By Bobby Franklin
On December 20, 1963 Emile Griffith and Ruben Hurricane Carter stepped into the ring to face each other at the Civic Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Griffith was the reigning welterweight champion who was campaigning as a middleweight seeking a title shot. Carter was ranked number two in the middleweight division. A win by either man would be a big step towards getting a shot at champion Joey Giardello.
At the time of the fight Griffith had won seven out of nine against middleweights including wins over Denny Moyer, Yama Bahama, Don Fullmer, and Holly Mims.
Carter had twenty-one fights at this point in his career with four losses and seventeen wins. He had scored 11 kayos including a one round devastation of Florentino Fernandez. In his last fight before facing Griffith he lost a very close split decision to Joey Archer.
The fight in Pittsburgh didn’t last long and the ending was quite a surprise. After Griffith had been dropped to the canvas twice in the first round referee Buck McTiernan stopped the contest and raised Carter’s hand. The stoppage was a good call as Emile was clearly unsteady and could have been seriously hurt had the fight continued.
I have watched the Griffith/Carter fight over and over again as it was a shock to see Emile Griffith taken out so fast. It has to be remembered that on top of having not been stopped previous to this match, he also went to the end of his career with only one other kayo loss. That happened in 1971 against middleweight champion Carlos Monzon. Griffith had not been off his feet in that fight, but rather was stopped when he was caught in a corner and unable to respond to Monzon’s barrage of punches. In a career consisting of 112 fights, Monzon and Carter were the only two men to defeat Griffith via a stoppage.
I have always believed the kayo by Carter was a fluke and that if the two had met a dozen times it would never happen again. So, how did Carter do it. Well, his devastating left hook was, of course, the major factor. Rubin could hit and hit hard. He was a good boxer, but did have flaws. Those flaws, such as throwing his punches a bit too wide should have enabled Emile to avoid getting tagged so seriously. Emile was a master boxer/puncher. Of course, no matter how good a fighter is, if he gets caught with a punch from the likes of a Hurricane Carter it can be lights out.
Recently, I was talking with Mike Silver boxing historian and author of The Arc Of Boxing about this fight. Mike pointed out something very interesting that might explain how Carter was able to land the left hook that put Griffith down for his first trip to the canvas, a punch he never recovered from. I rewatched the bout after my conversation with Mike and I believe he is onto something.
Here’s what happened in the fight. Griffith weighed 151 1/2 pounds while Carter came in at 157. Griffith was above his welterweight fighting weight while Carter was around his usual poundage.
Before the fight started the referee called the two men to the center of the ring for a final few words on the rules. Among his instructions were “I insist on a clean break”. When you watch the fight remember those words.
At the bell, the men came out of their corners and the action was lively. They traded quite a bit of leather over the first minute with each giving as good as he got. In the first clinch of the fight referee McTiernan called for the men to break, and they both stepped back, obeying his instruction, before resuming boxing.
A short while later the two again were exchanging punches with Carter landing a good left hook to the midsection of Griffith. a couple of seconds later they fell into another clinch. This is where Mike Silver’s shrewd observation comes into play. As with the first clinch, the referee calls for the men to break. Griffith steps back, but Carter, instead of stepping back, immediately jumps in with the left hook that floors Griffith. It is a powerful shot landing on Emile’s chin.
Griffith hit the canvas and got onto his knees while taking a nine count. When he arose he was wobbly and was dropped again. It was at this point the referee stopped the bout. It was all over at 2:13 of the first round.
Mike Silver makes the point that the blow landed by Carter was thrown and landed on the break when, by the rules, he should have stepped back before starting to fight again. I have watched this over and over and agree with Mike. It was basically a sucker punch and illegal. Did Carter do it on purpose? I think he did. Should he have been disqualified for it. Well, that’s a tough question to answer as it happened so quickly the fans would have certainly been in an uproar as most wouldn’t have seen what took place. Also, the old adage that a fighter must protect himself at all times would have been cited. But that adage doesn’t apply to illegal blows that occur when the referee’s instructions are not obeyed.
Remember, just a few months earlier Carter had lost a close decision to the very slick boxing Joey Archer. In that fight he was not able to land a knock blow on the elusive Archer. Ruben might have gotten it into his head that he had to pounce at any opportunity to get in a power shot on a smooth boxer such as Griffith, and not leave it up to the judges as happened with Archer. He saw his chance when the fighters broke from their first clinch. The referee did not step between them as some do, but rather trusted them to break cleanly on their own. The second clinch is where Carter took advantage of this chance to play by his own rules.
The two never fought again, but I am sure if they did Emile would have been very careful coming out of the clinches. The fight was a major win for Carter and led to him getting a shot at the crown a year later. In his title challenge he lost a fifteen round unanimous decision to Joey Giardello. Ruben put up a great fight and bruised the champion but could not land the power shot to end the fight.
Take a look at the Griffith vs Carter on Youtube. You have to watch closely, but if you do I believe you will see what I’m talking about. After the clinch before the knockdown you will see Carter pounce right on Emile without having stepped back as he was supposed to do. He did not break cleanly and that is how he scored the knockout. He never stepped back, and that is how he landed the punch that won him the fight.