Respect remains the spur for Griffin

Harry Mullan talks to an American boxer who is building on his rapid ascent
Click to follow
THERE is a pleasing historical symmetry about boxing: the game's craft and lore is passed down the generations in unbroken continuity, through a laying on of hands that is as often literal as metaphoric. Hence the link between Johnny Coulon, world bantamweight champion in 1910, and Montell Griffin, the young American who shocked the boxing world in February by trouncing James Toney and who boxes tonight at Bethnal Green, east London, against his compatriot Fabian Marcus.

Coulon operated Chicago's most famous boxing gym, the Windy City, from 1926. It was a workplace for stars like Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, and Griffin's father, Clarence, became Coulon's assistant. When Coulon died in 1983, Clarence bought the business from his widow. "Johnny was my brother Tim's first trainer," Montell recalls. "Tim knew him real well, but I just about remember him. I was only three or four years old at the time, but I was always hanging around the gym, watching and learning and listening. One good thing about me - I pick things up real quick. I could look at somebody doing something and pick up on his style and just do it. I don't remember formally starting to train - I was always just there, watching the guys and watching the fights on TV."

Griffin Senr was the formative influence on Montell, whose mother, a Jehovah's Witness, strongly disapproved of boxing. "I miss my dad a lot," he says. "He died in a fighter's corner in Atlantic City in 1983. I spent more time with my father than my mother. I grew up around him, always in his gym, so his passing was hard on me."

Griffin had his first formal fight when he was "about five years old, but I don't think they started counting them 'til I was 10. I didn't have that many, because back then junior boxing wasn't as big as it is now. I guess I had around 30, but then I quit boxing for eight years after my father passed away.

"I played a little basketball and football at High School, but nothing serious. I was just a regular teenager, got in a little trouble, had a couple of fights. I graduated from High School in 1988, and I worked in jobs that I hated so much they made me think about boxing again. Work wasn't for me. I graduated from school in July when I was just a kid, and a month later I was a grown man doing eight hours a day grinding steel. After nine months, I got fired. I started thinking: 'There must be something I can do with my life - I don't want to be a bum, living with my mother.' I realised boxing's the one thing I knew."

Griffin returned to the amateur ring in 1991 and, remarkably, made the American Olympic team for Barcelona just a year later - but only after he had sued the selectors to secure his place. "I made it to the finals of the Olympic trials and fought Jeremy Williams [now a highly regarded heavyweight prospect]. I thought I beat him, but I didn't get the decision. The night after the fight they were picking the guys to go into the box- offs for the team, so I figured I could fight him again there, although I believed they really wanted him to go.

"Instead, they picked a guy I beat in the trials to represent our division in the box-offs. I had a lawyer sponsoring me at the time and we hit them with a lawsuit. There was no way we could lose that, so they gave me a chance to fight the guy I'd already beaten. I beat him again, and I then beat Jeremy Williams twice in three days to make the team.

"In the quarter-finals, the medal round, I was boxing the German world champion Torsten May. I was leading on points with 40 seconds to go, then they took a point away from me because they said my head was low. The guy is 6ft 5 in and I'm five-seven. I came up on the short end of the decision and that rocked me hard, because winning the Olympic gold medal had always been my lifetime dream. I remember in 1976 watching Sugar Ray Leonard win the gold in Montreal. I watched the fight with my father, and from that moment I saw him with the medal around his neck that became a bigger dream for me than winning a world title. I was robbed of the medal, and it still hurts me."

Griffin turned pro in 1992, and after 14 victories over fairly nondescript rivals was offered the job as James Toney's comeback opponent after Toney had lost his super-middleweight title to Roy Jones. While others urged caution, Griffin jumped at the chance. "I'd sparred with Toney once or twice when I visited his camp. He was a world champion and I was an amateur, so I ain't saying I beat him up or nothing, but I felt comfortable about the way I carried myself in the ring and I knew if it ever came to where we had to fight, I'd be OK.

"Toney intimidates a lot of guys, but I had an advantage - I'd stayed at his house, so I knew that the James Toney you see out in public, in front of the cameras, is not the real James Toney. You see the real man at home, and he's a nice guy, not a loudmouth. Even if he'd wanted to intimidate me, he couldn't, because we'd spent time together as friends. But if I ever fight him again there'd have to be a world title on the line."

Beating Toney has not made the 25-year-old Griffin an overnight sensation, though. "Maybe I don't get the respect because I came around so quick on the scene. I made the Olympic team in a year, and I beat Toney after 14 fights. Most guys have 25, 30 fights before they make their big move, but I just came out of the clear, blue sky.

"I'll probably end up like another Marvin Hagler, where I have to earn my recognition in the ring by fighting everybody there is. When I retire, I want people to be able to say: 'Montell Griffin - he was a good fighter.' That's really, basically, what I'm looking for."