Emile Griffith: Champagne On Ice
21.06.06 - BY RON LIPTON: It was about 11:30 AM Saturday morning and I kept looking out of my kitchen window for a green Lexus to be turning onto my block. Emile Griffith and his adopted son Luis had called me about 10:AM and told me that they were leaving Hempstead, NY and were on their way to my house.
Article posted on 20.06.2006
We had stayed friends since he was champion and although the years have dealt us some telling blows we always manage to get together for a reunion.
They had a friend who was driving them and they figured they would arrive around 11:30 AM, as per the Map Quest directions.
We had mutually agreed on the itinerary the night before as follows, we would go directly to a State Park nearby to take a 2 mile hike, up and down hills winding through a dense forest right near the Hudson River, and come back to my house for lunch..
There I planned to watch with him a special collection of his fights while sharing some of our personal fight memories together.
Being I have spent my whole life living and breathing professional boxing, that for me is as good as it gets, to have my old buddy to myself once again.
The 1960’s were my golden age of boxing and Emile was someone I adored as one of the superlative fighters of an era that meant so much to me.
The State Park in Staatsburg NY where I was taking him is where I have been everyday for 2 years, rain, snow or shine, doing my daily power walk of 2 miles up and down hills.
I have been fortunate to have seen the most beautiful wildlife indigenous to New York State in this particular park. A black bear galloping across a public lawn in broad daylight in mid July of last year, a pair of eagles fishing the shore of the river and always an unusual amount of friendly deer can be seen daily.
I even saw a solid looking coyote slinking along an open field and a barn owl flying with a tremendous black snake in its beak. It is a veritable cornucopia of a National Geographic wildlife buffet.
I hoped something good would show up during the hike to show the champ as we both really ended up as New York City kids used to pigeons and squirrels only, although he started out as being part of a tropical Virgin Island paradise.
The night before I called Griffith at home. Are we still on for tomorrow Emile? His one in a million recognizable voice replied, “It’s a date champ, I’ll be there Ron.”
His voice always sounds happy and content with the smallest kind of everyday joy between friends that most of us take for granted.
He calls me Champ,not to patronize me but as the most heartfelt affection he can possible bestow upon another person he cares about. He chose a word which defines his life, his indomitable will and his fiercely competitive spirit, “Champ.”
In all of boxing’s Valhalla, Emile Griffith deserves to be enshrined with that title among the greatest that ever gloved up. The use of the word “Champ” is freely given as Emile’s verbal gift of respect from him to someone who has known him since the 1960’s.
It is his way of showing true affection to someone who he knows truly loves him and loves boxing since we were kids.
Praise from the praiseworthy. It works too, because when I hear him say it, it is intoxicating coming from him and the memories it stirs.
It is a word that is written in stone to both of us.
It is who Emile Griffith was and is and to me forever will be. It is what we as young men aspired to be and could not, but he did. His warrior’s legacy came with a terrible price which he has paid for with his health and a battle with haunting memories
The title is what drove him on and on in the fistic factories that were the gyms we sweated and bled in, and that title was emblazoned in his inner heart like a crest on his shield that he carried into battle.
In Championship country rounds 10 through 15 is where the Iron Man shined. His title is what he fought to keep and no one was going to take it without a war they would never forget. His physical conditioning and training preparation produced a fighter who was nonpareil in appearance, consistency of excellence and showmanship.
If you could use the fictional teleporter from the movie “The Fly” staring Jeff Goldblum who played a genetic scientist named Seth Brundel you would have to combine some rather unique elements to come up with an Emile Griffith. The teleporter would meld the DNA of anything in one pod and transport it united as one being into the other.
In that pot pourri you would have to place into that scientific cauldron a man with the best physical and mental attributes of the strongest welterweights and middleweights of any era, possessed with endless stamina and a competitive mind set that knew no equal.
Take your pick of the greats and put them in that Seth Brundel teleporter and you get the the fistic phenomena that blazed through two of the toughest divisions in boxing.
Emile Griffith, the “Iron Man,” of the welterweight division, the undisputed Middleweight Champion of the World. One of the strongest, fluid, determined and fiery competitors that ever graced the prize ring.
The real king of the hill when there were only 8 champions turning back all comers.
During his reign as champion he never refused to spend time training me in the Solar gym or before that at Gleasons, always helping me, always laughing at my jokes, my dear buddy who now carries a soul cut and a burden like the Titan Atlas with the weight of the world on his wide shoulders.
I looked out the window and waited for him to show up and reflected on it all once again. For reasons well known to me I never allow my mind to drift to the usual Emile Griffith material. The ring death, the sexuality issue, the beating he took at the hands of vicious thugs with weapons in the early 90’s which left him crippled in agony for months, with a memory and spinal problem.
No. That is not ever what I think about concerning him.
I’ve read all the recent articles like Sports Illustrated’s “Shadow Boxer,” I saw Dan Klores’ fantastic documentary “Ring of Fire,” about 5 times and I certainly have always known it all from A-Z, but my mind is still always in another place concerning Emile.
It is always elsewhere because of what he meant to me way before all that other stuff happened.
I kept looking out my kitchen window toward the road as I waited for him to show up on this Saturday, May 20, 2006.
I used to wait for him to show up 43 years before at the Solar Gym and Bath House at the 28th street Gym in New York City, it was worth it then and I knew it would be worth it today.
Why? Because he always makes me happy when I see him because he is a good person, and I saw him do things no one else could do, so he will always be special to me.
His application of strength, courage, power, speed and skill against men who were boxing legends to me, made him the epitome of an athlete, the ultimate warrior in the eyes of a young boy who aspired to be a good fighter and have a build like him. He was the sterling example to emulate.
Plus he was always a class act in that ring. Always a gentleman, a good sport, always polite and respectful and always kicking ass and looking good doing it.
His fights with Dick Tiger, Bennie Briscoe, Joey Archer, Harry Scott, Benny Paret, Luis Rodriguez, Stan “Kitten” Hayward, Jose Stable, Gypsy Joe Harris, Florentino Fernandez, Jose Monon Gonzalez and so many others are a monument to his championship power and skill.
Who the hell could get in the ring with those men and beat them all. Just the thought of lacing up the gloves and getting in there with them and handling that kind of punishment always armed with the total confidence of winning, is a stunning achievement to me to this day. He even held the immortal middleweight champion Carlos Monzon to a hairline decision loss when Emile was well past his prime.
I know those names, and I know who they beat and I know how Emile beat them.
I could not believe how much I was looking forward to him arriving here. I felt like that young kid again who listened to everything he taught me.
I allowed my thoughts once again to end up at those exact fights, always ringside where I was looking up at the ring while watching him take on the toughest men in two divisions and beating them all. I never missed any of his fights if I could get there by car or plane.
I also know every Emile Griffith photo taken of him in the ring from all his fights. I know every article and magazine cover and I know every punch he threw that was available to see.
He was the swiftest of foot, the most precise body puncher, the best combination boxer puncher of them all. He always came in on time, in shape, the ultimate professional.
Emile always looked cool to me. It wasn’t just his tremendous shoulders and 27” waist.
Or the fact that his amazing back was so ripped, that not an ounce of fat had the colossal gall to be on him.
He took tremendous pride in his ring outfits, styled from Lonsdale, velvet robes, trunks, with dazzling color combinations that were unique back then in the mundane era of black trunks with a white stripe.
To pay homage to all of this I put together a very professionally edited DVD for him to see, with me imitating his every boxing move and with photos of pieces of nostalgia from the time we boxed together. I included a film I saved of us sparring from 1965.
I had the black and orange satin robe ready to show him that Gaspar Ortega made up for me when he worked at Izzy Zerling’s G&S sporting goods at 43 Essex Street in NY.
I wore it back in May 12, 1967 when I fought NJ welterweight champ Ricky Thomas at the West Orange Armory. Emile came to watch me fight that night. He came with Tony Galento and they wrote up his visit in the paper, so I saved the article and pictures from the fight to show him again.
I ended up refereeing with Gaspar’s son Mike, a fine gentleman like his father. Gaspar was someone who I always loved as a caring, kind, decent warrior of the highest skill and courage and I would visit him at G&S sporting goods where he worked in the 60’s.
I saved the mouthpiece that old Doc Brown made for me up in the Bronx.
Gil Clancy sent me right up there from the 28th Street Gym and Bath House to have it made. “Tell him Gil sent you,” he said, “The only other guys who have that mouthpiece are Emile and Paddy DeMarco, the former lightweight champ.” I saw Emile with it and I had to have it, triple thick made of three colors, brown, orange and black thick rubber.
I showed it to Emile and it is the exact one he is wearing on the cover of “The Ring Magazine” with that famous photo of him and Luis Rodriguez battling it out.
I had it all ready to show him again when he finally arrived. I allowed myself to think back a bit more before his car pulled into my driveway.
At the gym I would deliberately get there early. I would wait for him for hours to show up so I could watch him get put through his paces by Gil Clancy day after day.
I could kill time watching the great Johnny Persol, or be awestruck watching the bad boy Charlie “The Devil Green hit the heavy bag, but Emile was the star of the show and his entrance was worth waiting for, especially when he brought his white dogs on a leash into the gym.
All I wanted to do was box with him as I felt he was the best of them all. Between Tiger, Carter and Emile I felt all three were the best built fighters I had ever seen in person, picture, story or film bar none. From all three I learned much and their careers were inexorably linked.
I was 15 back then and my whole life was boxing going from gym to gym. In New York it was the Solar Gym and Gleasons, Mooksie’s in Newark, Sam McGee’s Ringside Gym in Orange NJ where Tony Galento still visited, Elizabeth where Tony Orlando Senior had a stable of guys I ended up fighting.
I took my lumps and was determined to get stronger and better. Emile always helped me. I watched him handle everyone in that gym, any weight and it was a college education in boxing watching him work by himself and with Gil, who he calls, “My favorite Irishman.”
I love talking to Gil’s daughter Kathy Burke one of the sweetest people in boxing, who reminds me of her dad with her boxing knowledge. I have many compliments from Gil Clancy on my refereeing taken live from the televised fights I did. I put them all on the DVD and Emile gets a kick out of seeing it. She loves Emile very much and grew up with the whole legend of him
He had a way of slipping shots, feinting with his torso that was poetry in motion. He always made you pay for a miss and was brutal in swap sessions. He was very accurate with his combinations and could break you in half with body shots. I loved his jab and it was his mainstay in all his fights.
In 1991 we had some fun together when I got him a job as the subject of a 3 hour interview with me on the set of “Muhammad Ali, The Whole Story,” where I was the Senior Boxing Consultant. The years flew past with all our lives changing in every category, yet we still stayed in touch. I had a visit from Emile at my home in April 2002, when I lived in Newburgh.
About two years ago I went with the great boxing historian Sal Rappa to the Long Island Crab House to visit the Veteran Boxers Association Ring #8. I sat next to the great Joe Miceli all night and Al Certo.
I refereed a few of Al’s guys like Willie Wise and others and we talked about those fights and an unusual article I wrote on Nick Acuri, a wonderful gentleman who happened to luck up and hand Joe Micelli his first pro loss.
Micelli, always a gentleman too, liked the story and I got a big kick out of being with him as I saw most all his fights on film that are available. When he read the story he ended up going to visit and stay with Nick and his wife, which was wonderful to know that I had helped that to happen.
Al Certo and I were talking about Joey Giardello and how I had testified for Joey one afternoon in Philly in his Federal Lawsuit against the makers of the “Hurricane” movie when they tried to degrade the old champ.
I was telling Al and Micelli how Joey G jumped up from the deposition table and started yelling at the lawyer who was grilling me relentlessly, and proceeded to challenge him to a fight, which was beautiful to see, crazy S.O.B. that I am. In the midst of this hot Giardello story, I happened to look up and glanced across the room from my table. .
All of a sudden I spotted Emile Griffith sitting in a corner all the way in the back by himself. No one was paying any attention to him. I could not help thinking that I saw this man fill the Garden, with Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Ray Robinson and every champ you can think of waiting for the bell to ring to see him go into action.
He seemed very tired that night and very weary from it all. People just passed him by without even acknowledging him. It was a sad thing for me to see.
When I see him, I am one of the few who always am fully aware to the bottom of my heart who he is, how great he is, and the love for him is always the same. The majesty of him as an athlete is not lost on me for one second as it is on others who are used to his presence or do not know who is .
Some only remember the Paret fight and none of the others. I remember all of them.
The great predator time steals it all, steals all the magic from all of us. Life hunts us down and throws one tragedy in front of us after another until only the shell remains.
Sometimes that is all that people see, the shell.
God let him shine once for a brief period in time and for that glory he has paid the price of having 112 professional fights, a long and arduous amateur career combined with the endless hours of punishment in training camp and in the gym, while in preparation for what Ali used to call, “Going into the Lion’s den and taking the meat out of his mouth.”
I still teach boxing at Marist College, a one credit course that I make into a one of a kind experience for my students. When I am done teaching them how to fight, I teach them boxing history, about the early days from the history of Booth fights in England all the way through Jack Johnson, Joe Louis up until today.
I teach them about Charley Burley, Holman Williams and George Benton, you know, the guys who never got a shot at the title, and about what can really happen in that ring with one punch too many or when a referee fouls up.
That brings me eventually to the doorstep of the tragedies with Jimmy Doyle and Ray Robinson, Sam Baroudi and Ezzard Charles, George Jones and Beathoven Scotland and of course to Emile and Benny.
I am dealing with a generation gap as wide as the Grand Canyon. It never fails to depress me when some of them do not know who Joe Louis was, or even Smoking Joe Frazier.
At those moments I feel like Jack Lemon did in the movie, “Save the Tiger.” Lemon played a clothing salesman who in the midst of a mid-life crisis picks up a 20 year old free spirited promiscuous girl and while lamenting his past, asks her if she knows anything about the famous names he mentions.
He rolls off the names off icons like Joe DiMaggio, Sugar Ray Robinson, Beau Jack, Archie Moore, Duke Ellington and others. The weed smoking young pickup stares at him as blankly as an empty headed doll.
His knowledge and appreciation of those people is at the highest level but Father Time is slowly robbing life of this passionate advocate of their greatness, leaving their legacy to be echoed hopefully by another kindred spirit or studied and passed on by someone who only came across it in research.
This quagmire of this dilemma becomes more like “Save the Saber tooth Tiger” from heading for the La Brea tar pits.
Only the other people back then that lived these magic moments seem to remember the way it really was.
Well that’s the way it is, and I finally accept that about my own mortality. As time goes by the heroes and the people that experienced them and revere them all get older, we fade away, no one cares, until the appreciation of a Dempsey, Louis, Gavilan, Robinson, Patterson or an Emile Griffith finally reaches a zenith once they are gone forever.
Yet while we are all still here, I wanted you to know a little bit more about Emile from another point of view that saw it up close. That’s the true job of anyone that was there, to tell others why it should be remembered, right?
Most young people would not really recognize Emile walking down the street except the real boxing fans, or at an autograph signing session at Canastota’s International Boxing Hall of Fame once a year in June where the 68 year old champ just came from.
Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted, all of a sudden the green car pulled into my driveway
Emile got out of the car slowly, he was wearing a black track suit and black sneakers and a black baseball cap. I watched him come toward me and I gave him a big hug. We got all the hellos out of the way and he rode with me the 8 miles to the park with my 32 year old son Brett.
We hiked the trails with Brett filming our whole time together. We were lucky and saw some deer too. On the way back up the final hill I made him stop and said, I want to show you something which is on the DVD I made for you. I proceeded to imitate his boxing style, and punch for punch his favorite combinations.
When he was done laughing with joy at how accurate it was, I asked him to duplicate them on film with me throwing the shots at the same time like we used to in the gym.
He wanted to be a good sport about it but said scolding me good naturedly but not wanting to refuse my ardent request, “Ron, it’s been a long time.”
Brett who was filming us said,”Emile just have fun with it and see how it goes.”
Well I got some dynamite footage of me the pupil showing the master how to slide in, slip a shot, hook to the body and head and finish with a right hand.
He scolded himself, “Griffith, C’mon now, get it right.” I stopped him in mid stream with my arms around him and said, Emile, you taught me this in the gym when I was 15 years old, do you know how much fun I am having right now with you letting me show you how to do it again, it’s worth a million bucks to me and I will write you the check and sign it later.”
He howled with laughter and he tried it again, this time it flowed like the old days. It was so beautiful I cannot tell you what it meant to a guy like me.
We drove home and watched all the fights on tape, him against Rodriguez, against Tiger and Jose Stable, Kitten Hayward and others. We ordered some decadent Pizza with everything on it which we never would have during training and before we knew what time it was, it was time for him to leave.
I went out onto my lawn and said, before I say goodbye, I want to see you square off with me and say to me what you used to say in the gym when I tagged you a good shot.
“What’s that,” he asked with a delightful quizzical look on his rugged face, Well when you got pissed off in the ring, you would bang your gloves together and say hissing through your mouthpiece, and I then imitated him, “LET’S GO” in his high pitched sing song Virgin Island angry voice.
Well Griffith laughs so hard now, tears are coming down his face, and I am pleading with him, C’mon Emile, show me the fight face just one time to bring back the memory for me.
He relents and says, “Ok, but NO punches PLEASE,” now Brett is filming this and I say, ok no punches, but don’t have any Dick Tiger flashbacks on me either mother…er.”
Now I have to wait another 2 minutes until he stops laughing and finally we square off.
I try some of my moves on him and all of a sudden, with all his injuries, and with father time tapping us both a little too hard, he lets the old brilliance shine through for a second.
He parries some shots, the look comes back into his eyes and we are boxing for about 30 seconds while he is moving like he used to.
All I can say is, the sight of it, looking up close into his face like I used to in the ring was like a gift from God to me. I am feeling kind of old these days, and this was like a shot of a Ponce De Leon cocktail of happiness and youth lighting up my soul with joy to experience this with him one more time.
We stopped, started laughing and I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek goodbye.
I said, “Thank you champ for everything and remember this, my eyes see you as you were when you were champ, every time I see you. Never forget that EVER!
His kind eyes welled up a little bit and he said thank you from the bottom of his soul.
I waved to him as he pulled out of the driveway. I was choked from it all. As I walked back to the house, I felt a hand on my shoulder, it was my beloved son who understands me more than anyone in the world.
“How do you feel pop, you ok?” Yes, I said, I’m fine. “Seriously Dad, what was it like doing that with him, seeing him like that again.” I stopped and the only thing I could answer was, “It was like Champagne on Ice.”
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