A Complex Tale Of Emile Griffith, His Sexuality And His Reign As World Champion

Former welterweight and middleweight champion, Emile Griffith, died this week at the age of 75. He left behind his adopted son and caretaker Luis Rodrigo Griffith, and a complex legacy about the violence inherent in all combat sports, and an example, if one is necessary, that shows a person's sexuality has nothing to do with their athletic ability.

Some will simply say that Griffith was gay. They'll point to rumors that ran through the boxing community in the 1950s and 60s and to the brutal beating in 1992 Griffith suffered outside a gay bar in Time Square New York. But Griffith wasn't one for labels. In 2005, Griffith told Sports Illustrated, "I like men and women both. But I don't like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don't know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better... I like women.” Griffith was his own man—a man on his own terms, without apology or explanation.

He came into his first championship fight with a record of 24-2, and as the darling of New York City. He was a former New York and National Golden Gloves Champion. At age 15, recently arrived from the Virgin Islands and having never stepped into a boxing ring, he met hall-of-fame trainer Gil Clancy and after only a few months of training made his way to the finals of the New York Golden Gloves. He won his first professional welterweight championship bout with a spectacular 13th round knockout of Benny "Kid" Paret, a Cuban fighter who'd also made his home in the states.

It wasn’t until after Griffith lost his rematch with Paret, and slowly earned a rubber match, that the narrative surrounding Griffith started to focus more on his life outside the ring. At back-to-back weigh-ins, Paret called Griffith a “maricon”—a Spanish slur used against homosexuals.

As is shown in the documentary, “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story,” some newspapers were afraid of the backlash they might meet at reprinting Paret’s epithets, so they changed not only the words, but also the substance of his quotes. Instead of reprinting the word “maricon” the newspapers reported that Griffith was called an “unman.”

In the 50s and 60s, although many in the boxing community knew that Griffith’s sexuality was more fluid than the public norms, they didn’t talk about it openly. Newspapers and reporters mostly shied away from the topic as well. This was at least in part due to the conflict between stories of that sort and the typical narrative that accompanies boxing. At the time, and for over a generation, the sweet science had been cast as a microcosm of war and a symbolic test of manhood—but only of a particular type of manhood, the kind that the society at the time believed existed or was possible in sports. It was a version of manhood bereft of any form of sexuality outside of the heteronormative.

Has anything changed today?

Boxing, and now MMA, still maintains a war-like aura. Although the rules of each sport tame the violence inherent in each, they cannot take away the stark reality that violence is the very essence of these sports. The danger in other sports, a concussion in football or broken nose from a stray elbow in basketball, is the actual goal, the very purpose of combat sports. Because of that, for fighters and most audiences, combat sports are still the best test of grit in all of sports.

But LGBT athletes are no longer in the same boat as Griffith. They are certainly not yet in as good a boat as their heterosexual competitors, but it’s better than what they had fifty years ago. On the heels of momentous legal victories for the gay community, athletes like Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards and Orlando Cruz the Puerto Rican featherweight contender (who is scheduled to fight for the WBO championship in October) have come out of the closet. Since coming out, it seems like these athletes have not suffered the backlash many believed was possible. Instead, they are seemingly on a path to be judged based on their skills and performances, as it should be.

Many boxing historians believe that boxing fans appreciate a good fight above all else. And if fight fans get that, then other factors, like the boxer’s sexuality, are irrelevant. Many of these historians have even said that if Griffith had come out in 1962, he would not have suffered much, if any, as a result. That is likely wishful thinking.

In an era when Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of greatest speeches of recorded history, was shunned by fellow civil rights leaders for his sexuality, not to mention countless other atrocities against gay people (e.g. the illegal and harassing police raids of gay bars in the late 60s that led to the Stonewall riots) I have little faith that boxing fans were that much better than the rest of the society. Even if they were, many of the television networks and sponsors of Friday Night Fights were likely not.

Thus, on March 24, 1962, when Griffith met Paret for the third time, there was more on the line than just the title. That fight, more than any in Griffith’s life, was about respect. Griffith set out to show that manhood (the essence of boxing's narrative) has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with will and determination.

The fight had the drama of changing tides of dominance. Griffith largely controlled the first five rounds, then Paret landed a monstrous left hook in the sixth that sent Griffith to the canvass and almost ended the night . From the 7th through 11th, Griffith fought back hard, working Paret’s body, hoping to slow him down for the championship rounds.

Then came the 12th. The beginning of the end started with a perfect right hand from Griffith that seemingly unhinged Paret’s jaw. Paret, known for his ability to take a punch, and a beating, backed into a corner. Griffith pounced. Some say it was 17 punches, others say it 25. I’ve counted 24 vicious, on-the-button, unanswered punches that Griffith landed before referee Ruby Goldstein (known as the “The Jewel of the Ghetto”), stepped in to stop the fight. Paret sunk slowly to the floor in the way that filmmakers have tried to copy for years in fight scenes. They don’t come anywhere close to it. There was something both so natural and unnatural about the pace at which Paret slumped down to the canvas. He fell with an eerie limpness that foreshadowed the tragedy to come. Perhaps the most vivid description of the final moments of the fight came from Pulitzer Prize winner, Norman Mailer, who wrote, “As he [Paret] went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.”  Paret died ten days after falling to the canvass.

Most blamed Goldstein for the death. Some said he was too slow in reacting to the carnage, possibly too mesmerized or shocked by it. Maybe their blame is justified. As one boxing sage has brilliantly described: “So central to the drama of boxing is the referee that the spectacle of two men fighting each other unsupervised in an elevated ring would seem hellish, if not obscene—life rather than art. The referee makes boxing possible. The referee is our intermediary in the fight. He is our moral conscience.” On March 24, 1962, our conscience was silent and we all paid the price.

Griffith’s legacy is inexorably tied to this night, but it need not be his only legacy. His memory can, and should, be a reminder that sexuality has nothing to do with athletic ability, and that specifically as to those who step into a fight, that grit and courage are not the province of heterosexuals alone.

Rest in peace, Emile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *