How Montreal's Dark Side Shaped Tough-As-Nails Boxing Ref Michael Griffin
It's hard not to see Griffin's job as a metaphor for his life. The same qualities he praises boxing for instilling in people—how to operate under duress and overcome oneself—have been instrumental to his survival.
Photo by Manny Montreal
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Foregoing the pageantry of a catchphrase, boxing referee Michael Griffin delivers a stone-faced blessing before the first round. His veiled bearing is a curiosity, because in a sport where fighters steel themselves against weakness, an official may own its most impenetrable face. This poise, so conspicuous, is informed by wisdom particular to his milieu, and has armoured the Montrealer against events far more perilous than a prizefight. Striking in its secrecy, what might his mask conceal?
Last weekend, Griffin refereed Keith Thurman's split-decision win over Danny Garcia at the Barclays Center. It was a high-profile assignment, one of many in a 20-year career, and came seven days after he presided over heavyweight titleist Deontay Wilder's feral knockout of Gerald Washington in Alabama. He remained mostly invisible throughout Saturday's clean, tightly-fought match, and often out of camera shot. As inconspicuous control is the mark of a fine official, this was exemplary work.
Since his professional debut in 1997, Griffin has refereed over 300 fights in 10 different countries. He's been in with pound-for-pound dynamos Roman Gonzalez and Naoya Inoue, and worked high-profile bouts at Madison Square Garden, like Miguel Cotto's destruction of a hobbled Sergio Martinez in 2014, and Wladimir Klitschko's dreadful 2015 title defense against Bryant Jennings. In Quebec he officiated Arturo Gatti's only Canadian professional appearance in 2000, a slew of Adonis Stevenson matches, and oversaw Jean Pascal's first fight with Bernard Hopkins as well as his doomed rematch versus Sergey Kovalev. He is among the best referees in the world.
Occupying the back corner of Honey Martin, the popular bar he owns in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (N.D.G.), a west Montreal neighbourhood where his story begins, Griffin describes his ascent. The 58-year-old is a patron of the local indie music scene, in which his nephew leads a rising band, and he's married to a well-known artist whose work hangs on the surrounding walls. His appearance is still youthful, and unlike on television where Griffin delivers gruff, deadpanned instructions to fighters, he is animated in conversation and smiles easily.
The referee is well-known in N.D.G., where he grew up in a large Catholic family. As a child he played a variety of sports but it was in boxing where the Griffin boys found their purpose. Michael developed into a fine amateur as he and his brothers formed close bonds with the city's eminent fighting clans, like the Hiltons, Gattis, and Grants—all formative players in Montreal boxing history. Economically—and by extension, temperamentally—this maturation occurred in a different era, one far removed from N.D.G.'s current affluence, where expectations of male behaviour were clearly circumscribed and a masculine ethic prevailed.
It was in this environment that boxing flourished in Montreal. Gatti, the darling welterweight whose life ended amid questionable circumstances in 2009, typifies the ideal of a Montreal boxer. "The United States have claimed Arturo," Griffin said, but "his fighting character, which people love—and I take some pride in this—came out of here. We were the blood-and-guts city."
Montreal's premium on toughness wasn't restricted to the ring. Griffin says a transformative event from his childhood occurred when he was called upon to fight in a local park. Though the odds recommended staying home, he showed up. "All of a sudden people start treating me differently," he says, recalling its impact on his reputation and—with an ironic laugh—how it only made future competition more fierce.
Where the Griffin family is concerned, reputation is a loaded word. As brothers John and Richard came of age, they became formidable presences in the neighbourhood and beyond, and their passages through the streets climaxed ruinously. John Griffin, a former professional boxer and Michael's older brother by one year, is serving a life sentence for killing a man over a drug debt in 2003; Richard, six years younger, was shot to death in 2006, supposedly as retaliation for blocking a debt payment to the Mafia by a man who also owed Griffin money. Both were reportedly involved in organized crime.
"Obviously there were some mistakes made by certain people," Griffin says. "There were some choices that weren't ideal, and a lot of suffering was brought on by these choices." Griffin says he's been pressured by people on both sides of the law and that his children have faced public discrimination. He also mentions the reluctance some have to do business with him. But rather than brood over his public reputation, Griffin is confident those in the community know his true character. "The people who know me around here are legion," he says. "Go out there and do your job, don't worry so much about what people make of you."
(Reputation, Shakespeare wrote, "is an idle and most false imposition." This month, the Montreal Gazette incorrectly reported that a Blainville, Quebec man charged in a drug-trafficking case named Robert Griffin was one of Michael's brothers. Though the referee does have a brother named Robert, he had nothing to do with the police investigation.)
How did all of this start? "I think we were guys originally who took a stand because we weren't the type of guys [who] could get pushed," he says, describing the embryonic stage in which the brothers' reputations were made. "It wasn't to get anything more, to grow bigger, it was just to say, 'No, we're not backing up.'" The resolute stance made by the Griffin boys would transform once his brothers graduated into more serious activities, but in speaking with Michael, it's clear that a quiet, unyielding self-confidence forms the bedrock of his personality.
When the conversation shifts to societal changes that have impacted boxing, he contrasts the hysteria over bullying and micro-aggressions with his own experiences. "I've been beat up in my life," he says. "I've been threatened by guys who are professionals at threatening people. [But] bullying requires my capitulation. I have to participate in my own bullying."
Though not one to engineer his own victimization, Griffin's calm, experienced manner is devoid of machismo. The irreversible events of his life would disabuse anyone who romanticizes violence.
In one of the conversation's most powerful moments, he diffuses the archetype—so pervasive in cinematic representations of boxing as a sport bathed in criminality–of the swaggering gangster who subdues others with force. "What people don't understand is being a tough guy is the ability to suffer," he says, turning on its head the idea that deceives so many young men. "You don't get to be a tough guy hurting people. You get to be a tough guy getting hurt. When it isn't your day, you stay."
Saturday's assignment is further proof of Griffin's stature. He works frequently and in disparate locations because he's trusted by the sport's establishment. David Berlin, former executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission, praises his style. "I saw Mike as among our best referees licensed in New York, and I see him among the best in the world. The ideal is what's called the invisible referee, who's not seen and doesn't interfere with the action unless there's a moment where it's necessary to get involved, and Mike was all of those things. He became involved when necessary, he had excellent control of the ring and he has enough confidence in his ability that he's able to stay back and not get involved when the fight doesn't call for it."
Griffin is deeply interested in his work, a student of the sport and its history, and to speak with him about boxing is to receive an education. During an almost three-hour conversation, he accurately name checks dozens of people, gives nuanced criticisms of top fighters, discusses its evolution as a business, and at one point, when the conversation moves to a pretty backyard garden he maintains behind the bar, Griffin gives an impressive demonstration of Roy Jones Jr.'s underrated footwork (which, more than his hand speed, is what allowed Jones to close on his opponents so quickly, he says).
He is committed to boxing and eager to revisit many of his fights, offering insight on critical details that get lost to television, and admitting one situation in which he erred (stopping a bout before one beaten fighter had a chance to recuperate). "We have the famous line in officiating, 'Better one punch too soon than one punch too late,'" he says, shaking his head in disagreement. "Better on time. There's a lot of great, great fights that would have been dramatically different had it been, 'One punch too soon.'" Making critical decisions from within the maelstrom is a difficult job, and while Griffin doesn't expect credit for refereeing competently, his even temperament is well-suited to handling the pressure and vicissitudes of high-stakes boxing.
Francis Lafreniere, a beloved local middleweight whose evokes the firebrand Montreal legacy, has been refereed twice by Griffin and praises his work. "The good refs let boxers work, regardless of their style, and respect the rules. Michael is fair. He let me work in my own style. There were no premature stoppages." This sort of endorsement may be the only one Griffin—who sees his role as that of a protector—needs.
"What I'm there for is to make sure nobody gets in over their head," he says. "Nobody gets to win breaking the rules," before adding that, "the biggest compliment when you're reffing is when both fighters want to get back in the ring with you."
Beyond shielding fighters from their own bravery, the referee lends moral absolution to a brutal business.
"What a referee does is sanitize boxing," Griffin says. "Just his presence. His presence in the ring allows you to cheer for that guy to get knocked out."
Spectators can look at the referee and say "that guy's job is to take care of [the other fighter], not mine," and thus release themselves of the ethical burden that attends seeing someone damaged for their entertainment. But if it's the referee's role to sanitize boxing, it's the subjective, singular thrill fighting provides that legitimizes it.
Successful refs are keen psychologists, who understand why people fight and provide the oversight needed for them to do it fairly. "Fighters work outside a system," Griffin says, describing the individualism of boxers and their disdain for reputations and externally-mandated limits—traits so obvious in a personality like Bernard Hopkins. "Nobody who [becomes successful] is humble. Nobody got there with a small ego. And I don't say those things with any negative connotation. Those characteristics are necessary to survive in this business."
Contrary to what elements fighters ascribe their success to ("we had a good camp", etc.), their victory springs from overcoming themselves, a process that ends only when self-mastery becomes subjugation. The nearly 52-year-old Hopkins experienced this in December when he was knocked through the ropes in his retirement bout. "[A fighter] knows 'I beat this guy today because I suffered better than him,'" Griffin says. "A fighter is never finished. You stand over a guy until somebody stands over you. That's the way it ends."
Griffin's own journey in boxing hasn't ended yet. He remains a fixture of the Montreal scene, over four decades after his introduction to it. Steeped in history, replete with interesting characters and loaded with talent, both homegrown and international, the city's boxing milieu bursts with life. Unfortunately, given its embarrassing lack of coverage in the English press, Montreal's position as a global fight capital is unknown to many sports fans outside of Quebec. If this scene's mythology could be distilled into one person, Griffin may be it, for his story is representative of the possibilities life in Montreal affords—on both sides of its Manichean divide.
"Montreal is my home. I think there's a certain right that I have here now," he says, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun. "We have established our right to be here. Nothing was ceded to us, not by illegitimate forces and certainly not by legitimate forces, either. I'm not asking anybody for my position here in Montreal. I'm responsible to my neighbourhood, too. I'm responsible to my city, so it's not a confrontational thing."
It's hard not to see Griffin's job as a metaphor for his life. The same qualities he praises boxing for instilling in people—how to operate under duress and overcome oneself—have been instrumental to his survival. Having experienced deadly violence and its accompanying scrutiny, he remains very much in public view as both a representative and protector of his own family. Not coincidentally, the referee's duty to protect is what Griffin says drew him to the role.
The face Griffin wears inside the ring suggests an impartiality of character, but it is merely the trapdoor that conceals a well. Working from an emotional remove allows him to make the objective decisions demanded by his job, but if its utility for living is considered, this mask is a stamp of resolute spirit, which protects against frailty and repels life's assaults. Its origin is a richness of experience both enviable and harrowing, in which Montreal transformed from cradle into cauldron, imbuing him with a wisdom that's moving to observe but painful to obtain. It is fitting, then, that in keeping with his definition of what constitutes mettle, Montreal is where Michael Griffin remains.