There’s a certain brutal inevitability about boxing that we take for granted. Fighters will pound each other into submission. There will be blood. And one will be beaten, whose trauma of defeat will last until his next chance to prove himself. It’s a sport that’s brutal and lonely, providing pleasure from another's pain. And then there are instances when life throws in a few heavyweight punches that hit a fighter harder than any man can.
Emile Griffith was a world boxing champion across three different weight classes, fighting his way through 337 world championship rounds, 69 more than Muhammad Ali. But his biggest battles were outside the ring.
To understand the significance of his life story, it is imperative to understand the times he lived in. Griffith lived when a black man couldn’t eat in the same room as white people, and he was gay at a time when homosexuality was condemned as a crime worthy of imprisonment and the American Medical Association had classified it a ‘psychiatric disorder’.
But here he was, standing tall when a gay person was branded as weak, a man vying to become world champion when boxing played a big part in shaping America’s tough, cocksure image in the eyes of the world. He spoke openly about his love for designing ladies bonnets, visited gay bars on weekends, and was just as happy loving men as he was fighting them.
Something had to give, and it did on the night of March 24th, 1962.
Benny ‘the kid’ Paret was a two-time world welterweight champion from Cuba, a country that rolled out world class boxers with startling regularity. Paret and Griffith had fought twice before, splitting a fight each. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t too much love lost between them as they lined up for a title bout at the Madison Square Garden.
Griffith was fighting a battle outside the ring as well, with an article in The New York Times titled “Paret and Hat Designer Griffith Gird for Welter Title Fight” referring to Griffith as an “un-man.” A cocky Paret latched on to the mood.
Setting the stage
Paret partied his way into the weigh-in, looking for mischief. Griffith, by contrast, was stone-faced. When Griffith weighed in at a lighter than needed 144 pounds, Paret had a field day, pointing at the scales and enjoying a hearty laugh. Griffith was just about done with his weigh-in, when Paret stepped up behind him, mimicking intercourse.
As Griffith spun around furiously, Paret taunted him. “Hey maricón” he hissed. “I’m gonna get you and your husband”. The term Maricón, gutter Spanish for queer, stung Griffith. He was proud to love men, but wasn’t ready to be humiliated in public, in front of the cameras for it. He was ready to hit Paret with all he had right then and there, when a manager reminded him to save it for the ring.
Ring of fire
The fight was a fierce 12-round encounter. Paret fought well, but Griffith was fighting for more than just the belt. Pride and fury poured out of every punch, until Paret buckled into the ropes in the 12th. But Griffith wasn’t done punishing him yet. With Paret now a sitting duck, Griffith pummeled him with a savage assault. Paret’s arms, tangled in the ropes, held his body up like a crumpled crucifix. The referee jumped in, a bit too late. Norman Mailer, at ringside, said, ‘Paret died on his feet’. The unconscious Paret was stretchered to hospital, but never recovered. Ten days later, he was declared dead.
Trail by TV
Making this macabre spectacle even more surreal was the fact that this was the first time slow-motion replays were being used in live television coverage. The callous interviews in the middle of the ring continued while Paret’s lifeless body was being tended to, with Griffith being asked to talk through the knockout in slow motion. It would be a moment that would haunt him, and boxing, for a long time.
Griffith managed to fight on, although he admitted that he was never the same fighter again. Boxing welcomed him back, and Ring magazine even voted him 33rd among the 80 greatest pugilists of the last 80 years. But life was still not so welcoming outside the ring.
Being homosexual in a macho man’s world continued to haunt him even decades later as top sportsmen began to come out of the closet. In 1992, he was beaten within inches of his life as he left a gay bar, suffering kidney and head injuries that did more damage to him than the blows he received inside the ring in well over 100 fights. He spend four months in the hospital, but it still didn’t break him. Griffith eventually died in 2013, his lover by his side. “I kill a man, and people forgive me. However, I love a man, and this makes me an evil person” he lamented. Pride in the name of love, until the very end.Published 06 Jan 2020, 21:48 IST