Once again it was Mamma who knew best. "Didn't I tell you no Griffith ever lose twice?" Emelda Griffith was telling the world last week after her Emile beat Nino Benvenuti on a majority decision to regain the middleweight championship. "There's no better child in New York. He made out of good stuff. He not made out of wine. When Mamma speak he listen, and he hit him in the belly. Nino only had a gift. He had to return it back."
What's more, when Gil Clancy speak Griffith listen. Clancy, who is Griffith's co-manager and trainer, told Griffith before the fight: "Emile, I know you're tight and nervous, but do me a favor and fight a good first round. In any championship fight the guy only holds the title until the bell rings." During the fight Clancy told him a few other things, like "Hit him! What the hell are you looking at? Don't you go to sleep. You pay attention," To which Griffith replied, "Yes, sir." This is one way Clancy and Griffith win a lot more than they lose.
Furthermore, when Asdrubal Madsu, a soulful young man whom Griffith describes as his son and Clancy's spy, speak, Griffith may be unexpectedly moved to tears. "The day of the fight I couldn't sleep," Griffith said when it was all over. "I tried, but I was edgy, so I looked at TV all day. Cartoons, as usual. Then Madsu came in with the sneakers I was going to wear in the ring if it was really raining. 'Fight until you drop,' Madsu said. Tears came into my eyes. And I was ready. Tonight I felt like fighting for the first time since my...my accident. I hate talking about it."
He was referring to his third fight with Benny Paret, who died thereafter. Griffith was locked in a bathroom in the Sheraton-Tenney near LaGuardia Airport, holding a little drink in his right hand—his victory party was on the other side of the door; with the left hand Griffith was picking a hair from Benvenuti's chest out of his teeth. It had been that kind of a fight. "He actually was biting my ear in the ring," Griffith said, outraged. "Once he even pinched my butt and looked at me and laughed. I grabbed him by the throat...."
October 8, 1967
It must have been a left grab, because that was the hand that won for Griffith—a lot of left jabs and straight lefts. "I beat the guy with one hand," Griffith said. (This is not to imply that he neglected shots to the body. As Howard Albert, his other manager, kept yelling from the corner, "In the spaghetti, Emile.") Griffith did some jabbing in the first fight, but he was reaching with the jab instead of moving behind it, so that he was off balance; and since he kept coming at Benvenuti in a straight line, it was a simple matter for Benvenuti to step back from the jabs. Last week, as fog drifted through the ring in New York's Shea Stadium, Clancy had Griffith moving his head and shoulders as he advanced; that way Benvenuti could not predict the angle from which the jabs were coming and evade them. Clancy also made Griffith do what he calls "jabbing with your feet." By this, Clancy means that a tighter does not put his weight on his left foot when he jabs but, like a fencer, moves forward with his weight equally distributed. In this fashion he can keep pressing with the jab without losing his balance.
Still another innovation had Griffith leaning to the left as he jabbed instead of to the right, which is the natural tendency. By dipping to the left Griffith was not only able to reach Benvenuti with his jab, but he kept Nino from slipping it to the right. Clancy got Griffith to bend to the left by making him wear a patch over his left eye in training.
In a sense, the fight was over after the first round. Griffith did Clancy the favor and got off fast with his reconditioned jab and won it big. Benvenuti knew what was hitting him. What, to his subsequent sorrow, he did not know was what to do about it. Benvenuti needs room to fight, but when he backed off Griffith did not stand there looking menacingly at him, as was the case in the first fight, so Benvenuti could counter with his flashy uppercuts. He was where Benvenuti had just been, and Benvenuti had another jab in the mush. The first round had hardly started before he was cut inside the mouth. Later his nose began to bleed, and he was swallowing blood the rest of the night.
Although Benvenuti won five or six rounds and the referee bafflingly called it a draw, Griffith rarely relinquished control. He determined the pace and the nature of the fight, and Benvenuti was compelled to fight quite differently than he had intended, than is his manner. It was as though the fighters had exchanged roles—Griffith was playing Benvenuti's part and Benvenuti Griffith's. In the first fight Benvenuti exerted his will on Griffith and dominated the fight with his left hand while Griffith, frustrated, merely resorted to trying to knock him out. This time it was Benvenuti who crudely strove to get over a big punch.
It may be difficult to comprehend why prizefights so frequently follow this course, since it would seem that each round is, in effect, a different fight, and that a fighter of Benvenuti's experience and ability should simply be able to assume command at the beginning of a given round and to maintain it. One explanation is that a prizefight is preeminently a contest of wills, and its outcome is decided when one fighter, by this means or that, manages to impose his will upon the other. Once this subjection has taken place it almost invariably prevails for the remainder of the bout; in a very real sense, one fighter is in the other's thrall. In the fog at Shea, Griffith imposed his will on Benvenuti in the first round, and despite Griffith's characteristic lapses, particularly in several of the later rounds when, as Clancy put it, "Emile lost his meanness," Benvenuti had to lose.
Directly after the fight, Griffith was asked, "What next?" His reply: "Be champ." Benvenuti's future is, naturally, not as simple. The morning after he was visited in his New York hotel room by, of all people, Muhammad Ali.
"M-y-y-y friend," proclaimed Ali, entering. "Hey, man, you look fine. Just a few scrapes. That ain't nothing. I had them myself after a fight. Just enough marks to prove you earned the money. You in good shape."
"Then my appearance is misleading," Benvenuti said. "My spirit is tortured, and my chest is killing me—like devils with knives on the inside."
"Stay with it," Ali counseled. "Boxing needs you. You're like me—colorful. Remember, don't be discouraged. Don't think of quitting. You're too young to do that. Say, how old are you, Nino?"
"Twenty-nine," Benvenuti said.
"That's too early to look for your slippers," Ali said.
"Now I feel maybe it is not," said Benvenuti. "At this moment I feel old."
At the moment, Benvenuti looked it, but he had not entirely lost his self-esteem. "Yes, Griffith won," he said. "He was good, but he did not beat the real me. Griffith was a different man this time. He was a bold, mean, determined tighter. He was a devil in the ring. But he knew I was handicapped from the third round on. He would have never taken such chances otherwise."
Benvenuti was referring to the torn ligaments in his left side. "I did it to myself," he said. "I twisted back to throw a hook and I heard something go pop and then great pain. The rotation of the chest muscles for combinations was impossible because the movement made the pain come like a knife."
Of course, what this means is that we are going to have a third fight, presumably late this winter or early next spring in the new Madison Square Garden. Fortunately, there is no way the promotion can be worse than it was for the second fight, which, on account of the dismal weather—it can happen out of doors—was witnessed by only 21,376, or 3,000 more than could have been seated in the old, dry Garden—and every mother's son closer to the ring than at Shea. For apparently no other reasons than the preservation of the Jets' green grass and the Garden's green money, none but the working press sat alongside the ring. So-called ringside (at $30) was out in the boonies—the lower field boxes, which were over a city block away. From that perspective, Benvenuti's showy punches stood out, and many in the boxes thought he won. And, who knows, well he might have if, as planned, he had been again able to hear Beethoven's Ninth, which his host, Aldo DiBelardino, played on the tape deck of his Continental when he drove Benvenuti to the first fight and which so greatly inspired him (SI, Sept. 25). Alas, one of Mr. Di's sons inadvertently glommed the cartridge of the Ninth. Benvenuti asked for it en route to Shea, but all Mr. Di had was some Neapolitan mandolin selections, which, as you might well imagine, is not music to win by.