Sunday, January 15, 2012

Young Griffo - Zephyr of the Ring

One of Australia’s earliest but least known world champions was the extraordinary Albert Griffiths, popularly known at the time as “Young Griffo”.

He was born in Millers Point, in Sydney’s Rocks district in 1871, and he lived and grew up in the immediate area. The Rocks in those days was not the pleasant historical locale so enjoyed by tourists today, but was a rough and dangerous neighbourhood, with general crime and street muggings commonplace, particularly after dark.

"The Rocks" in Sydney during the 1880's. A dangerous place to be after dark. 
Courtesy of the Council of the City of Sydney - click to enlarge

The notorious “Rocks Push”, a dangerous larrikin gang, ruled the streets by night, and fought with other local gangs such as the Argyle Cut Push, the Forty Thieves and the Straw Hat Push. These gangs had no compunction in knocking a passer by down and then “putting the boot in”, often seriously injuring or even killing the victim.

Henry Lawson, in his classic poem "The Captain of the Push"described something of the after-dark environment of "the Rocks" late in the 19th Century:

As the night was falling slowly down on city, town and bush, 
From a slum in Jones's Alley sloped the Captain of the Push; 
And he scowled towards the North, and he scowled towards the South, 
As he hooked his little finger in the corners of his mouth. 
Then his whistle, loud and shrill, woke the echoes of the `Rocks', 
And a dozen ghouls came sloping round the corners of the blocks. 

There was nought to rouse their anger; yet the oath that each one swore 
Seemed less fit for publication than the one that went before. 
For they spoke the gutter language with the easy flow that comes 
Only to the men whose childhood knew the brothels and the slums. 
Then they spat in turns, and halted; and the one that came behind, 
Spitting fiercely on the pavement, called on Heaven to strike him blind. 

It was in this rough and dangerous environment that Young Griffo grew up. As a youth he earned some money as a paper boy working the Rocks area, and to be successful he had to not only sell newspapers, but to defend his turf against bigger and older boys trying to muscle in on his corner. Despite his small height - only about five feet four - he was nuggety and powerful, and possessed amazing reflexes that gave him the ability to pick a fly out of the air without injuring it. The other older and larger boys learned to leave him alone or risk copping a beating.

It is not known whether he regularly attended school – being from the wrong side of the tracks in 1870’s Sydney probably meant not, and he was recorded as being completely illiterate and unable to count. 

He was eventually talked into becoming a prize fighter, and with some coaching, began to improve rapidly. He turned professional in 1886, and soon strung together an impressive series of wins in the featherweight division. He became Australian featherweight champion in 1888, and then in 1890, won the world championship when he beat titleholder Bill Murphy at the Sydney Amateur Gymnastic Club.

Young Griffo, circa 1888. Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge.

He then decided to head for the big money in the United States, finally arriving there in 1893, and began an unforgettable career there that would have many highs and lows. During this time he fought nearly all of the greats of his division and piled up an incredible record. Many of his fights were with men much heavier than himself, but he still won the vast majority of these.

His style in the ring fascinated the Americans. Although lacking a knockout punch he was a defensive genius and in an article in the Tacoma Daily News, later written in 1916, he was described thus:

“Not known as much of a puncher, but his skill was uncanny. He had wonderful headwork, almost impenetrable defence, dazzling feints, and rapid two-handed methods of attack. The cleverest boxers and hardest punchers were made to look ridiculous when exchanging swats with him.”

He amassed considerable prize money during this time, but his inability to count meant that he was short changed on occasion, with unscrupulous promoters giving him less than his entitlement. He was also generous and would often "shout the bar" after a win, going through his prize money in quick time.

And it was his drinking that was destined to later bring him down. He always preferred alcohol to training, and American whiskey proved to be a wonderful attraction. He began drinking heavily, and several of his important fights were performed when he was half drunk, but mostly he was still able to win despite his self imposed handicap.

Albert Griffiths c 1893
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

As Demon Drink gradually took control he found himself increasingly in trouble with the law for being drunk and disorderly, and was locked up on several occasions.

After his last fight in 1904, and with his main income stream at an end, he became virtually destitute and took to begging on the steps of the Rialto Theatre, in New Yorks Time Square. He would also raise money in saloons by standing on a handkerchief and betting drinkers that they could not hit him even though he would not move his feet from the handkerchief. But as the years passed he was hit more often.

Times Square in 1921 - a massive crowd follows the progress of the Jack Dempsey - Georges Carpentier  bout. Young Griffo may well have been present on this day. Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Young Griffo finally died in New York in 1927, at the age of fifty six, with the well known boxing promoter Tex Rickard generously paying for his funeral. Noted boxers from the past were in attendance, including the former heavy weight champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who remarked as the coffin was carried out “ There he is boys, the Zephyr of all ring time. The only one that ever hit him was the Grim Reaper”. He was buried in the Bronx on that day.

The record he left behind was incredible. He lost just nine times in 232 fights, but with many of his bouts recorded as a “no contest”. However during this era a fight would be declared a “no contest” if the opponent was not knocked out, and in many of these Griffo was well ahead on points.

Albert Griffiths c 1926 - shortly before his death.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

He was also a pioneer of he the practice, later made famous by the great Muhammad Ali, of nominating the number of rounds the fight would last before he emerged the victor.

Griffo was never defeated for either the world or Australian featherweight title.

In 1928 the founder of Ring Magazine, Nat Fleisher, wrote a book called “Young Griffo: the will o’wisp of the Roped Square” in which he noted that “Griffo was the greatest ever boxer I have seen in over fifty years of watching fights and fighters. His abilities to feint, move his head and not get hit were unparalleled”.

Fleischer also described Griffo as “the Shakespeare and Napoleon of his profession”, and “the fastest thinking, brainless boxer in the history of pugilism”. Fleischer ranked Griffo as number 8 in the all time featherweight division.

Mike Casey, the Boxing Journalist and Historian, writing for “East Side Boxing”, remarked that “Griffo seemed to drop straight out of some fistic heaven, and perhaps the gods were balancing the scales when they took him back at the age of fifty six. The mind boggles at what he could have achieved if he had been blessed with the mental toughness and the total commitment of a Julio Cesar Chavez or a Marco Antonio Barrera”.

Young Griffo was posthumously inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. His citation for the International Boxing Hall of Fame can be read here:

(Note that this citation gives his date of birth as 1869, whereas most other sources quote 1871)

In an era when many bronze statues are sculpted for a variety of cricket and football stars from the past it would, I think, be a fitting tribute to erect one for Albert Griffiths, standing on a corner or in a park somewhere down in the Rocks. As Australia's first ever world boxing champion and arguably one of our greatest ever fighters, made all the more remarkable by his battle up through poverty and lack of education to get there, he deserves some formal recognition from our city fathers.

And surely a movie awaits for an interested producer.