Legendary boxer Emile Griffith (85 victories, 24 losses, 2 draws, multiple championships) died this week at the age of 75. The cause was kidney failure and complications of dementia according to this New York Times Page One obituary (headline from print edition):
It was the night of March 24, 1962, a nationally televised welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret, known as Kid. Griffith was seeking to recapture the crown he had once taken from Paret and then lost back to him.
But this was more than a third encounter for a boxing title. A different kind of tension hung in the Garden air, fed by whispered rumors and an open taunt by Paret, a brash Cuban who at the weigh-in had referred to Griffith as gay, using the Spanish epithet “maricón.”
Fighters squaring off always challenge each other’s boxing prowess, but in the macho world of the ring, and in the taboo-laden world of 1962, Paret had made it personal, challenging Griffith’s manhood.
I’m pretty sure I saw that fight on a black-and-white TV at 89th and 3rd in New York where I grew up (more or less). Regardless, in 2007 I wrote this WGBH radio commentary (you might find the audio here, although I think I’ve been disappeared):
It was one of the few things my old man and I agreed about when I was a kid: Emile Griffith was one sweet fighter. During the 1960s, the stylish Virgin Islands immigrant – who had shoulders, one boxing writer said, that you could serve dinner for six on – captured the welterweight championship of the world three times, and the middleweight championship twice.
But Griffith – if he’s remembered at all – is remembered for just one thing: his trio of fights against fellow welterweight Benny “Kid” Paret, a busy brawler who, it was said, would take ten punches to get in one, fifty to get in two. True to his aggressive nature, Paret twice called Griffith a “maricon” at their pre-fight weigh-ins – a homosexual slur inspired, no doubt, by Griffith’s known frequenting of New York’s gay bars.
But Griffith was in the closet, the way any boxer would have to be, and he was not amused, as he recounted in the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire. “He didn’t know that I understood a little Spanish,” Griffith said of Paret. “But at that time I knew maricon meant faggot. And I wasn’t nobody’s faggot.”
Almost as if to prove it, in the rubber match – Griffith had won the first fight, Paret won the second – Griffith essentially beat Paret to death in the 12th round, when the ref didn’t stop the fight and Griffith didn’t stop punching. Here’s how Norman Mailer described it, as documented by Ring of Fire.
“Griffith, making a pent-up whispering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.”
[New York Times: “Griffith delivered 17 punches in five seconds with no response from Paret, according to Griffith’s trainer Gil Clancy, who counted them up from television replays. Griffith may have punched Paret at least two dozen times in that salvo.”]
Griffith later admitted that it was not just another fight to him. “When I had him in the corner in the 12th round,” he said in the documentary, “I was very angry in the ring – nobody ever called me a faggot.”
Paret left the ring on a stretcher and died after spending ten days in a coma, which haunted Griffith for years. The next time Griffith fought in Madison Square Garden, he backed into the ring so he wouldn’t see the corner where Paret went down, as Mailer said, like a large ship that turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. Griffith later said, “After Paret, I never wanted to hurt a guy again. I was so scared to hit someone. I was always holding back.”
Regardless, Griffith won three more championships after the fatal Paret fight. But he’s never answered the bell about his sexuality.
Flash-forward 35 years to this summer when Griffith resurfaced as vice president of the gay-rights Stonewall Veterans’ Association and rode in last month’s Gay Pride parade. Even so, Griffith continues to rope-a-dope the issue of his homosexuality.
In an interview with the New York Times, Griffith came close to coming out. “Yes, I’m gay,” he told the Times reporter. “I don’t see anything wrong with being gay. If that’s what I want to do? If that’s what I want to be?”
Right after that, though, Griffith said he had just been joking. Odds are Benny “Kid” Paret would have said he was just joking, too.
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