Part of it was in the way he left the ring. It was good, and it spoke of the night. The robe, the color of a boiled potato, hung over his shoulders, and all the women with that Town and Country look and the men, the ones with the big rings and the white-on-white shirts and the ones with the hanging bellies and old faces whose thoughts of boxing had been stolen by a distant time, looked long at Joey Archer as he passed down the ramp. They wanted to say something special, but didn't because it would have all come out like a high note on a bad horn. How do you tell a loser he was special—that he had brought magic to the night?
Archer was in the middle—the head tilted up, the eyes looking at nothing—when they moved down the ramp at Madison Square Garden, where Emile Griffith had just beaten Joey to keep the middleweight championship of the world. Freddy Brown, the trainer with an old boxing glove for a face, shuffled behind like a man searching for lost coins, and Jimmy Archer, the brother and manager, was out in front. They hit the tunnel, flattened out beside each other and moved through the darkness and quiet, the sounds from above now like a faraway El train. Nobody spoke, until finally Jimmy said: "Joey, dammit, you were good." Brown nodded oracularly, and then at the far end of the tunnel a fan, trying to climb over a saw-horse and a cop, sang: "Hey Joeeeeeey!" Archer smiled thinly, and the group turned into the dressing room.
There Archer sat on a table—his pale, thin legs dangling loosely and swinging—and held out his palms. When the tape was cut from his hands, he shot out his clenched fists in frustration and then let them flop to his thighs, bringing a wet smack from his drenched green trunks. "I thought, I really thought, I had it 9-6 easy," he said. "Yeah," said Jimmy, "you did everything you had to do." In a sense Archer had, for he and Griffith had put on a stirring show, and that's something in a ring these days. But in a sense he hadn't. Just ask the longshoremen from the Bronx, the Irish and all those who were Irish for a night.
They had come, the classicists and the tale spinners and the young ones who have listened to the legends of Irish fighters that have filtered down through a century, to see Joey Archer bring it back again last week in Madison Square Garden. It was Archer there in the ring, but there were ghosts beside him—Billy Conn, Mickey Walker, Jimmy Braddock—that kept reeling back the years. All of this, the crowd, the memories and Joey Archer, who is so beautifully typical of the fighters the Irish have sent out, made it an evening that hummed on in the soiled light of the Garden lobby, and finally died in those pungent old bars along Eighth and Third Avenues where they still talk about how Conn took Louis across 13 sweet rounds.
July 24, 1966
So the Irish—even the ones who thought boxing ended with Conn and Louis—came to see the past become the present, but Joey Archer, after seven months of inactivity and only three fights in the last year and a half, could not put his fight together over 15 rounds. For one thing, he made a tactical error. For another, Emile Griffith is a very good boxer who tends to fight about as hard as he has to, and on this night he was afraid of losing his title to a roar.
Griffith is a child, according to his co-manager Howie Albert. Before the Dick Tiger fight in April he was 16 years old, Albert says, but he grew older while training for Archer. Griffith was both hurt and worried about things that he imagined were happening before the fight. He thought Archer was receiving tall of the prefight attention. He became apprehensive that Archer's large and cacophonous following would influence the decision. It turned out to be a false concern—Archer's crowd, most of the 13,776 there, bellowed during the fight and grumbled after it, yet went down gracefully—but it goaded Griffith to the strong performance that he needed.
Archer, weighing 159½ to 152 for Griffith, who is a natural welter with toothpick legs and a light-heavyweight body, handled Griffith early in the fight. Griffith came out throwing punches, hard and often, but Archer, parrying and jabbing with his left in a classic style—he does not waste motion—did not catch much. However, as the fight progressed Griffith started to slip under the jab and come up with a right hand that had his head and massive shoulders behind it. He began moving Archer around just as easily as he had physically dominated the heavier Dick Tiger when he beat him for the middleweight title.
More significant, though, was the fact that Archer did nothing about this. Over 49 fights, of which he has now lost only three, Archer always controlled the direction of the action. His moves were quick and slick, his long left jab precise and constant. But against Griffith he was not as mobile. There was no pattern to his fight. He said later that he did this to confuse Griffith, but it was a tactic that cost him. Archer was staggered in the sixth round when Emile raked his fair, smooth face with a left-right combination, and he took a bad cut high over the bone of his right eye when Griffith accidentally butted him on the ropes in the eighth.
A destructive chunk of machinery when he wants to be, Griffith was all over Archer now, shooting both hands to the body and ramming up and through his taller opponent's guard. The Archer poise was fading. He was not thinking, and he has to think to win. Instead, he chose to trade with Griffith.
It was not until the 10th, his best round, that Archer put it all together. He spun off the ropes like a matador, his feet moved to music and his jab was always there. The crowd did not roar aimlessly now. But in the 11th Archer reverted to muscle—he does not have much—and Griffith rocked him with a solid right. Archer smartened up some after that, but it was too late.
Joey needed a big round in the 15th, but Griffith would not let him have it. Had he won it decisively, the Irish might have been able to build a solid case for Archer, especially in view of the scoring: one judge called it 9-5-1 for Griffith, the other had it 8-7 Griffith and the referee came up with a draw, 7-7-1. But now no one could grouse seriously about the result. Griffith, forever crowding Archer, had been swift and punishing.
Emile gave his band of Garden followers a Griffith that they had not seen in four years. He is a sensitive and gentle man who desperately needs to feel he belongs to his public, for which he has fought so often. But Griffith, who is also the welterweight champion, still thinks that he does not belong. "The public liked it, liked me, didn't they?" he asked after the fight, his eyes searching for conviction that this truth was truth.
As for Joey Archer, who can know what his smile hides? He had been waiting for this chance a long time. Every morning of every week that boxing dealt him to the back of the deck he ran through the emptiness of Van Cortlandt Park and how he must have wanted to shout, "Look, I'm still here! It's me! Joey Archer!" So he kept running, went to real-estate school, looked after his nine head of cattle in New Jersey and occasionally dropped into his brother's bar at 96th Street and Second Avenue to be reminded by the Irish regulars that being a fighter meant something.
The regulars were there at the bar after the fight last week, but Joey Archer wasn't. A crude bed-sheet sign covered the window, and it read: HI CHAMP! Inside, the table from which he was to give a speech was set up. The food on another long table lay untouched. They waited, the dock workers and the neighbors and friends, but Joey never came. Each time the door opened, the row of heads at the bar turned. Outside, the street was empty and quiet. Then a fire engine howled to a stop across the street and everybody ran to the window. It was a false alarm. "That must be Joey's disappointment burnin' up," said a long-shoreman.