Marking the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest fights in Welsh boxing history, Brian Curvis challenging the great Emile Griffith for the world welterweight title at Wembley’s Empire Pool on 22 September, 1964.
Brian Curvis was one of the most capable and talented of the Welsh boxers whose careers fell in the void between Jimmy Wilde losing the world title in 1923 and Howard Winstone winning his country’s next world crown in 1968.
Unfortunately for Curvis – and for Wales’ legions of boxing fans – his only shot at the sport’s ultimate prize came against one of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen, Emile Griffith.
What’s more, the welterweight champion was at the peak of his powers – he would be voted Ring Magazine’s fighter of the year for 1964. I don’t see [the defeat] as a failure but a triumph
I don’t see [the defeat] as a failure but a triumph
Curvis had certainly earned his shot at the WBA and WBC belts, though. Aged 27, he was the British and Empire welterweight champion and he had won 30 of his 31 fights.
Griffith, 26, was entering his 10th world title bout having lost the title twice, each defeat – against Benny Paret and Luis Manuel Rodriguez – later avenged, making the 26-year-old a three-time champion who had won 40 of his 46 bouts.
In Curvis, though, he would be facing a southpaw for the first time in his career, the main source of hope for those supporting the Swansea man.
The British fans were troubled, though, by New York-based Griffith’s formidable reputation – his brutal 1962 revenge win over Paret had resulted in the death of the Cuban.
Curvis had been in the crowd at Madison Square Garden that night, an experience that the Welshman spoke about in newspaper columns in the build-up to the 1964 showdown.
He mentioned his concern for his new wife, Barbara, a feeling that struck a chord with the enigmatic Griffith.
The unorthodox champion loved to design his own hats, and on his arrival in Britain presented Barbara with one that he had personally made for her.
Virgin Islander Griffith had been lured to London by a £20,000 purse – the challenger received £5,000.
A crowd of 10,000 built a formidable atmosphere and Calon Lan reverberated around the arena before the great Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis was introduced to the crowd.
The 71-year-old was Britain’s last welterweight champion. He had lost that belt in 1919, and no British fighter had challenged for it since Ernie Roderick’s 1939 loss to Henry Armstrong.
Despite the build-up, the champion remained cool and confident, cutting a formidable figure with his sculpted torso.
From the outset he was able to beat Curvis to the punch, his fast hands landing heavily and accurately to body and head.
The challenger had some success in the fourth, and in the following round a huge cheer greeted the referee’s warning to Griffith for use of the head – he had been boring in from the outset, causing damage to Curvis’ left eye.
The challenger also started the sixth well, but Griffith began to rough him up. Right at the end of the round the champion finished a brutal body attack with a whipped uppercut that landed under the heart, dropping Curvis and silencing the crowd.
The softening-up process continued to the 10th, Curvis desperately trying to stave off the body attacks but also picking up a cut near the right eye.
In the 10th he seemed to regain his confidence and began to open up on the champion. The moment he did, though, Griffith fired out a long right hook to the head, followed in a flash by a left hook to the other side of the cranium.
With 30 seconds of the round to go Curvis had to climb off the canvas for the second time. A stoppage looked close, but he survived to hear the bell.
The challenger was back on the attack in the succeeding two rounds, though, a strong showing in the 12th raising the hopes of those who had suggested that Griffith had struggled to make the weight.
Curvis looked even more confident in the 13th, coming forward with big punches – before the street-wise champion slowed his momentum with what appeared to be a low blow.
The Swansea man’s strength seemed to drain from him, and Griffith immediately followed up with a body attack, before switching to the head.
Fortunately, the blow came close to the end of the round. A spent Curvis was able to see out the final two stanzas, deservedly hearing the final bell before seeing the referee raise the champion’s arm in victory.
The travelling Welsh fans were rightly supportive of their man, their reaction prompting a bemused Griffith to state: “How foreign is this country? How come every time I knocked him down they start singing?”
Curvis remained proud of the performance he put up: “Griffith was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” he said in a 1989 BBC documentary. “I don’t see [the defeat] as a failure but a triumph
“There was the greatest pound-for-pound welterweight champion since the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, and there was I not at my very best, yet he couldn’t stop me.
“There were a lot of things he couldn’t do that night. What he did do, of course, was get the decision.”