SI Vault
Milton Gross
November 07, 1966
A onetime pennypincher, Middleweight Champion Emile Griffith has become boxing's classic soft touch and the prime support of his sisters, his cousins and his mama. Most often, though, he hides away in a flossy pad that belies the harsh realities of his trade
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November 07, 1966

Camping Out With The Champ

A onetime pennypincher, Middleweight Champion Emile Griffith has become boxing's classic soft touch and the prime support of his sisters, his cousins and his mama. Most often, though, he hides away in a flossy pad that belies the harsh realities of his trade

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The day I visited him last June Griffith was dressed in hip-hugging plaid trousers, as mod as anything on Carnaby Street. He wore a $35 pair of black suede, ankle-high boots zippered up the sides, a heavy gold bracelet on one wrist and rings on his fingers. The fight that concerned Clancy—and apparently did not Griffith—was to be against Joey Archer. It was Griffith's first defense of his title, and few thought it was going to be easy. As a natural welterweight and, indeed, at the time still welterweight champion of the world, Griffith was giving away seven and a half pounds to Archer, a real cutie and a full-fledged middleweight. Griffith entered the ring of Madison Square Garden on July 13 a 13-to-10 underdog. He outmuscled and outpunched the favorite in five of the first six rounds. Then, as so often happens with Griffith, he seemed to lose interest as Archer came on, jabbing, in the late rounds. Griffith won a close decision that might have gone the other way had Archer started working harder earlier in the bout.

But after the fight Griffith was disdainful. "For a gentleman who wanted to fight me for the title," he said, "he should have gambled more."

Next week Archer gets a second chance to gamble when the two meet again at the Garden. Many of those who favored Archer the first time do so again. For all his obvious strength and speed, Griffith does not seem to like to fight, and rarely works any harder than he has to. The classic jabs of Archer, if employed throughout the fight, are expected by his backers to succeed this time where before they failed.

"This time," says the paradoxical Griffith, "maybe I don't get lazy at the end and beat him easier."

There are as many sides to Griffith, who at 28 has won a world boxing title four times, as there are gewgaws in his apartment. On one wall, for instance, above a love seat, is a large oil painting, in dainty shadings, of flowers in a vase. Only inches away are three reminders of the fighter he is. One is the Ring magazine belt awarded to him for outpointing Cuban Luis Rodriguez in 15 rounds to become the first to win the welterweight title three times. Another belt is for kayoing Benny (Kid) Paret in 13 rounds, the first time Griffith won the welterweight crown. A third one is for regaining that title from Paret in 12 rounds. Ten days after this last fight in 1962, Paret died. He never did regain consciousness. Long after the fight Griffith, who had beaten Paret brutally, saw his victim in nightmare dreams. Today he often shows visitors an album picture of himself and Paret in a friendly pose.

"See," said Griffith not long ago, "there is room for a fourth belt here, the one they owe me for beating Dick Tiger." Griffith's white teeth gleamed as though he could already see the middleweight-championship belt on the wall. He walked to the mirror, which is trimmed in gold leaf, and examined his reflection. It pleased him. "I like to walk the streets and have people recognize me," he said. "I like them to know who I am. I like who I am. Someday there will be a monument to me in the Virgin Islands, just as there is a park named for me in St. Thomas. You know, I was only the second person to be given the Medal of Honor from the Virgin Islands? The first man wrote the constitution."

Griffith is courteous, gentle and gregarious, "but he can be bitchy sometimes," says Clancy. "The slightest thing can set him off. We have some violent arguments which get to the point where we're shoving each other around, but 10 minutes later he's forgotten them."

"You'd make anybody mean, Clahncy, because you're a mean mahn," Griffith has screamed at his co-manager, who on several occasions has had to slap his fighter in the face between rounds to make him fight harder. Or he has become indignant with Howard Albert, the millinery manufacturer for whom he once worked and who, against Griffith's will, turned him from an errand boy into a fighter. "If my mommy wants money, give it to her. Let her live like a queen. You're always writing down numbers."

But Griffith is never at odds for long with the two men who took him out of a Harlem slum flat over a Chinese restaurant. It is only that he is volatile. "Don't try to understand me. You can't. I've been with Howard for 13 years, with Clahncy 10, and they can't. My mommy can't. I'm not a butterfly you can put a pin in and study," he says. "I'm still like a little baby, but I am a grown man," he adds, contributing further to the paradox.

"He is just beginning to mature," says Clancy, but Griffith's maturity is an in-and-out thing. He laughs easily. He cries easily. He enjoys people, but he is extremely moody. He is vengeful, yet penitent. He is unreliable about appointments but is impatient if he is kept waiting. He never complains about being hurt in the ring during a fight, but before every fight he will develop some mysterious pain.

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