KO'd in '88 by drug test, Griffin has more than just gold in mind American flyweight looks for redemption BARCELONA '92

July 26, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- Eric Griffin inhaled, and it cost him four years.

That's all you need to know. Others will be coming to the boxing tournament at the 1992 Summer Olympics looking for gold medals. But Griffin is after something more. He wants redemption.

Four years ago, he might have been the best amateur flyweight in America, maybe even the world. He was a little man with a big punch, a 106-pounder who threw these wild combinations. But he gave away a chance to fight in a box off and go to Seoul, South Korea, when he tested positive for marijuana.

"I thought I lost everything," Griffin said. "But instead, I found a lot more. I found myself."

Boxing is filled with such stories of men overcoming the longest of odds to win titles and self-respect. But with Griffin, 24, the cliches are reality.

He never knew his father. He was raised by his maternal grandmother Rena Williams, a cook in Broussard, La. He was taught to fight by a neighborhood slugger. He moved to Houston, took a job bagging groceries, and learned to fight some more, eventually drawing the attention of Robert Jordan, a computer executive who supported a stable of fighters.

And now, after a fall from grace, he has returned stronger, emerging as a leader of a team that could win as many as four gold medals and challenge the vaunted Cubans for fighting supremacy in Barcelona.

"We're tough," he said. "We're humans. We're not aliens from outer space. We're ready to go."

As Griffin talked after a recent workout, sweat poured off his face. He had just finished a neatly choreographed 90-minute training session with his Olympic teammates. In one corner, heavyweight Larry Donald, wearing a red warm-up and a pair of earphones, shadowboxed with a slow, even rhythm. In another, lightweight Oscar De La Hoya threw breathtaking combinations, turning punches in the air into a high-speed ballet.

Griffin worked the middle of the room, taking on an imaginary opponent with short, chopping blows, always protecting the face while looking for the invisible body.

In a ring, against a live opponent, Griffin's style rarely varies. He throws hundreds of punches, lands dozens of combinations, and piles up points to claim medals.

Griffin won four consecutive world titles from 1989 to 1992. He even won a 1990 Goodwill Games championship. Pound for pound, he is arguably the best amateur in the world.

But he is in a hurry to finish his job, to win his gold and get on with his professional career to support girlfriend Kathy Benoit and 21-month-old son Exavnear.

"This is something I have to do," he said. "I have to get the gold."

To understand Griffin's impatience you must go back to 1988. He was the second-ranked American. He was training for a match with Michael Carbajal for the right to go to Seoul. And then he was called in for a meeting with U.S. officials and told he had tested positive for marijuana.

"I wasn't really hooked on drugs, on marijuana or anything," he said. "I was just out partying, hanging out."

USA Boxing suspended him for six months. He received a worse penalty from Jordan, his father figure, his mentor. Griffin was tossed from Jordan's life.

"We had a misunderstanding for a few months," Griffin said. "He saw me try to come back. I didn't want to let him go. I had to apologize to him. I hurt him. I hurt a lot of fans. But mainly, it was myself that I hurt."

During his six-month suspension, Griffin was tormented. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't fight in the ring. He boxed outdoors, hanging a heavy bag on a tree near his apartment. He fought with his brother.

"I could have turned pro," he said. "A lot of people approached me. I wanted to prove not only to myself, but my sponsors and brothers and sisters and family that I could be an Olympic champion."

And then, the suspension lifted and his friendship with Jordan endured.

"I learned from all the different mistakes," Griffin said. "Like, when I tested positive, that was a mistake. I changed my life around, going to church and praying to God, going to schools and talking to kids, staying off drugs."

He is renewed. So tiny. So quick. Ready to win a medal. Prepared to refashion an image.

"A lot of fans look at me as someone who took drugs in 1988," he said. "But not anymore. People don't look at me as a drug dealer or a gang banger or any kind of criminal. People look at me as a human being. I'm Eric Griffin. I'm not the person that they thought I was in 1988."

Four years ago he inhaled dope. Now, he wants to inhale only one thing: a sweet smell of triumph.

"Life, you live it and learn it," he said. "I did foolish things. Everyone is not perfect. But I came back."

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