Benny Paret (left) and Emile Griffith (right) during weigh-in at the Garden in New York | March 1962 | John Lindsay/Associated Press | 15353
Emile Alphonse Griffith was a world champion boxer at both welterweight and middleweight who was born on 3 February 1938. His enduring reputation hinges on the night of 24 March 1962, when he regained his world welterweight championship from the Cuban fighter Benny “Kid” Paret, unfortunately killing him in the process, live on television.
Earlier at the weigh in, Paret had taunted him with homophobic comments.
Griffith was about to step off the scales when he heard his trainer Gil Clancy shout: “Hey, watch it!” He wheeled round. A smirking Paret feigned intercourse with him as his trainers whooped hysterically. He waggled a finger at Griffith. “Hey maricón,” Paret said in a cooing lisp, “I’m gonna get you and your husband.”
1962 was no easy time to be homosexual in America, and Griffith was not out, although it was an open secret to journalists covering the sport. So how did they report it? A single journalist noted that “the challenger had been subjected to a slur about his sexuality.”
It was no easy time to be black in America, either: just days earlier Paret had taken his young son Benny Jr and wife to the zoo in Miami but, at the entrance, they’d been refused entry. His wife Lucy had been stunned when her husband, rather than their small son, had cried. The injustice reminded Benny that, rather than being a world champion, he still looked like a Cuban sugarcane cutter.
Michael Carson writes in Griffith’s obituary about the fateful televised fight. Earlier Paret felt ill and had forebodings about the fight but was afraid to pull out of the fight.
Paret floored Griffith for an eight-count in round six before Griffith took control. In the 12th, he landed a number of telling punches before a right staggered the Cuban, who retreated into the corner. Referee Ruby Goldstein stood directly behind Griffith, inexplicably slow to stop the beating. Paret was known for his ability to take a punch and Griffith was not a big puncher, but Paret was clearly out long before Goldstein stepped in.
Griffith always denied he intended deliberate punishment, and watching his concern as he moved to Paret immediately after his hand was raised in victory, it is easy to believe he was telling the truth. But the fight haunted him – and the whispers about his sexuality trailed him – for the rest of his life.
New York’s then Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an investigation which cleared both Griffith and Goldstein of blame. However Goldstein never refereed another fight, and the television network dropped prime time boxing for the next 20 years.
Griffith was born in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, one of eight children, abandoned by their father, and was raised by relatives while his mother found work in New York, sending for him when he was 12. He got a job in a garment factory whose owner, a former boxer, gave him permission to work shirtless in the heat. Taking one look at Griffith’s narrow waist and broad shoulders, he sent the boy to trainer Gil Clancy. By 1958, Griffith was the Golden Gloves champion at welterweight, and he turned professional.
In 1971, Griffith married Mercedes Donastorg, with Joe Frazier as best man. The marriage lasted less than two years. After retiring, Griffith coached the Danish Olympic team, worked as a corrections officer at a juvenile facility in New Jersey, where he met Luis Rodrigo, who became his life time companion, publicly called an “adopted son”. The relationship cost him his job, and he became a bartender in Jersey City while also training fighters, most notably Wilfred Benítez.
One night in 1992 he fought back after being attacked by a gang as he left Hombre, a gay bar near New York’s port authority terminal. The savage beating he received left him close to death from kidney failure, while the trauma to his head would exacerbate the damage he had received while boxing.
It is evident from the film and from a biography, Nine Ten and Out: The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith, made in 2008, that Griffith struggled to define himself as others would see him. In 2005 he said:
“I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am.”
Griffith died from kidney failure on 23 July 2013 after suffering from dementia. He is survived by his seven siblings, and by Luis.