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Emile Griffith: The Gentle Champion

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griffith2When I heard Tuesday morning that Emile Griffith had passed away, I was both sad and happy, but not shocked. I was sad because we in boxing were losing a great individual. Yes, GREAT. In every way he was great. He was a great friend…A great person…A great trainer…A great fighter…A great ambassador for the sport of boxing. I was happy because he is now free from the pain, the discomfort, the disorientation and the loneliness he was in for much of the past few years.

I first saw Emile on March 11, 1960. It was also the first time I saw his opponent, Denny Moyer. That’s because it was the first time I watched boxing. Griffith was fighting Moyer on TV’s “Friday Night Fights.” Emile was 22. Moyer was 20. Each had lost only one fight going into the bout. After 10 rounds, Griffith had picked up a split decision. Boxing had picked up a new fan.

I followed Emile from that moment. I was “in his corner” through title wins and his title losses. I was “in his corner” that fateful night against Benny “Kid” Paret and I was “in his corner” as a fan for the rest of his career. Never did I imagine how much Emile and his manager/trainer—Gil Clancy—would be in my corner—as close friends—just a few years down the road.

Griffith was the first big-name fighter I met—and interviewed—when first became a boxing writer. When I walked into Clancy’s gym and saw the 34-year-old, still chiseled former champion, I was nervous. Even “The Giller,” who would become my guru, my teacher, made me nervous.

When I was introduced to Emile, I shook his hand. Surprisingly, he didn’t grab my hand in a vice-like grip and try to crush it, as I had imagined. It was quite the opposite. And his mannerisms and demeanor were far from the fighting machine I had watched so many times on television.

As we began the interview, I admitted to him that I was nervous. He laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked him.

“I’m nervous, too,” he said.

“Why would you be nervous?” I wanted to know. “You have fought some legendary fighters in front of tens of thousands of people and in front of millions watching on television. Why would an interview with me make you nervous?”

“Because I sometimes talk very fast,” Emile said, “and with my accent—I am from the Virgin Islands as you might know—it sometimes is hard for people to understand me.”

Then he asked, “Why are you nervous?”

“I just started working for a publisher who has been around boxing forever. He hung around with Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore and a whole lot more. My future as a boxing writer just may rest on how good my interview with you is.”

“Well, then,” said Emile. “Let’s both relax and have a great time.”

We did. And from that moment, we were friends. Obviously, the interview went very well.

In 1983, I was now the Editor-in-Chief of The Ring and the boxing analyst for the USA Network. After receiving a call from two friends who had just signed a 6’4”, 235-pound heavyweight from North Carolina who needed a trainer, I called Emile. He had been retired from competitive action for around five years, but was working with lots of fighters in the gym. I asked if he’d take a look at the heavyweight, who had a 6-1 record.

“Sure, Randy, I’ll do that. But tell your friends I won’t promise them anything. If I think he can’t fight, I will say so.”

A few days later, we walked through the door of the gym in the late morning. The sun was shining on the heavyweight like a spotlight. Emile was standing near the door when we walked in. He looked at me, then he gazed up at the heavyweight.

“Oh my sweet Lord! Look what you’ve brought to me!” exclaimed Emile. “I didn’t expect anything like this.”

“What did you expect?” I asked him.

“Not this!” he said. He walked up to the heavyweight and introduced himself, extending his hand.

“Hello, I’m Emile Griffith,” said the former welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight titleholder.

“Hello, I’m James Smith,” said the future heavyweight champion of the world, his hand engulfing Emile’s, who looked down to see if his right hand was still there.

“He’s called ‘Bonecrusher,’” I told Emile.

“I can see why!” said Emile.

Then he looked up at “Bonecrusher” and asked, “Did you bring your gear? Are you ready to work, big fella’?”

“I did, and I am,” Smith told him.

After working out Smith for a little under one hour, Emile walked over to me and said, “He can be heavyweight champion if he is dedicated. He punches harder than anybody I have ever held mitts for.”

A little over three-and-one-half years later, Emile was holding the mitts for Smith in a dressing room at Madison Square Garden. Two weeks earlier, he was called by promoter Don King to sub for injured Tony Tubbs as the challenger to WBA Heavyweight Champion Tim Witherspoon. Emile had trained and guided Smith to three victories in a row that year—against Mike Weaver, Jesse Ferguson and David Bey—and now it was time to live up to the name “Bonecrusher.”

In the dressing room, I watched as Emile put on the punch mitts and got his fighter warmed up. Soon, as the pair were still working on the mitts, a member of the New York State Athletic Commission entered the dressing room, along with an MSG official and someone from HBO. It was time to enter the ring. Emile held the mitts up one more time.

“Who are you gonna’ be tonight?” asked Emile. “ Are you gonna’ be James Smith or are you going to be ‘Bonecrusher?’”

“Tonight I am ‘Bonecrusher,’” said the challenger.

“I don’t hear you!” shouted Emile. “Who are you?”

“BONECRUSHER!”

“Show me!” snapped Emile. He held his right mitt up.

With his hands held high, Smith launched a straight right, thrown from the side of his cheek, turning the punch over, palm down, as his did so. The punch traveled only the length of Smith’s muscular right arm. It slammed into the heavily padded punch mitt. The force of the blow not only knocked Emile backwards, but sent him crashing into a wall. Years later, Emile told me it was the hardest punch he had ever seen or felt.

That night, Emile became the trainer of the heavyweight champion of the world. “Bonecrusher” Smith, in his greatest victory, knocked out defending champion Tim Witherspoon in the first round.

“I think about that fight, I think about that night a lot,” Emile said when I took him out to eat with referee Wayne Kelly, in 2011, only a few months before Kelly’s untimely death from a stroke. “I loved training those guys.”

Through his fighting days, right up until he was hospitalized a few years ago, Emile attended dinners and charity functions on a regular basis. He endlessly signed books, autographs, gloves and photos, never asking to be paid, when he could have and should have. He took photo after photo, always with a smile.

For Emile, the beginning of the end came about 20 years ago, when he was mugged and beaten senseless by a group of thugs after leaving a bar. The beating left him first, in a coma, then in a trance-like state.

Through the efforts of his adoptive son, Luis Rodrigo Griffith and Ring 8, Emile was place in a medical center in Hempstead, Long Island, New York,, where he lived for the last few years. On Monday night, July 22, 2013, Emile Griffith left us.

As he hits those Pearly Gates, he is going to see so many friends. I’m sure his mom will be there to greet him, as will Wayne Kelly, Luis Rodriguez, co-manager Howie Albert, cutman Bernard Forbes, Syd Martin, John F.X. Condon, Don Dunphy, Nat Fleischer, Bert Sugar, Dick Young, Red Smith, Johnny Addie, Bob Waters, Al Gavin, Carlos Monzon and Bennie Briscoe. Irving Rudd will be there to handle his publicity. No doubt Benny “Kid” Paret will also be there, embracing him, telling him there’s no hard feelings.

And there’s “The Giller,” with that raspy voice, yelling at him, “Emile, come on, we’ve got work to do. Henry Armstrong has challenged you.”

The late, great sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon, once wrote these words about Joe Louis. I feel it appropriate to use them now and change the name. I’m sure Cannon and Louis will smile down and appreciate who they are being used for:

“Emile Griffith was a credit to his race—the human race.”

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 105: Angry Welterweights and More

David A. Avila

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Those welterweights don’t play.

One welterweight just got out of jail and wants to take out his angry frustrations in the boxing ring.

“One of us is getting knocked out. If it gets to where I’m behind on points, I’m just going to come forward and try to take him out, even if I end up getting knocked out,” said Juan Carlos Abreu. ““If he stands and fights, it’s better for me. That’s what I want.”

Standing in front of Abreu (23-5-1) will be one of the top welterweights in America, Philadelphia’s Jaron Ennis (25-0, 23 KOs). This is could be Ennis’ first true test against an experienced foe on Saturday Sept. 19, at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Showtime will televise the Premier Boxing Champions card.

Ennis, 23, has been breezing easily since first jumping in the prize ring in April 2016. So far, the competition has been unable to cope with the athleticism he possesses. Will Abreu be the first to pose a problem?

“Whatever he brings, we are going to be ready. I’m going to go out there, do my thing, be smart, have my fun, and get that stoppage at the end of the night,” said Ennis, whose last opponent Bakhtiyar Eyubov was eliminated in four rounds in January. “You can’t just go in there and go for the knockout. That’s how you get tired and lose your cool or even get hit with punches that you shouldn’t be getting hit with.”

Abreu hopes he loses his cool.

“If he stands and fights, it’s better for me. That’s what I want. I really want one of us to get knocked out,” says Abreu of the Dominican Republic who was purportedly jailed for street fighting.

This welterweight matchup is the precursor to the WBC super welterweight eliminator between Terrell Gausha (21-1-1, 10 KOs) and Erickson Lubin (22-1, 16 KOs).

Gausha and Lubin both have lost once in their pro careers and need a win to get another crack at a world title.

Gausha lost a decision to Erislandy Lara three years ago. Lubin was stopped in one round by Jermell Charlo three years ago. Both realize the nature of the beast.

“I think Gausha has some problems with southpaws, but I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on my game plan and coming out victorious Saturday night,” said Lubin, 24, a southpaw called “the Hammer” for a reason.

Gausha is originally from Cleveland, Ohio but trains in Southern California and has fought four elite southpaws in his career. He believes one more is not a problem.

“This will be my fourth southpaw in a row. So, I’m more comfortable and familiar this time around,” said Gausha, 33, a former US Olympian who trains with Manny Robles Jr. “The guys before me, they all fought each other. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran. They all fought each other. To be the best, you have to beat the best. And you can see that the fights I take, even after a long layoff, they are tough fights.”

Top Rank

Also, on Saturday Sept. 19, heavyweights and super lightweights lead a Top Rank card featuring some interesting bouts that will be shown on ESPN+.

Newly acquired Efe Ajagba (13-0,11 KOs) meets Jonnie Rice (13-5-1) in a 10-round heavyweight clash. It’s Nigeria’s Ajagba’s second fight this year. Though still a little raw he shows immense potential and great natural strength.

Rice fights out of Bones Adams’ Gym in Las Vegas and has some power. He built up his record on heavyweights in Tijuana boxing rings but has some pop. He’s a sizeable heavyweight and good measuring stick for Ajagba.

The main event is a doozy.

Puerto Rico’s Jose “The Sniper” Pedraza (27-3, 13 KOs) meets Southern California’s Javier Molina (22-2, 9 KOs) in a 10-round super lightweight bout at the MGM Grand Bubble in Las Vegas.

This should be good.

Pedraza, 31, is a former WBO lightweight world titlist who lost in his first defense to Vasyl Lomachenko. Nothing bad about that. He defeated Mexico’s Raymundo Beltran for the belt and has shown a penchant for showing up big when you least expect it.

Molina, 30, is a 2008 US Olympian and a member of the fighting Molina family. His brother Oscar was a member of Mexico’s 2012 Olympic team. His other brother Carlos fought for the world title against Amir Khan. Though Javier Molina has never shown great power, he can truly fight.  His last win came against Amir Imam this past February.

Pending Lightweight Clash

Speaking of the lightweight division, is anyone else as excited as me about the looming showdown between the remarkable Vasyl Lomachenko and impressive Teofimo Lopez coming in less than a month?

Lomachenko, 32, the Ukrainian stylist known as “Hi Tech,” has that incredible footwork and ability to control distance. He’s a master of frustrating opponents and imposing his style of darting in and out of danger. But as good as he is, he can’t sell tickets. Only hardcore fans appreciate his peerless boxing skills.

Lopez, 23, hails from Brooklyn and has that ex-factor you can’t teach. He’s pizzazz and panache with a punch. That combination of flair and power excites fans and seemingly makes him a natural gate attraction. But in spite of his electric abilities, he’s facing a master boxer. Is he ready?

Top Rank is known for having a team of matchmakers headed by boxing wizard Bruce Trampler. It makes me wonder why they are pitting these two against each other?

The probable answer: neither sells out an arena alone. May the best man win.

A friend of mine from East L.A., who formerly boxed and comes from a boxing family, shared his knowledge and opinion on the matchup. He has an interesting take.

“His footwork is incredible,” said George Rodriguez about Lomachenko. “Don’t get me wrong, Teofimo is an incredible talent, but Lomachenko has that footwork.”

Any way you look at it, the winner of this clash clearly bumps up his own image.

Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs) versus Lopez (15-0, 12 KOs) at the MGM Grand Bubble in Las Vegas on October 17. Mark down that date. It will be televised on ESPN.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Sept. 26 Horn of Plenty and Other Notes

Arne K. Lang

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Considering the constraints, the month of September has been a pretty good month for professional boxing. And the month will close with a flourish. Eight world title-holders will be in action on the 26th, the last Saturday of the month.

Five of the belt-holders will appear on the SHOWTIME PPV doubleheader featuring the Charlo twins. The most intriguing fight on that card finds Jermall Charlo risking his belt and his undefeated record against rugged Sergiy Deveryanchenko. At last glance, Jermall was a consensus 17/10 (minus-170) favorite. In baseball, a 17/10 favorite is a heavy favorite. In boxing, not so. A serious handicapper who wouldn’t think of laying 17/10 in a baseball game would have no hesitation about laying these odds in a boxing match.

When Deveryanchenko steps into the ring, 51 weeks will have elapsed since his last fight, his bruising tiff with Gennadiy Golovkin. Jermall Charlo hasn’t been on the shelf for quite that long, having last fought in December.

A more interesting match on this particular Saturday, at least in the eyes of this reporter, will unfold earlier that day in Munich when the curtain finally comes down on Season 2 of the long-drawn-out World Boxing Super Series. Two titles will be on the line when Mairis Briedis (26-1, 19 KOs) meets Yuniel Dorticos (24-1, 22 KOs).

Briedis’ lone defeat came at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk in a very competitive fight. Briedis won five rounds on two of the cards and won six rounds on the other. Dorticos’ lone defeat came on enemy turf in Sochi, Russia when he was stopped with eight seconds remaining in a doozy of a fight with Murat Gassiev.

Forget the titles; titles are a dime a dozen. These two guys are plainly the two best cruiserweights on the planet.

“The tickets are flying out the door and we expect to sell out within hours, if not days,” said co-promoter Kalle Sauerland at a pre-fight press conference.

That assertion was made way back on January 22 when the fight, originally targeted for late December of last year, was headed to Riga, Latvia, on March 21. That date didn’t work, nor did the re-scheduled date of May 16, and ultimately Riga didn’t work either.

Whatever tickets were sold, had to be refunded. There will be no fans in attendance when Briedis and Dorticos finally lock horns on Sept. 26 at a TV studio in Munich. The fight will air on DAZN in the U.S.

“Rest makes rust” was an often-heard caution when big gamblers of yesteryear dissected a boxing match. The late, great pricemaker Herb Lambeck reflexively shied away from boxers that had been inactive for a considerable period of time. For him, the Briedis-Dorticos match would likely be a head-scratcher. Both combatants have been inactive since June 15 of last year when they appeared in separate bouts on the same card in Riga, Briedis’s hometown. And they aren’t getting any younger. Briedis is 34 and Dorticos is 35.

The odds got nicked down somewhat when the site shifted from Riga with fans to Munich without, predictably so as Briedis, the first fighter from Latvia to win a world title, has an avid local following.

Briedis, the superior boxer, is a consensus 9/5 favorite. That seems a shade high as he won’t be able to feed off the crowd – there won’t be a crowd – and Dorticos, the Cuban KO Doctor, has a better chance of ending the fight with one punch. It wouldn’t be shocking if the fight followed a similar tack as the recent fight between Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin.

In case you missed it, Whyte was dominating his Russian adversary when things changed in a flash in the fifth round. Out of nowhere, Povetkin, the underdog, unleashed a picture-perfect uppercut that left Whyte flat on his back, unconscious before he hit the canvas. There have been other smashing one-punch knockouts this year – Ryan Garcia’s demolition of Francisco Fonseca comes quickly to mind – and there may be a few more, but it’s hard to visualize anyone topping Povetkin in the voting for Knockout of the Year.

By the way, if he wins it, Povetkin, 41, would be the second-oldest boxer to score the Knockout of the Year. George Foreman was 45 when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994. The source is The Ring magazine which has been issuing this award since 1989.

And if you happen to know the youngest fighter to score The Ring Knockout of the Year, then you’re pretty sharp. No, it’s not baby-faced Naoya Inoue, who is older (27) than he looks. The honor goes to the long-forgotten African-American/Filipino southpaw Morris East who was 19 when he knocked out defending WBA 140-pound champion Akinobu Hironaka in 1992.

In a rarity, it didn’t take long for Alexander Povetkin and Dillian Whyte to agree on a rematch. They will meet again on Nov. 21. The venue is undecided, but Eddie Hearn is hopeful that he can pot the fight somewhere outside his backyard “fight camp” with fans in attendance. The first lines on the fight show Whyte the favorite in the vicinity of 13/5. Povetkin-Whyte II will be a nice appetizer for the Errol Spence vs. Danny Garcia match that goes off later that day.

In an unrelated development, Fury-Wilder III is purportedly going to Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, in late December. Bob Arum anticipates a crowd of 10,000-15,000 with social distancing protocols in place.

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Meekins vs. Kawoya: File It Under Bizarre

Ted Sares

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 It was August 8, 1988. The location was Resorts International in Atlantic City. The main event featured New Yorker John Wesley Meekins (18-1-2) vs another New Yorker (via Uganda and Denmark) Mohammed Kawoya (11-3).

The rangy and skilled Meekins with a stellar amateur career was a clear favorite over the lesser known Kawoya who had fought only once in the US, losing to Jorge Maysonet on cuts at the Felt Forum. Meekins was expected to move on to a world title fight after dispatching Kawoya.

Meekins enjoyed a successful career between 1984 and 1994, fighting the likes of Davey Montana, Mike Mungin, Harold Brazier, Saoul Mamby, Santos Cardona, Darrin Morris (who won his last 16 fights in a row), and Terence Alli. He would lose to a prime Meldrick Taylor (20-0-1) in 1989 with the IBF World Super Lightweight title at stake.

On June 15, 1990, Meekins beat Santos Cardona over 12 rounds to win the NABF light-welterweight championship, but would lose it to Terence Alli some seven months later. It was downhill after that and he retired in November 1994 with a record of 24-5-2 after being stopped by so-so Darryl Lattimore.

Back to Meekins vs. Kawoya

 This one did not go as expected. After being decked in round 2, Kawoya dropped Meekins in the opening seconds of round 3. An exciting fight with multiple knockdowns and furious exchanges was in progress and the fans loved it.

An aroused Meekins then went after the Ugandan with a vengeance and set up one of the most bizarre endings that few boxing fans have ever heard about, much less witnessed, as he again dropped Kawoya this time with a fast left hook. He then went for the kill. Referee Paul Venti sensed it and moved in—perhaps prematurely– as Meekins unleashed what he hoped would be a fight-ending volley of hard shots.

 As soon as Venti stepped in to stop the fight, Kawoya landed a right that dropped Meekins and had him crawling on the canvas and holding on to the ropes devoid of his senses for at least ten seconds. The punch was thrown at the exact moment that Venti ended matters and Venti didn’t realize what had occurred.

 While Kawoya thought he has scored a clean KO and celebrated wildly, the fact was that Venti had ended the fight a fraction of a second before and his decision would stand.

The fans not only enjoyed a great fight, they witnessed something truly memorable—something that had to be seen to be believed; namely, a winner struggling to get up and a loser celebrating what he thought was a knockout.

Kawoya pulled out of the rematch because of a throat infection and Saoul Mamby took his place as a late sub. The Ugandan never fought again, while Meekins never got the title shot that a more impressive effort might have gotten him.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook and welcomes comments.

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