“My father and my brother, Tim, went to Johny Coulon’s Boxing Gym on the Southside to teach for 70 cents and ended up buying the gym," Montell Griffin says. "And I just started boxing at the gym all the time. I was two, three years old.”
Having reorganized Coulon's Gym as Windy City Boxing Club, Inc. in 1973, his father, Clarence Griffin, gained a reputation as a solid trainer and often trained Muhammad Ali when he was in town. In fact, Ali became such good friends that he regularly invited Clarence and little Montell over to his house. No doubt, this played a role in the young Griffin's development as a fighter.
A Southsider from 101st and Lowe, Montell Griffin would got on to compete in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain and, as a pro, win the WBC World Light Heavyweight Title over the much-touted Roy Jones Jr. at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, NJ on March 21, 1997.
That night at the Taj Majal, Griffin was surprising everyone with the level of his success against a fighter who hardly ever lost a round. Fighting well in the early going, Griffin got caught with some hard blows and took a knee to regroup in the ninth round. Moments later, Jones exploded with a wicked left-right combination to the head and Griffin, who was still down on a knee, collapsed face first to the canvas and could not continue. He was counted out by referee Tony Perez, but New Jersey Athletic Director Larry Hazzard intervened, awarding Griffin the title by disqualification for being hit twice while he was down. At 27 years old, Griffin (27-0, 18 KOs) had just upset the world's best fighter and was now the new 175 lb. World Champ.
Short for a light heavyweight fighter at 5’ 7”, Griffin relied more on skill, movement and moxie than brawn. “I was a boxer,” he says of his style. “I never looked to be a big puncher, so I just tried to out-brain and out-point my opponent.” With trainers Eddie Futch and Thell Torrence guiding him, he did that quite well.
Along the way, he twice defeated triple weight class world champion James Toney — who would go on to win his third world title at cruiserweight and stop a faded Evander Holyfield (2003) en route to a glorious run at a world heavyweight title.
However, Griffin’s reign as Champ was short-lived. Nearly eight months later after winning the title, on August 7, 1997 at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, CN, Jones blitzed him out at 2:31 of the first round to regain his world title.
Despite the setback, Griffin went on to accumulate a record of 50-8-1 with 30 knockouts, facing rugged contenders and champions alike, including Eric Harding, Dariusz Michalczewski, Derrick Harmon, Antonio Tarver, Julio Cesar Gonzales, Glen Johnson and Beibut Shumanov. He was stopped only two more times — against Michalczewski (in 1999 for the latter’s WBO World Light Heavyweight Title) and versus Glen Johnson (in 2007 for the IBF Light Heavyweight Eliminator).
Now 46 with a shiny, clean-shaven skull and the thick shoulders of a former athlete, the African-American Montell Grifin spoke with candor -- and a hint of sadness -- via cell phone.
On Growing Up
Born the youngest of four children to Clarence Griffin and Sandra Johnson (a homemaker), Griffin says, “We wasn’t rich or nothing but we had a decent house. I didn’t miss any meals. I heard my mother and father complain about money, but I mean we didn’t do without too much. We did okay.”
With his father running Windy City Boxing Gym, Griffin says, “as a baby to 12, 13 years old, I was just boxing. I didn’t really start getting into other sports until my father passed away.”
“I had my first fight at five years old. I fought a kid named Lee Turner, who I’m still cool with to this day,” Griffin says. “I keep in touch with him today.”
On Meeting ‘The Greatest’, Muhammad Ali, as a child
“My father showed me all the boxing tapes, all the great fighters. He had a projector, he had all the tapes of fighters and was watching them,” Griffin reminisces. “He showed me Muhammad Ali and when I saw Muhammad Ali, it just hit something. It caught me more than any other fighter.
“I was five years old and he took me to go meet him. When he was in town, Ali lived in Hyde Park. It was a nice neighborhood,” Griffin continues. “Maybe a ten minute drive down the street. And you know when he was in town, he would come to my father’s gym to train. They got real close and he invited us to his house. We just spent a lot of time there.
"He made everybody feel special...I feel he was the most honorable of celebrities," he says, the admiration readily apparent in his voice. "The way he carried himself...he was personable to anybody, he'd sign every autograph, take every picture and everybody felt good. He was never arrogant."
“It was straight. I mean, I didn’t understand how big it was until I became a grown man. I just seen how people reacted to my pictures from being with Muhammad Ali. I didn’t know how big it was till I grew up and got old.”
On his father passing
“I fought a couple tournaments, a couple show fights and then my father passed away in April of ’83,” says Griffin. “I was 12 or 13 and when he passed away. My mother made me quit. I just got away from boxing.”
His father was working a corner at a fight in Atlantic City when he suffered a heart attack and passed away (www.philly.com).
“It affected me tremendously,” he says. “He was the closest person in my life. He meant the most to me at that time of my life. It took a lot away from me.”
To fill the void, he then turned to “just doing the regular things of a teenager: hung out with friends, played basketball, tried to talk to the girls — you know, stuff like that — sneaking a drink or beer.”
On continuing his fight career in the amateurs
“I came back (to boxing) in ’91,” says Griffin, who’d packed on a lot of weight in the time off. “I fought heavyweight my first two fights and then I got back down to light heavyweight. I made it to the National Golden Gloves and fought Jeremy Williams, who was like the best fighter in America.”
That was an understatement. Williams would later turn professional and terrorize the heavyweights with his fearsome power (like many punchers, his chin was his undoing). He challenged Henry Akinwande for the WBO World Heavyweight Title and lost by knockout in the third round (1996) in accumulating a record of 43-5-1 with 35 KOs.
“I fought a very controversial fight with (Williams) and, after that, I felt like I was good enough to make it — to make the team, so I kept striving.
“A year later, I ended up I won the U.S. Championships, which made me number one, and I got a position in the Olympic Trials,” Griffin explains. “After that, I fought in the trials, made it to the championship, but they picked a guy (Frank Vassar,) who I beat to go to the box-offs, and it just so happened that my father got a big time lawyer, and we sued USA Boxing, and they gave me another chance to make it in, and I made it to go to the Olympic games.
"I ended up beating Jeremy Williams, the guy who I lost to in the National Golden Gloves.
“(Williams was a) big puncher — fast, athletic,” he recollects. “He had over a hundred amateur knockouts and people ask me, ‘how did he punch?’ and I was fortunate to tell them, 'I don’t know ‘cause he never hit me with a clean shot.' I was the first American to ever beat him, so it was a huge accomplishment."
At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Griffin made it to the quarter-finals, where he lost to Germany’s Torsten May by controversial decision (May won the Gold Medal and, as a pro, fought for cruiserweight world title honors, racking up a record of 22-3 with 12 KOs in the process).
“I cut his eye open. I was beating him by points, and with 46 seconds to go, they took two penalties from me, saying my hands was low," Griffin grouses. "I was wining it, and they took three points from me — and I lost.” Still, he'd fought in the Olympics, and nobody could take that away from him.
A Sign of Things to Come
Basking in the afterglow of his Olympics experience, Griffin received a fortuitous phone call after he returned home.
“James Toney was my favorite fighter as an amateur. I got home from the Olympics and I was really excited,” Griffin recounts. “And (Toney’s manager) Jackie Kallen called me to come up to the camp ‘cause they wanted to sign me up. I ended up sparring him as an amateur and I did pretty good. I guess we didn’t agree on the numbers, so I went back home. It just worked out three years later that we fought, so.”
On Beating James Toney twice as a Pro
Turning pro in February 2003, Griffin was only 14-0 when he first fought James Toney, an exceptional throwback fighter who had previously held the IBF Middleweight Title and sported a record of 44-1-2. On the line was the IBF Intercontinental Light Heavyweight Title. Boxing and moving smartly, on February 18, 1995 Griffin won by unanimous decision that night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
“Styles make fights. He had all the techniques in the world but he had slow legs; he couldn’t move and I took advantage,” Griffin says. “I made him pick up his feet and he couldn’t move his feet and throw punches, so that was our game plan.”
He proved that win was no fluke by defeating Toney by unanimous decision again — this time for the World Boxing Union Light Heavyweight Title at the Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nevada in December 1996.
‘Jonesing' for a World Title — On Roy Jones and Comparing Him with James Toney
The win over Toney earned him a crack at Roy Jones, Jr. three months later, on March 21, 1997 and with his disqualification win, he was now World Champion. However, five months later, Jones made it appear as an anomaly, redeeming himself with a lunging left hook 2:31 into the first round.
When asked if he thought Jones was flat out better than him, Griffin took exception.
“I can’t agree with you that Jones had my number. I thought I was winning that fight — the first fight — and he got frustrated,” he asserts. “I took a knee and he hit me while I was down ‘cause he was frustrated. He didn’t want to fight no more. I thought I was winning the fight and he hit me while I took a knee for a reason.”
And in regards to their rematch, he is adamant that he was setup to lose.
“In the rematch, I didn’t warm up five minutes." While the television screens showed Jones warming up, Griffin was still in his street clothes. "I didn’t warm up! HBO wanted to give him his title back — and he got it back. I didn’t warm up five minutes for that fight! I was rushed out but it’s the past and I’m not even worried about it no more.”
Pressed to compare Jones with Toney, he says, “I think James Toney is a much better technical fighter. I think Roy Jones has a much better God God-given ability. And people who know boxing understand what I’m saying.
“But James Toney partied and wasn’t disciplined about making weight…and it probably was the downfall of his career. At one point, technical wise, I think he was a great fighter.”
A typical training day when preparing for a fight in his prime
“I would get up five, six in the morning, run three miles, come home, eat a breakfast, take a nap; maybe go to the gym at 1:00 o’clock, work heavy — eight, nine rounds on the bag; seven, eight rounds sparring, and I had my other days, Sunday running, doing sprints…(and) a weight workout.”
On His Favorite Moments as a Boxer
“Making the Olympic Team was the greatest experience of my life,” Griffin says, the smile clear in his voice.
"Just winning it for my father (after) watching Sugar Ray Leonard win the Gold Medal; Leonard was a very great model for me because of my father. So, that was my best experience of my life."
“The second James Toney Fight was probably the apex of my pro career (as) it proved to the world that my first win wasn’t a fluke," he maintains. "(After) beating him the first time, I came back and beat him easy a second time.”
On his TKO losses to Michaelczewski and Glen Johnson
“The Roy Jones fight was the only one I’ve ever been hurt in my life!” he asserts.
“Darriusz Michaelzewski — the ref stopped the fight for no reason. He probably took a payoff, whatever. I was winning every round, winning every scorecard. The man came to do a combination and the bell was ringing and (referee) Joe Cortez went over and stopped the fight for no reason," Griffin complains. "I wasn’t knocked down, I wasn’t rocked, I wasn’t dazed.” I can hear the pain in his voice. “He stopped the fight for no reason. He took a payoff. Why would he stop the fight?”
“Against Glen Johnson, I’m not taking anything away from him (but) I overtrained. I left everything in the gym; I wasn’t my best. (Still,) he beat me fair and square.” Griffin concedes.
“My brother stopped the fight because he didn’t want to see me get hurt. I wasn’t knocked down,I wasn’t hurt.” he says. “My brother stopped the fight because he wanted my best and he was looking out for my health.”
On His Lows in Boxing
When asked about the low points in his career, Griffin didn't have to think very long.
"I had fought Roy Jones a second time and I felt that by not being allowed to warm up..." His voice trails off. "And I fought Eric Harding and I beat him, but lost a terrible decision. And, I went to Germany to fight Michaldzewski and Joe Cortez stabbed me in my back, so after that, I was just tired of the business of boxing."
On being inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014 after feeling slighted
"I mean, I was always slighted my whole career," he says. "Anything I've done, I've never gotten justice or respect for it. Even getting inducted into the California thing instead of in Illinois, where I grew up in and was born (was very telling)."
I only lived in L.A. for three years, and I had a lot of fights there. I spent a lot of time there. They showed me a whole lot more love than my own state. (Getting inducted) meant a lot to me."
On What He’s Doing Nowadays
Now married to his second wife, Sonia, for eight years with four children, he's a Cook County Sheriff and working on putting a professional boxing team together.
“I'm actually in the gym now working with (super bantamweight) Shawn Simpson (1-0, 1 KO) and Nicholas Asbury (a heavyweight from Waukegan, IL) — he’s 9 and O as a pro. I’m trying to put together a stable," he confides. "I want to be a promoter full-time and just give back to the game."
His Thoughts on the Light Heavyweight Division and Boxing in General
“I think it’s beautiful right now. You’ve got ‘The Krusher’ Kovalev, you’ve got Andre Ward — a beautiful fight,” he enthuses. “You’ve got ‘Superman’ Adonis Stevenson. Even though Fonfara lost to Smith, he’ll be back in the mix -- and you’ve got Joe Smith, Jr. now with his big win over Fonfara. You’ve got Beterbiev, the puncher who beat Kovalev as amateurs. The light heavyweight division is in good hands!”
“I think boxing is in a great place right now. You have all the up and coming guys — Errol Spence, you’ve got Crawford fighting Postol, Thurman, Porter, Kell Brook — I can just keep on — Adrien Broner. I’m looking forward to Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua! Boxing’s in great hands, straight up.”
“Thanks for all my fans,” he says. “I always took the game serious. I appreciate the game…I appreciate it because I tried my best.”