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
May 08, 1966

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.

The crowd response to Griffith's victory was not negative, but one doubts whether it would have been negative if Tiger had won. Said one spectator who had a large bet on Tiger: "I had Tiger winning 10-4-1, but I'm not upset. It was that kind of fight."

The same could not be said for Tiger, who, though hurt and bewildered, desperately clung to his poised, austere manner, even as a tear rolled down his cheek. "I am glad you were here to see this awful thing." Tiger said in his dressing room as Chickie Ferrara's trembling hand held an ice pack to his left cheekbone. "The winner should have the decision, but tonight the winner was the loser," he said slowly, smacking each word. "In Nigeria, where I come from, it takes two fighters to make a fight. But here in America I see that the man who runs wins the fight." One of his handlers interrupted, saying: "Yeah, the house fighter has the title now. But I guess that's not unexpected." He was referring to the opinion in boxing circles that Griffith is a Garden fighter.

"Still," continued Tiger, "when I go home the people will not stop calling me onyeizi [champion]. The officials should give the privilege to the champion. He cannot lose the title, the challenger must come and take it away. But Griffith—he is a nice boy, and I am not angry at him—he ran. If I were to throw a lot of punches, then I would be hitting nothing but air. He did not want to fight. Yes, he hurt me, but I did not get hurt bad. My pride is the only hurt in me." Quietly, and in disbelief, he concluded his sad monologue: "They took my title away from me."

Later, when the room was nearly empty, Tiger, bending over one of his countrymen in a wheelchair, felt the real pain of his defeat.

"I lose everything," the man said. "I have nothing."

"I tried my best," said Tiger. "I know, but I have nothing," said the man. "Give me something, my friend."

Tiger just shook his head sadly and turned to walk away.

"You must have something for me," said the man. Tiger turned to the man and made a motion as though he were cutting his wrist with a razor blade, indicating that the man could take his blood.

"No," said the man.

"Here," said Tiger, picking up his pale-blue boxing trunks. Then, hesitating, he said, "No, I promised these to my tailor." He then gave him his boxing gloves, and the man wheeled out of the room.

"He lost everything?" said Tiger. "I have nothing, either." Spoken like a true landlord.

Tiger, to be certain, has considerably more than nothing. Though he often looks even less than pedestrian in his battered hat and long, fly-front coat, he is a sort of prosperous Rotarian in Nigeria. There he owns a cosmetics shop, which his wife runs, and a 2,000-seat theater, and he has the respect that a leading real estate man and landlord would have in such a country. He is a penurious, unemotional man, who trained for the Griffith fight in an atmosphere that reflected his personality. He could never understand why Griffith, who is fond of flamboyant frippery and dancing, trained amid the gaudiness and action of the Concord Hotel. Doubtless he would find it even more difficult to understand why Griffith has nothing more to show for his eight years of punishment than 14 well-housed, well-fed relatives.

"How many relatives are there really?" Griffith's mother was asked in the dressing room.

"Let's see," she said, pausing to count them on her fingers. "Foeteen! Poppy has foeteen relatives."

"Why do you call him Poppy?"

"Because, next to me, he is the head of the house, the house's poppy," she said.

At this point, Griffith, breaking away from reporters, jumped off the table and charged over to his mother and began stomping his feet and screaming. "This is my night, my night!" he yelled, and then he asked a friend to escort his mother out.

The night did belong to Griffith, but despite his words he was not certain of it. He knew he had once again failed to produce a sensational fight, failed to be the kind of Griffith boxing keeps expecting him to be but has not seen since he killed Paret in their third fight.

"I really wanted a sensational fight," said Emile. "I needed it to win the Hickok belt [the award for the best athlete of the year] and I want that beautiful belt so badly. I kept thinking about it and all those beautiful, shining stones before my eyes. Then I thought, 'I don't want to lose that belt because I was careless,' so I boxed him."

"It made me sick," said Gil Clancy, talking of how Emile let Tiger get away. "He just would not believe what he saw. I have almost, but not quite, captured Emile's mind. When I am able to do this completely, then he will believe the obvious—he is a great fighter."

True, Griffith admitted, Tiger's reputation, the stories of his enervating punch and his strength, eventually had an effect. Griffith did not believe them, but more and more they intruded upon his thinking. Even after he knocked Tiger down, even after he proved that he was the stronger of the two on the inside, Griffith refused to believe in himself. "I just wasn't sure," said Griffith.

"Do you think you ran from Tiger?" he was asked.

"I run from no man, how you like that!" he said, angrily walking away from the circle of reporters.

"Emile Griffith," pondered Howie Albert, "will always be 16 years old."

"If Howie say that, that's right," said Griffith, when the crowd had faded. "I have done nothing but fight. I have never had time to grow up. Hey! Where's my mommy? Where's Bun-ard?"

"You sent her out," someone said.

"Oh, that's right," he remembered.

Outside, his exiled mother, wearing a pink hat and a pink flower as big as an apple on a black dress, stood along with Bun-ard and 12 other beaming people—waiting for their Poppy, who has yet to blossom.

PHOTORARE TIGER RIGHT snaked over Griffith's parrying left to land on the new champ's chin.