Montell Griffin: Best I Faced
During a career that spanned two decades Montell Griffin constantly looked to test himself against the best light heavyweights of his generation, prevailing when not expected to, twice upsetting James Toney and a prime Roy Jones Jr.
Griffin says he was involved in boxing from as far back as he can remember and eventually found time to become friends with his boyhood hero.
“My father bought Windy City Gym from Johnny Coulon, the [former] bantamweight champion of the world [in the early 1910s] in ‘72, ‘73,” Griffin told RingTV.com. “Muhammad Ali lived in Hyde Park, a section of Chicago (at the time), like 10 minutes from my father’s gym and every time he was in town he would come train and my father got real familiar with Ali and they became friends. He invited us over to the house, we went up to Pennsylvania.
“My life was great growing up. I was in the gym doing what I wanted to do, I was hanging out Muhammad Ali on a regular basis.”
However, things changed dramatically when he lost his father when he was 12 years old and his mother made him give up boxing. He lived the life of an average teenager.
At 20, things came full circle and he decided to return to boxing in January ‘91.
“I beat all the best light heavyweights in the country (as an amateur),” he said. “I beat Jeremy Williams, Terry McGroom, John Ruiz [future heavyweight champion]. I made the (1992) Olympic team.
“It was the greatest experience of my boxing life. I was more proud of myself making the Olympic team than anything else I did in boxing. As a 22 years old, it blew my mind. I was there with the Dream Team, I got a chance to meet Carl Lewis, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippin, Pat Ewing, Charles Barkley and other top stars.
“I beat Torsten May [who went on to win the gold medal] but I got robbed on national TV. I cut his eye open, the fight should have been stopped.”
Griffin turned professional with minimal fanfare in early 1993, quietly going about his business.
After a handful of fights his manager took him to Washington D.C where he met the late, great Eddie Futch. After getting the better of a sparring session with three-weight world champion Mike McCallum, Futch welcomed Griffin to the team.
“It was great experience,” Griffin said of training with the Hall of Fame trainer. “Him being around Joe Louis, he trained Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe, Mike McCallum, Marlon Starling, to have him as a trainer was great. He had trained all these great fighters and for him to say I was good enough to train was nothing but a compliment.”
Griffin grew up around his idol Ali. Futch trained Frazier, Norton and Holmes, all who fought Ali, which lead to some interesting conversations.
“We’d always go back and forth on who was the best… One time he said, ‘I gave Ali his first two losses.’ I said, ‘But you fought against him seven times, 2-5 ain’t a good record,’ and we laughed.”
Under Futch’s tutelage Griffin progressed and beat veteran David Vedder before getting off the canvas to take Ray Lathon’s unbeaten record. He parlayed the Lathon victory in to a big fight with Toney.
“Three months earlier before he lost to Roy he was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” Griffin pointed out. “I was a huge underdog but I had confidence in myself, I knew I could win.
“Styles make fights. I sparred James in 1992 when I was an Olympian, I was still amateur and he was two-time world champion and I gave him the fluff and there was nothing he could do with me.
“So when my manager asked me if I could beat him I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve sparred him in 1992 this was ‘95, I know I’ve got better.’ The first fight I just thought I outworked James.”
Beating Toney didn’t open the expected doors: “After that fight James Toney was still a bigger star than me, he was on TV fights, I was offered one TV fight.”
The diminutive boxer continued to bide his time, beating Matthew Charleston on the undercard of Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota for the NABF title helped gain some leverage in the division.
“Then I started getting more respect,” he explained. “I was offered a WBC fight with Mike McCallum, but it was for an eliminator and then I got a call to fight James Toney in a rematch and the money that HBO offered me to fight James Toney was so much more than what Jose Sulaimán offered me that I picked James Toney.”
In the fall of ‘96, “Ice” repeated his win over Toney.
“We both had 10 fights [since the first fight] and my experience was better and I was on a whole other level and I beat him easy,” he said. “My thing with James was to fight when he didn’t want to fight. When I would throw four, five punch combinations I would always catch him at the end with the last two shots. I’d outwork him.”
Griffin finally got his title opportunity against a prime Jones Jr. for the WBC belt.
“Me and Eddie Futch and Thell Torrence looked over tapes at what his weaknesses were, we had a great game plan the whole fight,” he said. “Things were going my way, I had probably my best round in round eight. Then round nine, I made a mistake, he threw a right hand and instead of me blocking it, I tried to ride with it and he caught me on the back of the head and I was dizzy, I moved around and wasn’t going to let him land another shot, I told myself, ‘I know I’m winning the fight, take a knee and we’ll give up the knockdown and win these last three rounds and win the fight.’
“I took a knee and looked up and he hit me, I looked at the referee like what the hell is he doing and he loaded up with a hard left hook and it hit me so hard I wasn’t prepared for it and I was out of it. I just thank God I never lost consciousness, ’cause it was a dirty shot. I heard the referee counting but it was like I was paralyzed, I got up after the count, I was real upset and I heard my brother say Larry Hazzard was going to disqualify him for hitting me when I was down. That was OK but I never wanted to win it like that, I felt as though I could beat Roy fair and square.”
On same weekend also in Atlantic City the WBA convention was taking place, Griffin attended and felt better when referee Mills Lane and then world champions Nate Miller and Michael Nunn told him, ‘Don’t be mad, don’t worry about it, you won the fight, he did it ’cause he was frustrated, don’t be ashamed of yourself, you’re the champ.’
Futch lined up a fight with super middleweight titlist Steve Collins. Ultimately, Griffin decided to take the rematch with Jones but didn’t have the experience of Futch in his corner.
“I didn’t warm up five minutes for that fight. Didn’t have a dressing room. Instead of taking my time and being prepared like I should have been. I’ve got to live with it the rest of my life that I lost to Roy in one round.”
He rebounded to win 11 of his next 12 outings before gaining a title shot, traveling to Germany to face long reigning WBO boss Dariusz Michalczewski.
The American challenger outboxed the champion before the fight was stopped in Round 4 in what he believes was spurious actions on the part of the referee.
“I had my way with him for three rounds, I was dominating Michalczewski,” he said. “He hit me with a few shots at the bell and Joe Cortez stopped the fight for no reason, I wasn’t knocked down, I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t out on my feet.”
Griffin fought on; his final title attempt came in 2003 when he fought Antonio Tarver for the vacant WBC and IBF titles, losing a wide decision.
He walked away from boxing in 2008 but returned a few years later to claim his 50th win. He is now retired with a record of 50-8-1, 30 knockouts.
Griffin, 46, moved back to Chicago in 2005 from Las Vegas. He has been a County Sheriff for six years. He is married and has four children. He loves all sports and presents a radio show every Tuesday called Ice Sports on WZONRADIO.com and also does stand up comedy.
RingTV.com caught up with Griffin and spoke with him about the best he faced in 10 key categories.
Antonio Tarver: I’ve never been hit by a clean jab in my career. One thing I could do was take away all fighters jabs. Roy [Jones Jr.] didn’t throw a jab, James [Toney] couldn’t really hit me with a jab, I guess you could say [Antonio] Tarver because of his reach and distance and he was a southpaw.
James Toney: James Toney without a doubt. Roy really wasn’t a great defensive fighter, he was just so fast. James was a much better fundamental fighter than Roy, especially defensively. He was only like 5’9, so he fought in a crouch, he had his chin tucked real good and he rolled with punches so good.
Toney: He’s never been knocked out, never been stopped, he’s been knocked down a couple of times, flash knock downs. He fought from middleweight to heavyweight and nobody has been able to stop him.
Roy Jones Jr.: Without a doubt, there is no comparison. I’ve never been in the ring with anyone in my life as fast as Roy Jones. I sparred Floyd Mayweather and he’s 25 pounds lighter than Roy and nobody could compare. I could see some of the punches coming but there were some shots that he threw that came so fast even though I blocked it, I couldn’t believe how fast it was.
Jones Jr: Probably Roy. He doesn’t move a lot, his hands were much faster than his feet were but he could move around. A lot of guys I fought they stood in one spot, Tarver, James [Toney], [Julio Cesar] Gonzalez, Glen Johnson, Roy could probably move faster than them.
Toney: With James he would set a trap, he would pity pat you, throw four, five punches, real soft punches and it would lull you to sleep and let your guard down, so you’re thinking he’s not trying to hurt me and then he’d try to load up on a hard shot. That was one thing that was smart that he did.
Ray Lathon: I fought Ray Lathon in my 14th fight, he’s physically the strongest fighter I fought in my life. [Dariusz Michalczewski], really wasn’t nothing special about him, he was just in tip-top shape.
Lathon: Without a doubt Ray Lathon. I’ve sparred heavyweight champions, Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster, Samuel Peter and nobody hit me harder than Ray Lathon.
Toney: James was taught by Bill Miller, he was an old school trainer, James had all the tricks, the shoulder rolls, his chin was tucked perfectly, he had good head movement. He’ll pick you apart, if you’re not careful, like he did Iran Barkley. I was a slick fighter too and I was a little more busy than James and I’d like to say I was a little quicker than James.
Jones Jr: For his athleticism and God given talent, I’d say Roy; but (as far as being) fundamentally sound, I’d say James.
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