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CAMPING OUT WITH THE CHAMP

Nov. 07, 1966
Nov. 07, 1966

Table of Contents
Nov. 7, 1966

Yesterday
Painsville
Stoic's Guide
Camping Out
College Football
Golf
Motor Sports
Hunting
Harness Racing
Legend
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

CAMPING OUT WITH THE CHAMP

A onetime pennypincher, Middleweight Champion Emile Griffith has become boxing's classic soft touch and the prime support of his sisters, his cousins and his mama. Most often, though, he hides away in a flossy pad that belies the harsh realities of his trade

The wall-to-wall carpet in poinsettia red is what first strikes you when you enter the living room of Emile Griffith's apartment. Then the cupids decorating the wall and the delicate furniture: the twin French Provincial tufted couches, the spindly-legged end table supporting a pink Princess telephone. Go into the bedroom, and it is both different and the same. It begins with a $400 circular bed eight feet in diameter. The bed is dominated by a headboard that radiates toward the ceiling like a Renaissance crown. The style is parvenu modern, or, in the hip phrase, high camp. Everything was bought personally by Griffith, the middleweight champion of the world.

This is an article from the Nov. 7, 1966 issue Original Layout

Lady, a 6-month-old Doberman pinscher, whines from the bathroom. Don Achilles, a white poodle, barks from the kitchen. (Don recently had his hair shorn. Griffith, who did not care for the styling, spent three hours with a pair of shears carefully recasting his dog's image.) But Griffith does not notice the dogs. He is singing:

She brings out the tiger in me
And she makes me feel like a man.

It is one of several numbers Benny Benjamin has written for Griffith to use in a TV act.

Gil Clancy, the champion's co-manager, is also in the apartment, but he is less impressed with Griffith's singing than with the exigencies of the future. "You got to run over the weekend, remember," he says. Clancy once was known as "One Eye" in the tough Irish neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. where he was brought up. The one eye glistens. It incites Griffith.

"I'll run. I'll run. Don't worry about me, Clahncy," he says, his voice rising in pitch, the words running together in heightened calypso cadence. "But now I've got to practice my singing. The recording session's on Tuesday."

"I don't like it here. It's too quiet," says Gloria, Griffith's widowed 25-year-old sister. She is the second oldest of eight Griffith children, the mother of five children of her own, and she is visiting in the apartment.

"They're like steps," says Griffith in glee, his hand counting down the steps. "Eight years old, 7, 6, 4 and 3."

Quiet is hardly the word. Griffith is picking up the beat; his fingers snap as he resumes his voice practice. The dogs grow louder. In the background Lindsey Nelson's commentary on a Mets-Reds game coming from a color TV set is fighting a losing battle with two stereo speakers blaring out something that resembles the Tijuana Brass. As he sings, Griffith bobs and weaves around the room in a boogaloo dance step.

"My pad," as Griffith always calls his apartment, is just across the Hudson River from Manhattan in Weehawken, N.J., and when the wall-to-wall drawstring drapes are pulled open the Empire State Building seems to reach into the living room. It took Griffith five months and $10,000 to furnish the pad. Two closets are filled with tailor-made clothes and boxing equipment. Drawers are littered with unanswered letters, boxes of jewelry and haberdashery.

The day I visited him last June Griffith was dressed in hip-hugging plaid trousers, as mod as anything on Carnaby Street. He wore a $35 pair of black suede, ankle-high boots zippered up the sides, a heavy gold bracelet on one wrist and rings on his fingers. The fight that concerned Clancy—and apparently did not Griffith—was to be against Joey Archer. It was Griffith's first defense of his title, and few thought it was going to be easy. As a natural welterweight and, indeed, at the time still welterweight champion of the world, Griffith was giving away seven and a half pounds to Archer, a real cutie and a full-fledged middleweight. Griffith entered the ring of Madison Square Garden on July 13 a 13-to-10 underdog. He outmuscled and outpunched the favorite in five of the first six rounds. Then, as so often happens with Griffith, he seemed to lose interest as Archer came on, jabbing, in the late rounds. Griffith won a close decision that might have gone the other way had Archer started working harder earlier in the bout.

But after the fight Griffith was disdainful. "For a gentleman who wanted to fight me for the title," he said, "he should have gambled more."

Next week Archer gets a second chance to gamble when the two meet again at the Garden. Many of those who favored Archer the first time do so again. For all his obvious strength and speed, Griffith does not seem to like to fight, and rarely works any harder than he has to. The classic jabs of Archer, if employed throughout the fight, are expected by his backers to succeed this time where before they failed.

"This time," says the paradoxical Griffith, "maybe I don't get lazy at the end and beat him easier."

There are as many sides to Griffith, who at 28 has won a world boxing title four times, as there are gewgaws in his apartment. On one wall, for instance, above a love seat, is a large oil painting, in dainty shadings, of flowers in a vase. Only inches away are three reminders of the fighter he is. One is the Ring magazine belt awarded to him for outpointing Cuban Luis Rodriguez in 15 rounds to become the first to win the welterweight title three times. Another belt is for kayoing Benny (Kid) Paret in 13 rounds, the first time Griffith won the welterweight crown. A third one is for regaining that title from Paret in 12 rounds. Ten days after this last fight in 1962, Paret died. He never did regain consciousness. Long after the fight Griffith, who had beaten Paret brutally, saw his victim in nightmare dreams. Today he often shows visitors an album picture of himself and Paret in a friendly pose.

"See," said Griffith not long ago, "there is room for a fourth belt here, the one they owe me for beating Dick Tiger." Griffith's white teeth gleamed as though he could already see the middleweight-championship belt on the wall. He walked to the mirror, which is trimmed in gold leaf, and examined his reflection. It pleased him. "I like to walk the streets and have people recognize me," he said. "I like them to know who I am. I like who I am. Someday there will be a monument to me in the Virgin Islands, just as there is a park named for me in St. Thomas. You know, I was only the second person to be given the Medal of Honor from the Virgin Islands? The first man wrote the constitution."

Griffith is courteous, gentle and gregarious, "but he can be bitchy sometimes," says Clancy. "The slightest thing can set him off. We have some violent arguments which get to the point where we're shoving each other around, but 10 minutes later he's forgotten them."

"You'd make anybody mean, Clahncy, because you're a mean mahn," Griffith has screamed at his co-manager, who on several occasions has had to slap his fighter in the face between rounds to make him fight harder. Or he has become indignant with Howard Albert, the millinery manufacturer for whom he once worked and who, against Griffith's will, turned him from an errand boy into a fighter. "If my mommy wants money, give it to her. Let her live like a queen. You're always writing down numbers."

But Griffith is never at odds for long with the two men who took him out of a Harlem slum flat over a Chinese restaurant. It is only that he is volatile. "Don't try to understand me. You can't. I've been with Howard for 13 years, with Clahncy 10, and they can't. My mommy can't. I'm not a butterfly you can put a pin in and study," he says. "I'm still like a little baby, but I am a grown man," he adds, contributing further to the paradox.

"He is just beginning to mature," says Clancy, but Griffith's maturity is an in-and-out thing. He laughs easily. He cries easily. He enjoys people, but he is extremely moody. He is vengeful, yet penitent. He is unreliable about appointments but is impatient if he is kept waiting. He never complains about being hurt in the ring during a fight, but before every fight he will develop some mysterious pain.

"If it's not his ankle, it's his knee. If it's not his knee, it's his back," says Clancy. "Mainly it's his head. It's psychosomatic."

As far back as 1960, before the 23rd bout of his 58-bout career and two fights before he kayoed Paret for the title the first time, Griffith complained to Albert that he had torn his Achilles' tendon. "The fight went on as scheduled," says Clancy, "and I literally, I mean literally, carried him into the ring. All he did was knock out Willie Toweel in the eighth round."

In the ring, far from quitting, Griffith punches hardest and fastest after he has been hit and hurt. If he is hurt, he never confesses it between rounds. "It's like a business conference in the corner," says Clancy. As one friend explains him, Griffith wears his emotions as close to his skin as the swollen-bellied Buddha of gold-and-green jade that hangs around his neck. Beneath the skin is a muscled body that appears to have been sculptured from ebony. He has a 17-inch neck, 44-inch shoulders, a 42½-inch chest that tapers down to a 26-inch waist, tiny hands and small feet.

If Emile Griffith seems flighty or flouncy to outsiders, he is a bedrock of solidity for a fatherless family—a family that plagues him and bleeds him with demands that would crush almost any other man. They call him Junior, Sonny, Uncle and Poppy, and he embodies all these relationships for his mother, three brothers, four sisters, five nieces, in-laws and "loving cousins." for whom he is the sole support. At one time he has fed, clothed, housed and educated as many as 17 people while trying to create an identity of his own.

In addition, he is the godfather to several children who he estimates are not being given proper parental care in the rundown Chelsea section of Manhattan. It is there that the park department gym, at which he started and for sentiment's sake still trains, is located. The gym is run as an adjunct to the public baths, and Griffith himself functions as another public service to the neighborhood. Between fights, when he is not at his Weehawken pad watching TV or playing violent poker games with a few close friends, Griffith usually can be found playing handball, Softball or basketball in the outdoor playground across from the gym. He is the manager of two Little League teams, for which he supplies uniforms and equipment. He is a familiar face in the local candy stores, where he'll usually treat for an ice cream or soda. He is a kind of Pied Piper who keeps neighborhood kids from going on dope or to jail.

Recently he heard of a set of twins, a boy and girl 8 months old, who were being neglected by their white parents. Griffith knew the young couple were in difficulty and suggested he would watch out for the twins. He took them to the Hollis, N.Y. home where his family lives and had his mother care for them with her own children for four months. In early June the twins were returned to their parents. The next day Mrs. Griffith arrived at the slum apartment, picked up the children and took them back to live with her.

"She was lonely for the twins," said Griffith.

On that particular day, besides the twins, there were no fewer than 12 people and a large, loud German shepherd dog living in the 10½-room corner house Griffith bought for $40,000 in 1961.

Heading the clan is Emelda, the buxom mother, who is the wolf-howling cheerleader at all of her son's fights. She has a heart condition and at least twice has required medical attention at ringside. Gloria is the housekeeper, who cooks for the family. She came to visit for a weekend from the Bronx apartment Griffith had rented for her and is still there—with her five daughters. Griffith calls them "my babies."

Also still living at home are Joyce, 21; Antonio, 18; Guillermo, 15; and Karen, 13. Griffith's sister, Eleanor, 22, was married on July 25. "I got her an apartment in the Bronx, so she's gone," said Griffith. But if she's like the others, she'll be back. A cousin, Winston Wheatley, came from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands once for a weekend and stayed three years.

"I don't live there anymore because when I'm there they make me crazy," says Griffith. "When I come there they want me to leave, but when I go over to my own pad they all say they miss me."

They miss him especially when he's reaching the peak of his conditioning for an important fight and should have no distractions. Nevertheless, they call about the most inconsequential matters. "Don't I tell you not to bother me in training?" Griffith will shout into the phone. But they still insist upon telling him that the $2,000 worth of carpet just purchased doesn't fit. Or Joyce tells him Franklin just beat up Tony.

"Stinky used to call me," said Griffith, using his pet name for Joyce, "to tell me Franklin was wearing my clothes and she'd beat him up. He doesn't wear my clothes anymore since he got married and moved out. I'm glad."

Franklin is 23, the first of the family Griffith put into college. He went to Hampton Institute for two years. "I'm so proud of him," he said of Franklin in 1963 while training for the fight in which he regained the title from Rodriguez, "that if he were going to graduate the night of the fight I wouldn't be in the ring. I'd be at the college to see him get his diploma. That piece of paper is the most important thing in my life."

Most of the pieces of paper Emile gets from his family, however, are bills that he turns over to Howard Albert for payment. "We never give his mother any cash, just checks," said Albert. "Last year they mounted up big. I won't tell you how big. Of course, that doesn't figure the cash Emile throws them, $200 here, $300 there. Once we had to shut off the phone. They were running up bills of $400 a month."

"Maybe I give too much," said Griffith. "Maybe I'm a little nut, but I tell you, I love my family. I remember when they had nothing. The children have to be taken care of. The grown-ups, well, blood is thicker than water. Even if I'm bankrupt, it is better than having my family running the streets and getting into trouble."

With all of these expenses, Griffith is not nearly as well off as a fighter whose bouts have earned close to $1,000,000 should be. "If he ends up with a net of $55,000 a year," said Albert, "he breaks even." Griffith's net worth today is approximately $100,000. This includes $10,000 invested for him several years ago in a mutual fund, the house in Hollis and its furnishings as well as the furnishings of his apartment.

Sometimes it seems to be a race between Griffith and his mother to see who can spend money faster. He has more than 50 suits and eight tuxedoes. He owns five heavy 18-karat-gold bracelets, two of which spell out "Emile" in diamond chips. One is completely encircled with diamonds. He has more fancy sports jackets than he remembers, at least 25 pairs of shoes and at least two dozen sweaters. He drives a tan 1966 Lincoln Continental, complete with tape recorder, stereo and TV. "If I see somebody wearing the same suit I'm wearing," he says, "I take it off and never wear it again."

Emile Griffith was not always a spendthrift. Just three years ago he did not own a car because he thought fighters ought to save their money. "I decided to take care of myself," he said, explaining the sudden change. But there may be a deeper explanation that goes back to his youth in the Virgin Islands. His mother and father separated when he was 8 years old, his father going to New York to work as a mechanic and his mother to Puerto Rico as a cook. Except for brief argument-torn periods when Griffith was able to join them in New York, they were never together again. The father died in 1959.

As Griffith vaguely remembers it, things were pleasant enough when he boarded with his grandmother in St. Thomas for a year. "When my mommy would come to visit, I'd walk in and see her sitting there and I'd flip. I'd follow her around like a puppy dog." But his grandmother was taken sick, and at the age of 9 Griffith became a sort of Cinderella. He was passed to an aunt who had two children of her own. The four of them lived in a tiny house that overlooked Magens Bay. Griffith arose at 6 each morning, carried an oil drum down the side of the mountain for water, and then up the mountain again with the filled drum. He then escorted the children to school and finally made the long climb up the mountain again, where he was awarded breakfast.

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.

"If you don't hit the other party," says Griffith, "they'll hit you."

This most likely is a rationalization Griffith has created to explain the fight. The unnerving fact is that Griffith was out to teach Paret a lesson, and meant to beat him badly. Up from the sugarcane fields of Puerto Rico, Paret's sense of machismo (a word that approximates "masculinity" in Spanish) had been outraged after Griffith knocked him out in their first fight. At the weigh-in for their second fight Paret called Emile maricon, a Spanish slang word for homosexual. Griffith, who because of his gentle voice, his mannerisms and his flamboyant taste in clothes has always had to contend with innuendoes concerning himself, would have fought Paret right there beside the scales if Clancy had not held him back. Paret won that night, and then Griffith had six months in which to stew over the loss of his title and the insult.

A few days before their third fight Griffith himself brought up the slanderous whispers. "People tell my manager they see me with the wrong people," he said. "If I am stopped on the street and a person asks me a question, I answer him. I am polite. That does not mean I am with him. People say that I wear my pants too tight. How do they want me to wear my pants?"

The next time Griffith saw Paret was at the weigh-in. Paret called him maricon again, and again Clancy had to keep Griffith from starting a prefight fight. In the ring before the bout, one of Paret's handlers kept smirking and mouthing the word over and over again. "Why are you saying that?" a Griffith handler asked.

"I'm just trying to get my man ready," he was told.

Paret was ready enough. He knocked down Griffith in the sixth, but Griffith came back in the 12th, caught Paret on the ropes and did not stop punching until, with Paret senseless and still suspended with his head on the middle brace, Referee Ruby Goldstein stepped between the fighters.

Afterward in the dressing room, Griffith sobbed, "I wanted to kill him. I hated him so much for what he said."

Griffith has forgotten those words now, but he can no more forget that terrible day than he can give up leopard-cloth bedspreads, pink phones and gold bracelets. "You know where I got the idea for the bracelets?" he asked not long ago. "I saw one once on Benny's hand. It looked so nice there."

He nodded his head as though he hoped to shake away the recollection. "People have changed in their attitude toward me," said Griffith, who, after Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio, is only the third welterweight champion ever to win the middleweight title. "They accept me now, and the way I dress and the way I walk and the way I talk. I'm not going to change."

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