Former world champion boxer Emile Griffith died today, aged 75. Griffith was a powerhouse in the ring from 1961 until his retirement in 1977, with more championship bouts than anyone else in boxing history and his record standing at 85-24-2 with 23 knockouts.
But he is probably best known for a fight on March 24, 1962 against Benny “The Kid” Paret. Paret had taunted him in the locker-room with a homophobic slur; Griffith went into the ring at Madison Square Garden before a live television audience and fought mercilessly. Peret was knocked out, went into a coma, and died 10 days later.
Griffith was hated both by the public and tortured by himself after that event. He always insisted that he never intended to kill Peret, but he also acknowledged that he was angry and the fight was personal. His boxing style changed after that bout and he fought more for points and technical wins rather than knockouts. He never quite got over the fight, and the boxing world didn’t either.
Lesser known was Griffith’s struggle coming to terms with his sexuality. While he never admitted to being bisexual or gay during his career – who would in 1962? – he did live in such a way that left few doubts. (ESPN)
“He was a tremendous boxer and person,” Ross said. “It is almost a blessing that he passed away because he has been in a vegetative state the last couple years. To know him was a privilege. He transcended being a boxer, or being gay or straight. He lived life with the fullest joy. He passed that on to everyone he knew, and not many have that as a legacy.
“Emile never felt like he was different; he lived his life openly. He’d go to a gay bar and he wouldn’t go into a side entrance; he’d go in the front door. He never flaunted it, but it was natural to him to lead his life the way he wanted to.”
And in 1992 this came to tragedy. The real story is lost to Griffith’s increasing pugilistic dementia, but any version is horrific (Sports Illustrated):
It’s a summer evening. Emile gets off an airplane at JFK. He should be exhausted. He should go straight to his mother’s house in Queens Village, where he’s moved back into the finished basement along with Luis. He has just flown back from Australia, where the boxer he trains, junior welterweight Juan LaPorte, has lost to Kostya Tszyu. Emile takes a cab to Manhattan.
He ends up in Hombre, a gay bar on West 41st Street hard by the Port Authority. He can relax more in gay bars than in straight ones, he tells people, because the people there are far less likely to challenge him to a fight. But suddenly he feels so woozy that he wonders if someone put something in his drink. He steps outside. Here comes the smoke.
A gang of men jumps him, beats him with pipes, robs him and leaves him for dead on the street. Later he staggers onto the wrong train, but finally, after hours have passed, he stumbles home. That’s what Emile tells LaPorte, who comes to the Griffith home at the request of Emile’s frightened mother and takes him to the hospital.
The men catch him stepping into a cab, slam the door on his body over and over again until he drops. That’s what Keith Stechman, a friend, says Emile told him.
Two guys start a fight in the bar. He follows them outside to break it up and two more join them, all turning on him, trying to take his money and beating him with baseball bats. That’s what Butch Miller, Jack Miller’s son, says Emile told the Miller family.
They kick him with heavy boots, kick every part of his body as if he were a dog. That’s what Luis Rodrigo, the first to find him when he staggers home, says Emile told him.
He nearly dies in the hospital. His battered kidneys fail, he goes on dialysis, then his spine gets infected. The severity and site of the beating suggests a gay bashing, a hate crime, but no one will ever know. By the time Emile comes home, two months later, he remembers almost nothing of it. It vanishes in smoke.
In 2005, Ring of Fire: the Emile Griffith Story explored his sexuality and his sport and how the two had melded to impact his life. Even in that year he couldn’t self identify as gay, though he viewed himself as having a place in our community (NYTimes)
I asked Mr. Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no. But he looked as if he wanted to say more. He told me he had struggled his entire life with his sexuality, and agonized over what he could say about it. He said he knew it was impossible in the early 1960′s for an athlete in an ultramacho sport like boxing to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m gay.”
But after all these years, he wanted to tell the truth. He’d had relations, he said, with men and women. He no longer wanted to hide. He hoped to ride this year in New York’s Gay Pride Parade.
He did ride in 2007.
By all accounts, Griffith was a kind and generous man in a difficult world and time. May his rest be peaceful.