JOHN WIGHT looks at the inspiring career of Emile Griffith and the battles he faced as a black gay boxer in the 1950s and ’60s
IT WAS most likely hard enough being a young black man in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s, forced to suffer a daily assault on your dignity, humanity, and often even personal safety. Imagine, then, what it was like to be not just black but also gay at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in the US. Then consider the particular challenges involved in being black, gay, and a boxing world champion to boot.
“God breaks those he wants to make great.”
This biblical aphorism could have been written with the remarkable life of Emile Griffith in mind. His 112 professional fights, stretching 19 years from his ring debut in 1958 to his last fight in 1977, after which he finally accepted that he had “nothing more to prove,” could never come close to competing with the struggle against adversity he fought on the other side of the ropes.
For Griffith, a man whose ambition in life as a young man was never to win fame and fortune in the hurt business but to make ladies’ hats, the ring was not an arena where men risked all but rather a sanctuary and an escape from the constant pressure of concealing who he really was when he wasn’t in the gym preparing for a fight or in the ring proving himself.
Award-winning sportswriter Donald McRae’s new biography of the five-time world welterweight and middleweight champion, A Man’s World, is suffused with the respect that befits someone who fought more world championship rounds, an unbelievable 337, than any other fighter in the sport — “51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson and 69 more than Muhammad Ali,” the writer informs us.
But as bad as things were outside the ring, tragedy was no stranger to Griffith in it either. Here he will forever be known for his brutal third fight against Benny “The Kid” Paret at Madison Square Garden on 24 March 1962. It was for the welterweight title that Paret had wrested from Griffith in their previous encounter and was destined to be an ugly affair from the day the contracts were signed.
Paret and his team spared no opportunity to ridicule the Griffith over his sexuality, which by then was the worst-kept secret in a sport that wore its machismo as an antidote to the emasculating truths of polite society.
The insults, veiled and not so veiled, reached their nadir at the weigh-in, when in front of the large crowd of witnesses, including the press, the dread-word “maricon” (faggot) issued from Paret’s lips. As McRae describes it: “The sour taste of humiliation rose up in Emile’s throat like bile.”
From that moment at stake was more than a championship belt. Now it was a matter of honour and a fight that Emile Griffith could not and would not allow himself to lose. Paret was going to pay and pay dearly.
Fight night was destined to be Paret’s last. During a predictably bruising war of attrition the Cuban finally succumbed in the 12th round to a barrage of unanswered Griffith right hands while slumped against the ropes, before the referee finally stepped in to stop it. It was too late. Paret never recovered. He slipped into a coma and died in hospital a week later.
Griffith never got over Paret’s death, which continued to haunt him in recurring nightmares right up to the day he died in 2013. However he had many mouths to feed and no other way of doing it than in the ring. And so he fought on — though never with the same intensity or bad intentions as before.
When he wasn’t fighting or getting ready to fight, Griffith was a regular in the underground scene of gay bars and clubs located then around New York’s Times Square. It was the only time he could relax and be himself, surrounded by friends and acquaintances that adored him. He was their champion and they protected him, made him feel there was nothing to fear or be ashamed of.
This was at a time in the early ’60s when, as McRae writes, “gay men and lesbians could be dismissed from their jobs or denied housing and other benefits on the grounds of sexuality. Their persecution was often undertaken most aggressively and systematically in New York, supposedly the country’s most liberated city.”
It was a time when “over a hundred men a week were entrapped for ‘solicitation’ by undercover police, and when moral panic was regularly whipped up by ambitious politicians using the morality card in order to garner votes from a prurient and hypocritical public.”
It was no time to be gay in New York or anywhere else in the land of the free.
Even in more enlightened times, when after many years of struggle for justice homosexuality won its rightful acceptance within mainstream society, the danger had not completely passed. Griffith found this to his cost in 1992 when emerging from a gay bar in New York, he was set upon by a gang of bigots and beaten to within an inch of his life.
It was in the ring where Emile Griffith punctured the myth of and masculine stereotype that drew a false equivalence between cowardice, weakness and homosexuality. He fought all over the world under the tutelage of his close friend the legendary trainer Gil Clancy, who never left his side through good times and bad.
Towards the end of his career, in 1975, when he was reduced to fighting for a fraction of the money he could once command, Griffith took a fight in Soweto, the iconic black township in what was then apartheid South Africa. Griffith had been expecting conditions similar to those that had faced blacks in the Deep South during Jim Crow. What he found was far worse.
When told by the promoter, who’d been contacted by a government official, that Clancy would not be allowed in his corner, due to apartheid laws which meant the only white men allowed in the arena in Soweto for the fight would be the police, the referee, and three judges at ringside, Griffith finally cracked. No Clancy, no fight, he informed the promoter.
The former world champion’s refusal to fight made newspaper headlines, but there was nothing to be done. The head of South Africa’s boxing board of control announced they could not intervene, but that perhaps a compromise could be reached.
Griffith responded thus: “I don’t believe in this law, and I am not negotiating. I tell you one thing straight — no Clancy, no fight. You can lock me up or send me home. I know what’s right and wrong. And this law is wrong. I refuse it.”
The fight went ahead with Gil Clancy in Griffith’s corner.
It was in 2008 that Emile Griffith was finally able to find the words to articulate the horrible hypocrisy that he was forced to bear throughout his life due to his sexuality. He told his friend, the reporter Ron Ross: “I keep thinking how strange it is. I kill a man and most people forgive me. However I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.”
A moving epitaph to the Emile Griffith story occurred in Central Park on a winter’s afternoon in 2004, when Griffith met Benny Paret’s son, Benny Paret Jnr, who was still to be born when his father died as a result of that brutal encounter in 1962 at Madison Square Garden.
The moment was caught on film for a documentary that was being made on the tragedy. Griffith approached the pre-arranged meeting place, his gait by now was that of an old man who’d had one too many ring wars, while Benny Paret Jnr stood watching him, tentative and unsure.
They exchanged a few words then hugged and cried, united in the pain of a tragedy that had marked both their lives forever after.
A Man’s World by Donald McRae is published by Simon & Schuster.