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."
June 21, 1964
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."
"You tell Emile's mother I have not come to fight with her," said Luis later with stiff dignity. "But tell her I will give her son a spanking. How does he feel today? I know that however he feels he cannot feel as confident as me."
However they felt, the Griffiths looked like winners when they showed up at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Friday night. Mrs. Griffith was still in lace but this time it was pink and it came from Saks Fifth Avenue ("Nothing but the best for the champion's mother at ringside," she explained). Emile, exuding aplomb, then came into the ring in a white twill robe with aquamarine velvet collar and cuffs. When he drew on flamingo-pink boxing gloves the effect was altogether startling. What happened in the fight, unfortunately, was not.
The action in the first round pretty much established what was going to develop in the next 14 rounds. Rodriguez opened more slowly than he had wanted to ("What am I to do?" he said mournfully afterward. "I am what I am"). But both men looked as if they were settling down to a long siege. Indeed, they were so perfectly balanced against one another that, like identical twins on a seesaw, any advantage one gained was soon offset by the other. Rodriguez, for example, would retreat in disorder at one point, only to rally and drive Griffith back where they had come from. Since neither man seemed able to seriously incapacitate the other, the fight, for all the vigorous pursuit both brought to it, was rather dull, and neither one ever seemed to be actually winning or losing.
When a prizefight reaches a standoff like this, particularly between two fighters whose very careers are standoffs, the participants do not always remember all the niceties. Consequently, this fight was as dirty as either man has ever fought. In the second round Griffith bammed his head against Rodriguez' right eyebrow, and though Emile swore it was an accident and said he was sorry, the blood that flowed down Luis' face was real enough and obviously disconcerted him. In the very next round, accordingly, Luis was so distracted that he drove a damaging low blow into Griffith's protective cup and drew a one-point penalty from the referee and judges. In the 10th round, to cite a more flagrant violation, Griffith clasped Rodriguez around the waist like an old friend and rapped him smartly on the chin three times before the referee broke them up.
"There were other times I caught myself," said Griffith later, admitting he had fought a little rougher than he liked to ("I'm not the kind to do it"). It was at times like this that Trainer Clancy swore and sputtered that Emile was too gentle. Clancy, who holds a master's degree in physical education ("Don't never keep your knees straight when you touch your toes," is a Clancyism), knows one does not win close fights by giving the other guy a break. "Fighting is a difficult business, I must tell you," Emile says. "You try to think for yourself what to do, you try to hear what they are shouting to you in the corner, and you try to keep the man in front of you from knocking out your teeth."
Sometimes both of the fighters were so wrapped up in their respective problems and thoughts that they did not hear the bells ending the rounds until they had exchanged one or two more good shots.
Neither Griffith nor Rodriguez had any doubt he had won the fight until the decision was announced. Griffith never supposed himself to be in any trouble whatsoever, and Rodriguez, who, by his own accounting, has never lost a fight, felt he had been had by the Las Vegas officials. "What is this thing that gives Griffith all our fights?" he asked plaintively in his dressing room. "Where does he get this good protection? Maybe I do not fight my best tonight, maybe I did not throw enough punches because I try to land the big punch to knock him out. But I win, I know I win all the time. Now they ask me do I fight him again. Why do I do that? Why? Already I know they will not let me win." Rodriguez, unable to sleep, then went and stood at the gambling tables until it was dawn.
Back at his own hotel, the winner and still champion eased himself into a tub of hot water and his mother made waves with her broad hand to relieve his stiffening shoulders. In his bedroom Emile's jubilant handlers were making pretentious remarks like, "Luis did not win a single round that Emile did not let him win," and, "Now we will take the middleweight title from Joey Giardello and let Luis have the welterweights all to himself." Through the door came a room-service waiter with a dish of vanilla ice cream. "Nice going, Mr. Griffith," he called out. "I just won $30 on you in the office pool."
"Luis' biggest mistake," said Emile, "was changing his style. He likes to stick and run and when he decided he was going to stand and fight I think he defeated himself a little. When he stood still I got into his body, and no man can take a lot of that. It just slows you up so much you lose all your bounce. But Luis, he's a nice guy, he really is. It's just he doesn't understand everything. He said he wants to fight me in my native Virgin Isles. Do you know he would not win even one round down there against me? Because I am so popular! I won a fight there once and the officials scored 11 rounds for me. That's something. It was only a 10-round fight."