Publish Date: 01/23/2017
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
“He was probably the fastest boxer and the cleverest who ever performed under Queensberry rules.” –Nat Fleischer
There are those who have walked among us endowed with ability so innate, so deeply embedded and interwoven into the very fabric of their being, that a divine hand seems to have crafted them from scratch. Or maybe it appears Mother Nature’s long, arduous genetic-tweaking journey has finally reached a physical spectacle unbefitting of us lower lifeforms. When it came to Albert Griffiths, divine or blind, the watchmaker coursed him as a boxing miracle and a booze-swilling extraordinaire.
The two worked hand-in-hand at times. When Griffo was parched and needing a nice ale to wet his palate, he challenged bar patrons to hit his face for wagered money as his feet stood still on a laid handkerchief. The Australian never needed to back his end of the deal because he never lost.
And of course with regular barroom attendance came the occasional belligerent. Griffo therefore inevitably dealt with these, too, in his idiosyncratic way. One story tells of an unnamed man bearing a grudge towards the Millers Point-native, fist-clenched and ready to do what most pros couldn’t— strike Griffo on his skull. As this heated assailant waltzed through Young Mitchell’s saloon in San Francisco and made a bee line for Griffo, the owner warned the cockney-accented Australian of the impending danger:
“Here he is now, Griff—that fellow who is looking for you.”
Griffo couldn’t be bothered to turn around, instead peering into the bar’s large mirror in front of him. When the attacker drew near and unloaded with his best stuff, Griffo’s eyes never left the mirror, yet he swayed his head out of continual danger with inching head bobs until the aggressor had enough.
Exhausted and blushed, the man grasped “Griff’s” shoulders and turned him, conceding defeat:
“You win, Griffo. I was going to knock your block off, but you haven’t got one. I’m licked without being hit.”
Famous ring announcer Joe Humphreys remembered a similar story between Mysterious Billy Smith and Young Griffo:
“Griffo and Smith were on the outs for a time. Smith ankled into a saloon one night and, seeing Griffo at the bar, hurled a spittoon at the Australian. Griffo saw it coming in the looking glass and moved his large head just enough to let it tick his ear. The man was a marvel. He could even slip cuspidors with his back turned.”
Humphreys, who saw many of his great contemporaries compete, had no qualm in naming the Millers Point master of “Hit and Get Away” the cleverest pugilist to strap on a pair.
But it wasn’t simply saloon tales that convinced the likes of Humphreys, Nat Fleischer, James J. Corbett, and many others of Griffo’s glove-swatting, head-dancing genius. The 10-round bout with Jack McAuliffe, undefeated lightweight champion of the world, at the Seaside A.C. in Brooklyn, New York, was one that helped leave an indelible impression.
The legendary Irishman was favored against the relative newcomer to American shores, but once the bout had ended, he looked nothing like the betting favorite they made him. The contest saw McAuliffe cut loose with hundreds of shots, only to find that he was outwitted and countered at virtually every turn. So much so that Griffo seemed impervious to anything Jack could produce offensively. This prompted some in the crowd to snidely remark, “Is this the Champion McAuliffe who is fighting? He acts more like an amateur.”
Griffo himself was having a good time of it all as he “peppered McAuliffe with jabs, hooks, uppercuts and every scientific punch known to the Queensberry code,” continually inquiring of the champion while sporting a smile, “Where will I hit you next, Jack?”
“The Napoleon of the Prize Ring” was out-generaled by this fistic equivalent of the Duke of Wellington. Only McAuliffe’s good friend and referee Maxie Moore prevented the sole blemish on Jack’s loss column when he awarded the champion the bout in spite of the cries of “Griffo, Griffo.” The Zephyr of All-Time, as Fleischer put it, was robbed.
George Dixon, another master of the gloved game who laid claim to being the first black man to ever wear a championship belt and did so at both the bantamweight and featherweight limits, encountered similar difficulties in each of his contests with this “Wizard of the Antipodes”, especially the rubber match held at the Manhattan Athletic Club. Dixon, like McAuliffe, rushed Griffo throughout the set-to, working like a horse to get in a wallop that would do damage and sway the fight in his favor. This strategy only played to Griffo’s illimitable gifts as a defensive craftsman, as the original “Will o’ the Wisp” evaded virtually everything that came his way. For a period of four rounds it was said that the dusky titleholder missed every strike he mustered.
The Brooklyn Eagle confirmed Griffo’s remarkable showing in the art of self-defense, remarking that “no trick that he could try could penetrate the magnificent defense of the phenomenal Australian…. Griffo’s defense was impenetrable.”
The Washington Post, no less glowing in their coverage, stated Griffo “gave a masterly exhibition of defensive fighting…from a scientific point of view Griffo is the better man. He familiarized himself with Dixon’s methods, and measured his man’s science to perfection. Griffo’s success with Dixon proves that the negro is at his worst when fighting an active man at short range.”
Griffo’s boundless cleverness made a lasting imprint on Barbados Joe Walcott conqueror, Kid Lavigne, as well. In the two fights they had, both draws, Lavigne claimed to have never seen hands so fast and head movement so slick. The worst part of it all, “The Saginaw Kid” recalled, was that Griffo didn’t seem to move anywhere when he was boring in, haymakers in tow. The Australian wonder just stood his ground like a rock and reached into his depthless bag of tricks to confuse the trajectory of Lavigne’s forthcoming blows.
Part of the Police Gazette writer Sam Austin’s account of the rematch adds weight to Lavigne’s grumblings:
“Griffo would stand in one spot on the space one could cover with a handkerchief and by moving his head the fraction of an inch made Lavigne look foolish.”
Descriptions like this bring to the mind images of the late, great Nicolino Locche.
The list of frustrated contemporary legends extends further still, to one of the most well-rounded prizefighters in ring history: “The Old Master”, Joe Gans. The Baltimorean had it all— fast hands, a mighty wallop, sharp technique, good footwork, toughness, fantastic blocking ability, you name it. When it came to ring I.Q., few possessed higher. But even he lacked the cunning to solve the Rubik’s Cube that was Griffo’s fist-buffer until he was well past his best.
Griffo and Gans met three times, with the second being the only full-on set-to they had near Griffo’s prime—though even by that time the Australian was considered over-the-hill. Gans wasn’t quite “The Old Master” that day, recounting the tale of the bout a few years after it had happened:
“I’ll never forget my experience in the ring with that Kid Griffo. We met in the ring at the Olympic Club at Athens, Pa., and it was agreed that we were to divide the purse, win or lose. I trained for three weeks for the bout, and when I got a flash at Griffo in his corner I noticed that a fold of fat wobbled over his belt. He was in fit condition for a sanitarium instead of a prize ring, and I told Herford [Al Herford, Joe Gans’ manager] that I would make short work of the Australian phenom, as they called him. We were to go fifteen rounds, and I thought I could do Griff in about three punches at the wind. I had an idea that he would keep away from me, but that’s where he fooled me. You would naturally think that a man in his condition would steer away from a punch, but he crowded me from the first tap of the gong.
“He clearly outboxed me, but every time he tapped me I smiled at him. ‘See here, old chap,’ he said, ‘I’m out for a draw, and don’t get awfully rude with me because I ‘av a bloomink pain in me stomach and if you slam me once in the body it will be all off. So don’t get rude, and be a gentleman.’ I tried my prettiest to bore a stomach punch into him, but I only caught him on the glove at every trial, and then I switched my tactics and tried for his jaw, but he was inside of me at every punch, and when I led he stepped inside and showered a rain of taps with both hands. He had me tired once, I will admit, and it looked to me as if every one in the crowd was throwing boxing gloves at me. It’s a pity that a boxer of his talent never took care of himself, as he was the greatest defensive boxer that ever lived, and the most peculiar feature of his defense was that he was up and at the opponent all the time, fighting close on the inside of the guard. They talk about Fitzsimmons as a fighting machine, but as a mechanical boxer Fitz never classed with Griffo.”
This is praise of the highest kind, considering “Fitz” was Gan’s mentor and idol.
But it’s not enough to say Griffo matched wits with multiple prizefighting giants of his day. There is more to the story, as a close reading of Gans’ recollection shows. The ‘paunch’ Gans alluded to was no doubt a product of Griffo’s lack of training, which consisted far more of his previously mentioned drinking than running, bag-hitting, or anything else that looked like traditional exercise. So heavy was he on the alcohol that many times he was stone cold drunk on fight night and had to be pulled from his stool at whatever local bar he happened to attending. Oftentimes he was thrown into a Turkish Bath to sweat it out and sober up before they slapped a pair of gloves on him and tapped the gong. Such was the case for his scheduled contests with Ike Weir and Young Scotty.
Against Jimmy Dime, a quality up-and-coming lightweight, Griffo was seized from John L. Sullivan’s hotel room, which allegedly looked like a bowling alley, only it wasn’t pins laying around but champagne bottles. Griffo, in all three cases, still went on to terrorize his foes with remarkable skill.
The truth of the matter about the Australian Zephyr’s character was put into words by former trainer, Tim McGrath:
“The fact that he never became a champion was due partly to his lack of ambition. Glory and money meant little to him. He loved his good times, and it was impossible to get him into condition. No manager ever did. He never took a fight seriously and was never in condition for one that I know of.”
We can only surmise what he could have accomplished with a more driven spirit, but given what we do have, it’s more than enough for him to be proclaimed the supreme defensive artisan of his day, and one for all-time.