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Shrinking Poppy's nonbout with a reluctant Tiger
Mark Kram
May 09, 1966
The middleweight title changed hands, but it was hard to pick a winner as Emile Griffith pedaled backward and Dick Tiger punched mostly air
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May 09, 1966

Shrinking Poppy's Nonbout With A Reluctant Tiger

The middleweight title changed hands, but it was hard to pick a winner as Emile Griffith pedaled backward and Dick Tiger punched mostly air

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Three miles from Grossinger's, that monument to conspicuous consumption, and in a setting that had all the economy and soft emptiness of an Andrew Wyeth painting, sat Candy MacFarlane—a quick, slick sparring partner—tapping out a bongo beat on a produce can. Pausing and pointing up to a room inside a farmhouse where Tiger was sleeping. Candy said: "He can move now, yeah. When he do move, you got to be out there. Way out, or...." Candy walloped the can with a right hand. Chickie Ferrara, Tiger's trainer, nodded and then said, smiling: "For what it's worth. A fighter must do two things. Be good to his mother and keep his tail off the floor. Who does them better than Tiger?"

What Ferrara appeared to be saying was what most of the prefight expertise eventually would decide: Dick Tiger, a dedicated (the mother bit) professional who had never been knocked down in 70 bouts, could not lose his middleweight title to Welterweight Champion Emile Griffith. Griffith—though just as decent to his mother and 13 other relatives besides—was considerably lighter than the Nigerian, and reputedly less indestructible. Yet last week in Madison Square Garden, Tiger did the opposite of what was expected of him. He lost his title to Griffith in a soporific fight that produced only two good rounds, and in so doing gave Griffith a chance to contest the legality of a preposterous New York State Athletic Commission law that declares "one man, one title." Afterward, a dejected Tiger said in his dressing room, "I am a stranger in this country. Once more they steal my title."

Tiger was not alone in his indignation. The press, which ruled (17-5) for Tiger in a poll prior to the official decision, relied on an old, unwritten boxing canon that the challenger must clearly take his title from the champion. This, obviously, Griffith did not do, but Tiger's defense was singularly spiritless. He looked devastating, but he was not; the savagery and intimidation of the old Tiger were not there. Unlike the Giardello fight, when he regained his title by using a sharp jab on the inside, Tiger did nothing positive; he merely reacted for 15 rounds, most of the time ineffectively, and did not "make" his fight. He proved, this time conclusively, that he cannot adjust to a boxer and that he still had not learned to "move," as Candy MacFarlane thought he had.

If the fight, which drew 14,934 spectators who were looking forward to a classic evening, was simply a nonfight, it did illustrate graphically that Griffith is not a limited fighter. When he cares, he can be very good. Three days before the fight Griffith turned to his cousin Bernard, who is also a handler, and said: "Bun-ard, I am a racehorse." He was. But most of all, Griffith, who has used his strength to manhandle the welterweight division, showed against Tiger that he alone—the subterranean Griffith which he never expresses—is responsible for his failure to approach the kind of greatness that he flashed in the eighth and ninth rounds.

Despite the pleading caterwaul of his mother, whom he calls Chubby Checkers, and Cousin Bun-ard at ringside, in the first seven rounds Griffith was doing as little as, if not less than, Tiger. He simply kept circling to his left, minimizing the power of Tiger's deadly left hook. The hook did catch Griffith in the fourth round, but it did no damage.

Then, in the eighth round, Griffith began to enliven the bass drum beat of the fight set by the plodding Tiger. He opened the action with a hook to the head and followed quickly with a right to the jaw. Tiger, a trifle wobbly, shook his head, then blinked his eyes as Emile scored another hard hook. Later Tiger caught a left-right combination and a solid right to the jaw. Tiger, it seemed, was dropping his guard and pulling his head away when Griffith threw his hook; the left side of his head was there.

Griffith continued the aggression in the ninth round. He began with a straight left, then pivoted back and chopped a right high on Tiger's left cheek. Tiger, for the first time in his career, dropped to one knee; although up immediately—and with his record still intact of never having had his posterior on the floor—lie was visibly stunned. A left-right-left combination almost sent Tiger down a second time, but he recovered before his knee touched the canvas.

It appeared now that it was just a matter of time, but in the 10th round Griffith seemed to become lost in that private world of his. A prizefight (theorizes Griffith's trainer and Co-Manager Gil Clancy) is a test of wills, and Emile had imposed his will on Tiger in the eighth and ninth rounds, but now, inexplicably, he was backing off and handing control of the fight back to Tiger.

Howie Albert, Griffith's other manager, suggested that Clancy slap Griffith in the face, as he had done in the first Benny Paret fight. "I rejected that, but I tried everything else," Clancy said later. "After the ninth I told him not to go wild but to keep up the pressure. I told him to throw not one hard punch, but combinations. Finally, in the 12th, I told Emile the fight was close, maybe even. I was screaming at him."

Griffith responded in the 13th, but by this time the 36-year-old Tiger was a whole man again and very much back in the fight. Tiger scored with a good hook in the 14th, and Griffith became cautious once again. The 15th was like most of the other rounds. Put a question mark by it.

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