WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | February 2004

Hellinger on Griffo

By Mark Hellinger

Mark Hellinger was the Broadway reporter for the
New York Daily News through most of the roaring twenties. The following was taken from Hellinger's column of May 8, 1927.

In this very heart of Times Square, when the sun goes down and the lights begin to flicker, an elderly man can always be found walking slowly down 42nd Street. Gingerly he picks his way. When he reaches a certain exit in the rear of the Rialto theater, he sits down upon the doorstep. And there, for hours at a time, he sits. And sits. And sits. Thousands of people pass to and fro in front of him. Tall men. Small men. Dapper flappers. Whipper-snappers. To and fro. To and fro. And the old man sits and watches‹day by day, month by month, year by year.

His name is Young Griffo. You don't remember him, do you? Very few people do.

Some 30 years ago, a slim, lithe Australian youth stepped into a Coney Island fight ring. His eyes were as clear as eyes can be. His body glowed. He was Young Griffo, the cleverest featherweight America had ever seen.

No question about his abilities. His adversaries just couldn't hit him. Why, the fellow was superhuman. He could spread a handkerchief, stand upon it and defy you to hit him. He would duck this way and that -- that way and this. "Griffo!" they cried. "Go to it, Griffo! Hooray, Griffo!"

And Griffo went to it. Jabbing, feinting, ducking. One round. Two rounds. Four rounds. Suddenly he stopped playing. His right arm shot out with terrific force. Again. Once again. And his opponent lay senseless on the floor.

Griffo leaped nimbly from the ring. Men pressed forward to clasp his hand. And that night, as was his custom, he stood in a barroom and drank away the thousand dollars he had just earned by being the cleverest fighter in the world.

Some 10 or 11 years ago, when the Rialto theater was thrown open to the public, a dilapidated creature came to be a familiar figure to those who passed. He was a fat man. A greasy man. And generally drunk. But he harmed no one. And asked nothing from anyone. He had a favorite spot. It was on a doorstep in the rear of the theater. Twilight would find him wending his way to that spot. And midnight would find him rising wearily, stretching his arms and plodding off into the darkness.

Since he did no begging and was as meek as a lamb, they allowed this shabby man to enjoy the strange pleasure of sitting still and watching the people pass. When a new policeman eyed him suspiciously, there was always someone to explain that this was Young Griffo. And the reaction was invariably the same.

"Is that Young Griffo? You don't say!"

Griffo, if he heard, would make no sign. He would merely blink blearily, sink back and watch the crowds pass on. ...

One evening last week, we walked up to that Rialto doorstep and sat down beside Young Griffo.

"Hain't much to tell," he said. "Hi fought the best of 'em in my day. Made plenty of money. Blew it all long ago. And 'ere I am."

"You've been sitting in this same spot for 10 years or so," we remarked. "What's the idea?"

"I dunno," he said. "I just like it, that's all. You see, I can see most everything that's to be seen from this 'ere spot. Try it yourself. Sit quiet for a while and look about you. I've been settin' here for a long time, I guess. But if I sat here for a thousand years, I don't guess I'd see half there is to be seen. Try it yourself." So we, too, watched. People. People. Girls hurrying to dates. Boys rushing to avoid dates. Policemen. Cab drivers. Grandpas. Drama. Comedy. Stupidity. Laughter. Tears. People. People. People.

"Always liked crowds," Griffo was saying. "That time I fought Ike Weir, the Belfast Soldier. What a crowd turned hout that night! Won't forget that hin in a 'urry, I won't. "Sure. Always liked crowds. Wish I'd saved a little o' the dough some o' them crowds paid to see me fight. But there ain't no use wishin', is there?"

We nodded and he smiled and we left him. And, on the way downtown, we pondered on the sadness of it all.

There was a man who had lived and thrived on the hoorays of the crowds. Every time the gong rang for the opening of a round, the applause of the fight fans rang in his ears. And now what has he?

He just sits. And sits. And sits. The only gong he hears is the clang of the trolley car as it bounces over the tracks. And the only applause that reaches his ears trickles out from the movie theater as the patrons cheer the newsreel that shows them Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. ...

Just before writing this story, we stopped off at the corner cigar store to see the Old Timer. "Say," we said, "you're a great fight fan. We want to do a story on Young Griffo. Remember him?"

"Remember him?" the Old Timer cried. "Say, he was the greatest little fighter I ever saw. There was nobody in the world at his weight that could touch him."

He looked at us.

"When you write your story," he said, "give Griffo a break. I don't know where he is or what's happened to him. But take it from me, he was one of the finest fighters the world ever saw. Give him a break, will you?"

We nodded, lit a cigarette and departed. Coming into our office, we wandered into the sporting department and there we met a young boxing writer.

"Say," we said. "Have you any record books handy? We want to do a story on Young Griffo."

The young man looked at us. "Young Griffo?" he puzzled. "That old pug? What the devil makes you want to write a story on that old has-been?"

And that, Roscoe, is just the way the world goes. ...

Seven months after Mark Hellinger published this column, Young Griffo was dead.

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