Emile Griffith smiles in a dressing room before the fight between Harold Weston and Wilfredo Benitez at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2, 1977 in New York, N.Y. Griffith was there to support his “little brother” Weston, who held the undefeated Puerto Rican star to a 10-round majority draw.
There were very few people that Harold Weston allowed to call him “Little Harold” or “Baby Harold.” Weston was small in stature and if you wanted respect you just didn’t let people belittle you in anyway.
Emile Griffith was one of the few people who could call Weston “Baby Harold’’ without a fight. Griffith didn’t do it to demean Weston. He did it because they were like family.
“He was my big brother,” Weston said.
From the moment that Weston walked into the New York City Parks Department Gym on 28th and 9th Avenue with his father at the age of 9, there was an instant connection to Griffith. Griffith was the welterweight champion of the world, the heir to the belt once held by Sugar Ray Robinson. He was the king of the gym and Weston watched as people crowded around Griffith, wanted to shake his hand, take pictures with him.
“That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a world champion,” said Weston, whose welterweight title dreams ended after he suffered a detached retina in a fight against Tommy Hearns in 1979.
It was an enduring relationship that saw Griffith fine tune the boxing lessons that Weston had learned from his father and his trainer Gil Clancy. How to throw the hook to the body, even when the opponent’s defense seemed impenetrable; how to dress for success in the ring; and most importantly how to thrive in the hellish environs of a 15-round fight.
It was with great sadness that Weston got the news on Tuesday morning that Griffith had passed away at the age of 75 – a shadow of the man who went into the Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the best welterweights in the sport. Dementia took a toll on his mind and a beating he took from a group of young thugs broke his body in 1992.
Weston last saw Griffith at an assisted living facility on Long Island after Clancy died in 2011. Griffith couldn’t speak.
“But he followed me around the room with his eyes,” Weston said. “He knew who I was.”
It wasn’t that version of Griffith that Weston wanted to talk about on Wednesday. It was the man who taught him so much about boxing – inside and outside the ring.
“One of the reasons he lasted so long was because he was such a technician,’’ Weston said. “He was the best 15-round fighter in history. He went 15 rounds more than any other boxer in history.”
Every time Weston got into the ring to spar with Griffith it was a graduate level course in the Sweet Science.
“I started to box Griffith when I was about 12. He took it easy on me,” Weston said. “You think you got your defense up and he’d say watch your right hand, keep it up. And then he’d say I’m going to hit you with this left hook. You thought you had the right hand up and he’d hit you in the body with the left hook and you’d wonder how he’d get that punch through.”
Griffith’s accomplishments in the ring were noteworthy, but he will be most remembered for his third bout against Benny “Kid” Paret, who died as a result of the beating he took from Griffith. It was the centerpiece of a documentary called “Ring of Fire’’ about Griffith. Many people thought that Griffith exacted revenge for Paret referring to Griffith with a homophobic slur before the match. Weston doesn’t believe it was in Griffith’s nature to try to deliberately kill a man in the ring.
“He didn’t take that vicious attitude of trying to hurt somebody. Every fighter in that era was a killer,” Weston said. “Everybody could kill you with their hands if they had that leverage. That’s how vicious the sport was.”
Weston said Griffith’s homosexuality was an open secret around the gym and among those closest to him.
“We knew about it, but you didn’t say anything about it,” Weston said. “I understood it. He did his thing and I did my thing. This is what was said by the real hustlers: ‘He was a bad mother. If he is or if he ain’t (gay) he could fight.’ Guys that were tough guys said what you gonna do to him. You can’t beat him.”
Griffith’s toughness was measured by his willingness to fight any and every worthy contender. Weston said that is something that made him different from Sugar Ray Robinson.
“Ray Robinson didn’t fight everybody. Ray did a lot of picking,” he said. “A lot of people don’t talk about that. Gil made sure that Griffith fought everybody. You could be King Kong. If you deserved the shot, you got it with Emile Griffith.”
Weston said that Griffith fought dangerous contender Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as a tune up before defending his middleweight title. (Carter scored a shocking first-round knockout, only one of two stoppages Griffith suffered in 112 pro bouts.) Griffith sparred with Weston three days before going to Philadelphia to fight Bennie Briscoe.
After he got out of the Army, Weston sparred with Griffith and was getting the best of him. Clancy was angry and yelled at Griffith because he thought he wasn’t working hard. The next day, Weston got the best of Griffith again. Clancy was silent this time. He realized that Weston had improved and Griffith was fading.
The true passing of the torch in the gym came right before Griffith retired. After the gym moved to 28th and 7thAvenue in 1970, Clancy had a special, private dressing room built just for Griffith. Griffith said on the day that he retired he would give turn the room over to the best boxer in the gym. Even though there were other champions in the gym, including Juan LaPorte, Griffith turned the room over to Weston when he walked away from the sport in 1977.
Weston wanted to cry on that day. But he didn’t. He saved those tears for later. Now they are appropriate.
“I had a great family at the gym. I’m one of the last ones left,” Weston said. “Your family doesn’t have to be blood. They have to be people who love you for who you are.”
Photos / THE RING