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Original Issue

Onward but downward

Five times a champion and still formidable at 36, Emile Griffith slips a rung against a young foe

It would be easy to say that Emile Griffith, eroded by time, has lost his usefulness as a fighter. It would be easy enough—but it also would be wrong.

Two weeks ago Griffith lost a fight in Madison Square Garden to a young, tough middleweight named Vito Antuofermo. He lost with honor and a fine right hand to the belly that was overlooked by the officials. But he didn't look tired or bad, nor, most of the time, did he look the 36 years that is his listed age.

This was Griffith's 99th pro fight, his 28th in the Garden and 25th main-event bout there, a record. In losing the battle, he moved down a notch in the traditional categories that make up boxing. There are champions and contenders, and there are hurdles. Now Griffith, for the next two or three years that he persists in fighting, will be considered a hurdle.

Applying this sports cliché, a hurdle is the prizefighter that a young man—Antuofermo is 22—has to clear before he can become a serious challenger for the title. Griffith rejects this labeling, of course; he still thinks of himself as a challenger.

He has had a flamboyant, exciting and tragic boxing career. Griffith never wanted to fight, though he got his baptism in his native city of Charlotte Amalie in the Virgin Islands, battling an array of youngsters who had offended his cousin. The cousin would line up 12 or 15 youngsters to do combat with Emile, and Emile would knock them off one at a time. When Griffith left the Islands in 1949 to join his mother in Harlem, his cousin prudently decided to leave, too.

In New York, Griffith went to work for a hat manufacturer named Howard Albert. His skill at turning out women's fancy creations led to a story that he was homosexual and Griffith had to fight that rumor along with his opponents in the ring. "I am a friendly man," he said not long ago. He says "mahn" for man, a vestige of his Virgin Islands upbringing. "When I stop on the street to talk to someone, I do not think about the mahn I talk to. I like people. So people may say bahd things about me, but they are wrong."

Griffith won world championships five times, twice as a middleweight and three times as a welterweight, and it is an unhappy circumstance that he fought in divisions usually overlooked in the general enthusiasm for heavyweights. He has posted 80 victories in the 16 years he has been a reluctant dragon. "I was perfectly happy working for Howie Albert in his hat shop," Griffith says. "I am not the violent type."

But Albert, once a fighter himself, saw Griffith working with his shirt off one afternoon and suggested that his powerful body made him a natural for the sport. Emile is an oversized middleweight from the waist up and an undersized lightweight below the waist. His spindly legs provide a precarious launching pad for the heavy shots he can deliver from the thick, muscled torso. "Howie entahed me in the Golden Gloves," Griffith says. "I did not really want to do it, but it worked out all right."

Griffith's mother did not want him to fight at first, either. Her name is Emelda and she has been to most of her son's bouts, always sitting near ringside in large and colorful hats and always yelling loudly for her son. "I was very worried abaht him for a long time," she says, "but now I have decided that he can take care of himself. So I do not worry so much."

She was at ringside in 1962 on the night Griffith suffered his most traumatic experience. He killed Benny Paret in the ring at Madison Square Garden, a tragic accident that many observers trace to the hesitation of Referee Ruby Goldstein. Paret had twice called Emile maricón at weigh-ins, maricón being Spanish for homosexual. Before the fight, Paret had patted Griffith on the bottom before using the epithet and only the intervention of Gil Clancy, Emile's co-manager, prevented the fight from taking place right in front of the scales.

In the ring, in the 12th round, Griffith trapped Paret on the ropes and battered him unmercifully. Paret, his arms hanging over the ropes, could not protect himself, and Goldstein, for some confused moments, did not stop the fight. When at last he stepped between the fighters, Paret slumped to the canvas, bleeding from the ears. One ringside viewer said, "They better call an ambulance." Another, more astute, said, "No, they better call a hearse."

Paret died, and with him died whatever small touch of viciousness might have animated Griffith. Now he tries not to think of what he calls "the accident," but the memory ravaged him for a long time.

"I would have nightmares about Paret," he says. "I would dream I met him on the street and I would say hello and he would put out his hand and I would take it and it would be cold and clammy." Griffith would wake up screaming.

After his loss to Antuofermo, someone asked Griffith why he had not followed up an early advantage. A minute into the first round he had hit the younger man with a solid right hand and opened a cut over his eye. Griffith considered his answer. "I guess I do not have the killer instinct," he said softly.

Before this fight, sitting in the tiny cubicle that is reserved for him in a grimy little gymnasium on 28th Street in New York, Griffith reflected on his long and remarkable career.

"I think I have got more mature," he said. "I used to swing wild when I was a young man—bing, bing, bing! Now I can do bing-bing-bing when I have to, but I place my punches more carefully. In all the fights I have had, I have tried to learn something from each opponent so that when I go into the next ring, I am more wise than I was."

He has no regrets, though much of the more than $2 million he has earned in the ring was spent on a large family and on friends, waifs and acquaintances who have sponged on him for years. "I wanted to be a baseball player," he says. "I was a very good catcher, you know. That of course was in baseball, you know. I am not a catcher in boxing. I am a hitter."

Griffith is a vain man, like most fighters. His mother made him have his picture taken before he started boxing so that she could later show him the damage done to him by being hit in the face. "That was when I was 15 or 16," he says, smiling and showing an unbroken row of very white teeth, "but I do not look so very different now, do I? And she would not sign my contract when Mr. Albert went into partnership with Mr. Gil Clahncy so I could fight as a professional. For six months she kept the contract in her hahn and would not sign it for fear I would be hurt. But finally I said to her, I said, 'Mommy, if you do not sign the contract I will sign it myself when I grow old enough,' and then she signed it, you know."

Griffith won the welterweight championship after only three years in the ring, and he was one of the best fighters in the world for a long time. His only defect as a boxer was a certain lack of attention to the job at hand. Time and again, even in his big matches, he would establish dominance over his opponent, then seem to lose interest.

"Mr. Clahncy is a mean mahn," he says. "But I think I needed a mean mahn. He used to hit me in the face during a fight to get my attention and I did naht like that, but it made me fight better." Griffith still fights coolly, displaying a competence that seems more than adequate—but a detachment that remains a handicap.

Antuofermo is from Bari, Italy, and has lived in the U.S. for six years. He is a good fighter, a bit reminiscent of Rocky Graziano, and while he came into this bout an underdog, he was a confident one. He stepped out swinging hard, and missing, and Emile tagged him with the short, hard right hand that opened the cut over his eye. It did not discourage Antuofermo at all.

He forced the fight all the way, disregarding the heavy right-hand upper-cuts landing below his heart time and again, swinging constantly and occasionally connecting to disturb the pattern of sweat beads outlining the bald spot on the top of Griffith's head.

After the fight Griffith sat quietly in his dressing room, swigging water from a polka-dotted ice bag. His face, which has none of the graffiti of forgotten punches marking most old boxers, was smooth and oddly peaceful. He thought he had won the fight, but he was not unduly disturbed that he had not.

"They don't count body punches, do they?" said Clancy. "He was hitting the kid all the time to the body and those blind so-and-sos didn't see it. He wins the fight. He wins the fight."

"Mommy, don't be so upset," Griffith said to his mother, who was sitting beside him and crying. "Here. You take this. You need it more than I do." He handed her the cold water bottle.

"I think you won the fight," a friend said to him. "I don't know how anyone could have scored it 8-2 for the other guy."

"Eight-two?" Griffith said. "Ain't no way I lose 8-2. He never hurt me. Look at my face, mahn. You see anything?" His face was cheerful. He looked like a winner.

"What now, Emile?" someone else asked, and Griffith smiled. He seemed, for no good reason, a happy man.

"Now I go back to work, mahn," he said. "I am not disgraced, am I? I was not tired ahfter this fight, I was strong. So, anyone who wants to fight me, I will fight. Emile Griffith is not finished, mahn."