will chase him wherever he runs to. He and King David will be in serious trouble when I catch them."
Apart from this exchange, however, neither fighter had much in the way of abuse for the other, and when reporters sought their opinions they both seemed hard pressed to come up with anything insulting. Rodriguez was far more content to pursue his training in peace. He sparred with Ernie (Indian Red) Lopez, a Ute from Utah, took a side trip to Hoover Dam one day and showed up at the Sands casino occasionally. But mostly he stayed in his room, dressed in blue pajamas, balefully watching television, eating steaks (four a day at $7 each) and chicken soup with lemon juice and waiting for sunset. When it was dark and cool he went to a horse racing track in Las Vegas and jogged around its mile-long perimeter, time and again. "Why do you run at night?" somebody asked him. "Because," he said with his infectious smile, "I fight at night."
Griffith, who does not have Rodriguez' composure, was very much in evidence at the Thunderbird Hotel, sitting beside the pool, occasionally rolling dice in the casino, or walking the halls for exercise. "I'm homesick—I do not like to be alone. I must have something to do, somebody to talk to, to occupy my thoughts," he said.
Two days before the fight Emile's mother (whom he calls Chubby Checker) arrived from New York to occupy and direct his thoughts. She came out to the pool in her traveling clothes—a blue lace suit she selected at Macy's Herald Square—and embraced her son. "Everybody sends love," said Mrs. Griffith, meaning the houseful of four sisters, three brothers, two cousins and five nieces whom Emile supports in New York, "and they all say to keep punching." "Thanks, darling," said Emile, and he unpeeled a Heath bar and bit off a mouthful of chocolate and toffee.
The rumor around town was that Griffith was having trouble making the 147-pound limit for welterweights, but it was not so. One day he and his trainer, Gil Clancy, walked through the Thunder-bird kitchen and down the hallway stacked with cartons of No. 10 cans to a storeroom depository of staples. There, secretly, Emile took off his clothes and stood upon the hotel's grocery scale. Both he and Clancy smiled broadly, and Emile dressed and went out to the lobby newsstand. "Let me have two more Heath bars, please," he said, "and charge it."
"This fight," said Emile back in his own room, "is dog-eat-dog, and I must remember to eat before Luis eats me. Because this fight is different from the other times we have fought for the championship. Some people think Luis was given the decision in Los Angeles a year ago last March. And some people think I was given the decision in New York last June when I won back the title [the decision was split and highly controversial, setting off whispers of a fix]. I know how people are always being suspicious about boxing, so I want to win in such a way that they will know I am the true champion."
"Where in the world have you been?" said Mrs. Griffith, storming in. She pulled off his shoes and tuned in his portable radio and gave it to him. The world's champion welterweight put the radio on the pillow beside his head and went to sleep. Outside the room Mrs. Griffith said please deliver a message to Mr. Luis Rodriguez. "Tell him Emile's mother is here. Tell him to watch out."