The $10,000 Glass Of Sherry: When Young Griffo Fell Off The Wagon
By Mike Casey
Just recently I wrote an article on the great lightweight champion Kid
Lavigne, in which the Kid spoke with typical candour and humour about his fight
with the Australian wizard, Young Griffo. Not for the first time, I came away
shaking my head in amazement at Griffo’s God-given skills. He might just have
been the cleverest boxer that ever lived.
everything against Griffo. The Kid boxed Griff, fought him, hustled him and,
when all else had failed, simply rushed and ripped at him. Amidst all this
frenetic activity, Lavigne noticed that Griffo appeared to remain as still and
steady as a fulcrum. Without appearing to move, he dodged punches effortlessly
and fired back with accurate and stunning regularity.
The Kid recalled
with a smile that he never could figure this out. Like Bugs Bunny or some other
mischievous cartoon character, Griff always seemed to be in the right place at
the right time without betraying how he got there.
So here I come,
dear reader, in praise of a genuine Australian genius, which is always a
difficult thing for an Englishman to do. The Aussies beat us at a strange game
called cricket with quite depressing regularity, which might go some way to
explaining why I have followed the saner and less stressful pursuit of baseball
since about 1975.
Why was Young
Griffo such a wonder? Because few people are born with the outrageous talent and
the sheer natural instinct that he possessed. Such was his gift of co-ordination
that the managers and trainers of his day were unable to offer technical
explanations for his near perfect fluency of movement.
Add to this the
very significant fact that Griffo was addicted to alcohol, hopelessly so for
long periods of his life, and we begin to see the exceptional man he was. He was
very often referred to as a phenomenon, even by writers who didn’t fall victim
to prosaic and exaggerated outbursts. It was somewhat bitter irony that Griffo’s
love of alcohol made his fistic star shine even brighter. For while his great
weakness would wreck him to the point of privation and drive him into insane
asylums, it rarely blunted his uncanny sense of anticipation or his radar-like
great addiction a tragedy? Only he knew that. Alcoholics and binge drinkers
constantly veer and stagger between joy and despair, stubborn defiance and
contrition. Those with a sublime talent are too often forgiven and tolerated
while a trail of destruction piles up in their wake. Their actions hurt many
others. Amusing tales of Griffo’s drunken rollickings are plentiful, but many of
his friends and guardians were hurt and betrayed along the way. We shall come to
the tale of the fatal glass of sherry that lost Griffo an estimated ten thousand
dollars in earnings and finally snapped the patience of his good-hearted
manager, George Dawson.
In 1936, Joe
Humphreys, often referred to as the daddy of all ring announcers, looked back on
his great career and named the four greatest fighters he had ever seen.
Humphreys’ golden quartet consisted of Griffo, Terry McGovern, Kid McCoy and
described the prime McGovern as the best and most vicious fighter in history.
But there was no doubt in old Joe’s mind as to who was the cleverest. Griffo was
that man, above the stellar likes of Joe Gans, Jem Driscoll and Abe Attell.
“That stuff about Griffo standing on a handkerchief and daring anybody to hit
him in the face is true.”
This was indeed
a favourite little practice of Griffo’s, which came in particularly handy in
saloon bars when he needed to rustle up some cash for drinks.
recalls the time when the boisterous Mysterious Billy Smith came upon Griffo
when both were out on the town socialising. Griffo was sitting contentedly at
the bar and getting nicely oiled.
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
Most of us have
heard the famous tale of Willie Pep winning a round without landing a punch. Now
let us reflect on the four rounds exhibition in America between Young Griffo and
another wizard of the age, Pedlar Palmer. It is something of a shame that Palmer
is chiefly remembered now for losing his world flyweight championship to Terry
McGovern in one brutal round.
At his best,
Englishman Palmer was gifted with outstanding reflexes and was lauded as one of
the most accurate hitters in the game. Jack Callaghan, one of the foremost
authorities of the age on British boxing, rated Palmer the best boxer of all.
Palmer boxed his exhibition with Young Griffo, both fighters came into the ring
in a deadly serious frame of mind, knowing that their reputations could be
tarnished by a bad display. Here is how Jack Callaghan described their meeting
to writer W Buchanan Taylor: “Those who saw that demonstration saw everything
that could possibly be known about the science of boxing.
“They boxed four
rounds and neither man landed a blow on the other. They were the two quickest
thinking boxers ever known and the witnesses of the meeting were of the opinion
that, barring a slip or other accident, neither would have ever been able to hit
“It’s a very sad
reflection that Griffo came to a tragic end, prematurely. He was a freak and
what you were told by Hugh D MacIntosh and Tommy Burns about his extraordinary
powers of co-ordination – the exact working of mind and matter – is quite true.”
This must have
been music to the ears of W Buchanan Taylor, who had long been fascinated by
Griffo. In his rare and fine old book, ‘What Do You Know About Boxing?’
published in the early twentieth century, Buchanan Taylor bravely tackled the
eternally fascinating question: Who was the greatest boxer?
Here is an
abridged version of what he wrote: “Several eminent boxers with whom I have
talked, and who saw the lad in action, give the palm to Young Griffo, the
Australian ex-larrikin, who amazed eyewitnesses with his astonishing abilities
in and out of the ring. Yet he never was a champion outside his own country.
“He was a young
street urchin when he was picked up and given a chance of a three-round bout in
Sydney, near which – Millar’s Point – he was born and brought up. Soon after
this first fight, he had a battle with the raw ‘uns (bare knucklers), went back
to gloves and proceeded to win his contests hand over fist.
“I have heard it
vouched for that, in his sense of co-ordination of mind and action, he was
practically ‘simultaneous’ in what he did. Hugh D McIntosh told me he had seen
Griffo seated at an open air café picking flies out of the air with finger and
thumb. This was corroborated by Tommy Burns and it was confirmed by three other
patrons of the ring who knew Young Griffo.
“It is true, and
well proven, in regard to Griffo’s feats, that he used to bet against anybody
hitting him as he stood and remained standing on a handkerchief laid out on the
incurable lazy, doubtless from the fact that boxing was no trouble to him and he
knew no master. He drank heavily at times and was once found intoxicated in a
saloon a few hours before he was due in the ring. A Turkish bath, plenty of
massage and slapping brought him to, and when he turned up to fight Ike Weir,
the Belfast Spider, a while later, he hit his opponent on ‘all points of the
compass’ as one description has it. Griffo was a ridiculously easy winner.”
boxing public couldn’t believe what Griffo could do when drunk. The mind boggles
at what he might have done if had had ever been able to take life seriously.
There is ever reason to believe that Griffo was every much a ‘natural’ in his
scientific knowledge of the sport as was Bob Fitzsimmons.
As I have
written before, Fitzsimmons elicited a form of awe from his boxing brethren that
somehow went far beyond the norm and transcended the era in which he fought. Bob
was a truly seminal and timeless fighter. Jack Dempsey, Sam Langford, Joe Gans
and Stanley Ketchel can be placed on the same pedestal from everything we know.
So too can Young Griffo. Consider this question: Even with the passing of time,
even with the great improvements made to general fitness and longevity, how much
more knowledgeable or faster can today’s boxers really become? By how much more
can they improve their speed, feinting skills and footwork? Boxing is a
unique discipline and the limits of technical perfection must surely be finite
unless we abandon dope testing and allow the cheats to run riot.
people gasp in the way he dodged punches by a barely visible movement of his
head. His defence was virtually impenetrable and his array of feints and shifts
was vast. Certain people will tell you that combination punching was an
undiscovered art in Griffo’s era, yet reporters frequently commented (sometimes
in near disbelief) on the ability of the Australian ace to fire multiple blows
in blindingly quick sequences.
Back in 1910,
John L Sullivan’s former manager, Billy Madden, took Jim Corbett to task
following Corbett’s assertion that flat-footed fighters were disadvantaged.
Madden cited Young Griffo as a classic contradiction of this theory: “Griffo is
considered by many to be one of the fastest and cleverest boxers who ever donned
“He hit when
flat-footed. I saw him fight twenty rounds to a draw with Kid Lavigne when the
Kid was good and Griffo was in poor shape. Griffo scarcely moved out of a six
foot circle during the battle, until the close when he began to tire.”
reasoning was as follows: “Try yourself, leading at another boxer with your left
hand while on your toes, and you will find your head goes forward with the blow,
leaving an opening for the other fellow to counter with his right. That is a
cross counter. It is what a boxer means by beating his man to the punch.
“Now try the
same lead with the feet firmly planted on the floor, left foot and left arm
being in a direct line with your opponent’s body. The head is back out of the
way whether you land or miss.”
A light puncher,
Griffo laboured in the era when fights invariably ended in draw decisions in the
event of one man failing to knock out the other. Yet at his short-lived peak,
with his feathery fists and booze-addled brain, he twice drew with the great Joe
Gans, fought three draws with George Dixon and also shared the spoils with Kid
Lavigne, Frank Erne and Jack Everhardt.
The record books
tell us that Griffo was outpointed by the great and undefeated Jack McAuliffe at
the old Seaside Athletic Club in 1894, an honourable defeat that wouldn’t have
been a disgrace on any man’s record. But many who saw that battle were of the
firm opinion that Griffo had the better of Jack. Referee Maxie Moore was a good
pal of McAuliffe, so we draw our own conclusions.
two fights with George Dixon – the great Little Chocolate - were tremendous
struggles, full of skill and intrigue. The spoils were shared on both occasions,
first at Boston over twenty rounds in 1894, and then at the old Seaside Athletic
Club on Coney Island over twenty-five rounds in 1895.
Griffo held an
eight-and-half pounds weight advantage over George in their first engagement,
but the Australian won many plaudits for his evasive skills. Dixon attacked
ferociously with his usual blend of skill, speed and skilful hitting, but Griffo
was a revelation as he slipped, rode and parried punches like a mischievous
Griffo had been taunting Dixon for some time before
they met in the ring. Dixon was appearing on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in
Philadelphia in the winter of 1894. At a Monday matinee, Griffo was occupying a
box seat and looking to liven things up. When Dixon made his entrance, Griffo
jumped onto the stage, threw a five dollar bill at George’s feet and challenged
Little Chocolate to cover it. Dixon laughed and Griffo’s friends pulled him
Later on, however, Dixon and his manager, Tom
O’Rourke, encountered Griffo at a local saloon. Griffo told O’Rourke that he was
“… only fit to manage niggers anyhow,” and promptly received a blow to the face.
The friends of both fighters broke up the unsavoury argument.
It was in the
second match with Dixon that Griff demonstrated how brilliantly he could perform
against all reasonable logic. Trapped in one of his torrid binge-drinking
cycles, his preparation for Dixon was almost non-existent. Few believed that the
Australian would survive the twenty-five round limit. How he did so, we will
never know. Nor will we know how he managed to unleash fast and magnificent
combinations that very nearly closed Dixon’s eyes.
In the dying
moments of the twenty-fifth round, Griffo seemed to move up to a higher plane
that few others could even find. Cornered by Dixon’s fierce, final rally, Griff
slipped and ducked every punch that rained in. The entranced crowd at Coney
Island could only watch in amazement. Surely, his great gifts had to be innate,
immune to any inside or outside agency. Drunks simply don’t fight like that; and
most of them, barring a huge slice of luck, would suffer a cracked head from a
I’m sure that my
fellow trawlers of the archives will be familiar with the name of Dan Creedon,
the old New Zealand fighter who crossed swords with many battlers of note and
contested the middleweight championship with Bob Fitzsimmons.
to meet Young Griffo in an eight-rounds contest following a fierce difference of
opinion that broke out between their respective handlers. The match was laughed
at. A middleweight against a lightweight, who might even forget to show up if
there was a good bottle of something to be had.
How Creedon must
have wished that Griffo had been seduced by a downtown saloon. Dedicated
ringside observers kept a count of the number of clean punches landed by Creedon.
The count began and ended at one. Dan’s sole success, a desperate punch thrown
in a purple rage, gave Griffo a cauliflower ear but didn’t shut his mouth or
dilute his magic. Decades before Muhammad Ali, Griff greatly enjoyed baiting his
opponents and verbally questioning their talent.
Glass Of Sherry
In July 1900,
Joe Gans, the Baltimore maestro, finally got one over on Young Griffo and
stopped him in eight rounds at the Seaside Athletic Club. The two geniuses had
previously battled to a couple of draw decisions, but Griffo was a slowly
drowning man by the time of their third clash, his love of alcohol having bitten
him particularly hard. It was the year that Griff, who was sailing along
pleasantly and relatively sober by his own standards, took a glass of sherry
with devastating consequences. It was a moment of weakness that would cost him
at least ten thousand dollars in potential earnings.
This was a vast
amount of money in 1900. Griffo had been given the kind of earning opportunity
that would normally only come the way of the heavyweight champion. All Griff had
to do was stand up and fight a string of carefully selected opponents who would
not tax him too greatly. It seemed too good to be true and it was. Griffo blew
Dawson was the architect of the lucrative package that would have made Griffo a
superstar of his day. John Whitbeck, a Chicago restaurateur and a personal
friend of Dawson’s, told the story: “When Griffo came to life the second time
and demonstrated by his bouts at the Chicago Athletic Association and
Tattersall’s that he was still a premier in his class, Dawson, who had his
business interests in charge, was deluged with offers of matches for him.
matches but easy exhibitions with a sparring partner and guaranteed purses
ranging from $300 to $1,000. Every athletic club of note in the country wanted
him. The peculiar conditions under which Griffo entered the ring made a big
advertisement for him, and letters and telegrams poured in from all parts of the
country. Right after his appearance with Young Kenny at Tattersall’s,
engagements had been booked for the time up to the end of April this year, which
would have netted him $10,000, and there was a chance for a lot of profitable
dates between them. Then some fool friend of Griffo’s insisted on him taking a
glass of sherry and it was all off.
sporting fraternity knows how he went to pieces and how Dawson, in disgust, had
to cancel all the $10,000 worth of engagements. No pugilist, aside from a
heavyweight champion, had such an opportunity to reap such a golden harvest.
Those $10,000 engagements were only a beginning. If he had kept sober, Griffo
could have virtually coined money for two or three years to come.”
had gone to great lengths to drag Griffo from the depths of his drunken despair
and give him a fresh start. Dawson had visited Griffo in the insane asylum at
Dunning and found him to be surprisingly sane and coherent. There was even a
comical side to the visit as Griff gave him a simple message: “For Heaven’s
sake, get me out of here. I’m not crazy but I will be if I’m kept here with this
mob of lunatics much longer.”
for Griffo’s discharge and stumped up a $3,000 indemnity fee to the county to
cover any damage that the supposed madman might commit upon his release. But
things quickly went wrong after a quiet period in which Griffo behaved himself.
He was introduced to polite society and kept away from temptation, but the
genteel life was not for Griff. The call of the streets and the rough-and-tumble
saloons quickly beckoned. He started his old tricks of all-night binging
followed by contrite apologies and then greater indiscretions.
utterly exasperated, told friends that giving money to Griffo was akin to
throwing it in the sewer.
scathingly remarked: “Young Griffo is a degenerate of the worst type. It is
absolutely impossible to keep him in respectable condition. Given five hundred
dollars tonight, he will be broke tomorrow, and no inducement, not even the
guarantee of $10,000 for twenty minutes’ work with the gloves, would make him
forego a drinking bout with the lowest of levee characters.”
Three years on
and it didn’t seem possible. Young Griffo was back in the saddle, as dry as he
ever could be and in excellent shape. The rejuvenated Griffo was being described
as a physical marvel, having apparently regained all his magnificent skills and
written him off, due to what was politely described at the time as his
‘excessive dissipation’. Griffo had become a physical and mental wreck and his
chances of being a top flight fighter again had been thoroughly discounted. He
had seemed to change managers as frequently as he could empty his glass at the
Now he was in
the care of Sam Tuckhorn, who announced that Griffo was ready to tackle any
lightweight in the world. Tuckhorn’s claims were not lightly regarded, for they
had the considerably weighty support of Lou Houseman, who knew everything about
the fight scene in Chicago and had seen the new Griffo in action.
“I saw the clever little Australian put through a course of sprouts the other
day, and the manner in which he carried himself was astonishing. He appears to
be, if anything, faster than he ever was. His footwork, his assault and defence
are perfect. Men weighing forty pounds more than ‘the feather’ were handled like
“The boy looks
good. His hair has turned a bit gray – small wonder – but his eyes sparkle and
his step is young and springy. I saw a certificate in which the doctor states
positively that the boy’s heart is as healthy as any he had ever examined, and
that there was not a physical flaw to be found anywhere.”
impressed by Griffo was the boxing reporter who wrote: “Griffo had his first
bout in more than two years a couple of weeks ago in Peoria, Illinois, with Jack
Bain. That Griffo was as clever a man with his fists as ever entered the ring,
there has never been anyone to dispute, but that he would be able to go in and
set a fast and furious clip for eight rounds and finish fresh and strong was
more than the most hopeful expected.”
It was the
opinion of many experienced ringsiders that Griffo was the greatest natural
boxer in the world. He boxed wonderfully against Bain and exhibited powerful and
Perhaps the most
glowing tribute, however, came from referee Lynch who said: “I have refereed all
the matches that have taken place in Peoria and I have attended almost all of
the big fights, and I unhesitatingly say that I consider Griffo the greatest
boxer I ever saw. He is the personfication of cleverness and aggressiveness, and
I think he has a chance with any man of his weight in the world.”
with all the honeymoon verve that comes from the first flush of sobriety,
announced that he had cut out ‘the cup that cheers’ after torrid periods of
insane asylums, depressing privation and the hobo life.
It didn’t last
of course. A drunk never sees the dark side of the moon when he surrenders once
more to the old pangs. Somewhere in the archives there is a vivid picture of a
dishevelled Griffo sitting on a doorstep, wearing that shredded and haunted
expression that a hard life eventually carves into a man’s face. He looks old,
but he probably isn’t.
He rests now
beneath a simple gravestone in the Bronx.
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