Barbara Long Takes Apart The Archer-Griffith Bout Of 1966
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July 21, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 40
On One Hand in a Two-Handed Society
By Barbara Long
Three one-handed wonders showed up at Madison Square Garden last week. Joey Archer was there to take the middle-weight title away from Emile Griffith with a left jab. William Buckley Jr., came to see a white Irishman restore the social order as decreed by God, Russell Kirk, and Yale. Joe Namath, the Jets' Bonus Baby quarterback, was wearing a dark-blue blazer over his $400,000 passing arm. Of the three, only Namath has a chance of becoming Mayor.
It would take a data-processing machine collaborating with the late Martin Buber, or Murray Kempton working alone on a good day, to explain why the press, the audience, and the bookies chose to get sucked into giving even odds or, depending on the barber shop, Archer at 13-10.
Archer is a good fighter, clean and sharp, able to take command, dull to those who don't enjoy classic boxers instead of sluggers (and wary of Madison Square Garden decisions against Dick Tiger and Rubin Carter), with good legs, the best in his division. Proportionately too heavy for his 5'10", 159 1/2 pounds, he has a sweet left jab, no right hand, and absolutely nothing going for a knockout. Asked about his last knockout, Archer grins his embarrassed, unscarred, vulnerable smile and says something vague and pained about 1957, and his trainer Freddie Brown comes in on cue with "Joey's a late-bloomin' Irishman" and runs his hands over Archer's rib cage. Whitey Bimstein, Archer's other trainer and cut man, chomps on his cigar, looking lost since his Boswell, A.J. Liebling, died leaving him no new lines, and talks about how times change and you don't need no two hands no more to take care of "these jokers."
The audience was packed with Griffith Negroes, Griffith's mother and kin who easily cancel out all the progress made toward brotherhood, Bronx Irishmen, and three or four ringside-rows of WASPs who had come in straight from the Hamptons or stopped off first for dinner at their clubs. Archer has never been spectacular copy, he's one of the athletes impossible to write about excitingly, the shoals on which more than one writer has been grounded, but he has captured an out-of-the-corner-of-the-consciousness imagination of fight fans. He's the Artist, the anachronism, the man who fights despite and against and around his own limitations and shouldn't keep winning but did. Perfectly reasonable, knowledgeable fight fans give the decision to Archer sometimes simply because he took the best punches the other guy had and was left standing on his feet at the end of the last round. Otherwise unwhimsical people get arty when Archer fights. A 200-pound cigar-smoker won't blush when he says, "It's a hot night. The other guy is wearing satin, satin's lighter, so Archer's got the edge." Perhaps it's a comment -- but I wouldn't make it -- on a fragmented society that fight fans have no sure winner to identify with and choose instead a one-handed challenger. If Archer were to win the title with a left jab, then James T. Farrell would cop the Nobel Prize and a lot of other people would be able to live a full life with nothing going for them except will and a little talent.
Well, postwar Paris or no, Archer didn't win the fight. You don't win poker pots by thinking up royal flushes and no man can become champion with one hand and no power, but Archer fought good enough to justify a rematch and to win over a lot of people who couldn't stand The Ballet Dancer before. Archer's first five rounds were too wary and he let Griffith take them. Joey had to spend too much time getting off the ropes where he shouldn't have been in the first place. Archer takes punches beautifully, and he sustained some rocking left-right combinations to the head. He's a bad bleeder and the eighth round he was cut over the right eye, the result, he claims, of butting, but it didn't look like it was from the first row. There was a lot of animosity in that ring, less racial than hating the guy who had what the other guy wanted and the other guy not wanting to give it up, but it was a clean fight. Unfortunately, during two of the cutting rounds, Archer fell back to protect himself and lost possible points. He seemed mostly to be the victim of a transition in style that hadn't quite jelled by the time they left Grossinger's. He was somewhere in an ineffectual gap between his usual dancing-constantly-moving-tying-up style and a toe-to-toe slugging stance. Without the former he couldn't stay away from Griffith's hooks, without the latter he couldn't get off any strong punches, his punching ability an academic point at best. But he was stong-willed and tireless and the transitional style worked enough to make for his most interesting fight.
By the tenth round Griffith was tiring and Archer was coming on like a debutante between cotillions. Anyone hung up on dramatic gestures could tell how the decision was going by Freddie Brown's pat on Archer's buttocks as he sent the boy in for the 13th round, a fatherly you-lost-it-son-but-I-still-love-you. The entrails would have been right for the fight, wrong for the particular round. It was Archer's zingiest, he looked lovely. His best right to Griffith's jaw was in the 14th but it takes more than that to flatten the champion, and by then the show was over. The fight was spirited, not truly exciting, or, as George Plimpton said, "the way they should be," implying more the dullness of other fights than setting this as the alltime standard. The decision impeccable, the crowd well-behaved (extra security guards had been assigned, the Garden fearing a race riot, something indicated throughout the fight but petering out halfway through the first ten rounds), the Irish singularly uncharacteristic, showing a lack of rowdiness explained away less by Oscar Handlin than by Jimmy Archer, a former welterweight and brawler, Joey's brother and manager, who said simply, "The Irish is educated now." Neither the Irish nor the Archers had anything to be ashamed of, and once again the non-fighting audience was taught an old lesson: it's very dumb to identify with fighters, they're doing a highly specialized job that has nothing to do with outsiders. If it's any comfort to Joey Archer, from the tenth round on it was impossible to look up at his face and not see the particular beauty of Joey Giardello's, that gorgeous map of more than a hundred fights, those scars and ridges and landscaping that make him look like a pro doing his job. A year ago, Giardello told me, "Archer he just ain't hungry enough": Giardello could now sit down to dinner with the one-handed contender.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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