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There also were punishments. "I did all the work, and if I was slow," said Griffith, "I would have to get down on my knees in front of my aunt and hold bricks over my head. She'd beat me with a strap until I'd bleed."
Griffith kept running away, and three times he asked to be taken into a Catholic orphanage but was rejected. "I heard they fed you and didn't beat you," he said. The fourth time he was taken in and stayed for four years until his mother sent for him to join her in New York's Harlem.
Harlem was hardly a picnic ground, but at least Griffith had his mommy. "She never hit me once in my life that I can remember," he said. Bright and quick, Griffith refused to run with the gangs in the streets, and at times he carried a six-inch knife to discourage gang recruiters. At Frederick Douglass Junior High School he became something of a teacher's favorite. "She put me in charge, and the tough guys would come after me after school. I didn't want to fight, but I had to show them they weren't so tough. When I saw their friends coming to help them, I'd run away."
Griffith never had any ambition to become a fighter. After junior high, he went to work as a movie usher for $19 a week, $16 of which he gave to his mother. "He was a man at 14," she says. At 15, pretending he was 16, he started work as an errand boy for Albert's millinery firm. Albert, who had fought as an amateur and had had 35 fights in the Army, was a boxing enthusiast. Each time he came into his shipping room and saw the breadth of Griffith's back and chest, his muscular arms and his feather-footed grace, Albert would tell himself, "This kid should be a fighter." Without asking Griffith, Albert signed his name to a Golden Gloves application as a subnovice for the amateur boxing tournament. "When he told me what he did," said Griffith, "I told him I didn't want it, but he was my boss and the girls working in the shop embarrassed me by telling me I was afraid to fight. I wanted to show them that I wasn't afraid."
At first Albert fixed up the rear end of his showroom as a makeshift gym for Griffith. Soon afterward he brought him to the 28th Street gym, where Clancy had to show him how to hold his hands. "For the first amateur fight all we had taught him was how to jab. Damned if he doesn't knock out his opponent with it," Clancy remembers.
In 1958, only a year after his first bout, Griffith won the New York City and Inter-City Golden Gloves championships. Less than three years later, in his 25th pro fight, he kayoed Paret for the welterweight title.
A mystic with eclectic religious beliefs—he is a Methodist who carries a Jewish mezuzah and has a small Catholic altar and rosary beads on the dresser in his bedroom—Griffith's serenity has not been enhanced by the bizarre coincidences that have surrounded some of his fights. Gloria's husband was killed in Harlem one night after a Griffith fight. Albert's father had a heart attack before the Florentino Fernandez fight, and before Griffith fought Dick Tiger the youngest of Clancy's six children became seriously ill. Three days before he fought Barry Allison his own father died. And two weeks after Paret died, Howard's 39-year-old wife, Irene, succumbed to chicken pox.
All these incidents had a profound effect on Griffith, but the worst of all was the death of Paret. It took Griffith months of suffering and soul-searching to relieve himself of the feeling of guilt. When he fought, Griffith said, "I would see Benny."
In Griffith's nightmares Paret would be walking toward him and Emile would say, "Hello, Kid, how are you?" and reach out his hand to shake Paret's. He would wake up in a cold sweat, remembering that Paret was dead.
He has fought 26 times since what he still calls "the accident." One of these was the second of his four fights with Rodriguez, who beat him for the title on a disputed decision in March 1963. Later that night in the same ring Sugar Ramos kayoed Davey Moore for the featherweight title, and Moore died. Griffith was back in his hotel room when he heard about Moore. "Dear God," he said to Clancy, "what next?" It was a tremendous comfort to him when he learned later that Mrs. Moore wrote a letter to Paret's widow, explaining that Griffith meant no more harm to Lucy Paret's husband than Ramos meant to Davey.