I was an avid boxing fan from the age of 12. When I was 16 years old, I turned on the ‘Saturday Night Fight of the Week’ to watch Emile Griffith fight Benny “the kid” Paret. The winner of that infamous fight, Emile Griffith, one of the greats of boxing, died Tuesday at the age of 75.
In the 12th round of that 1962 fight Griffith has Paret in the corner. He continued to pummel him with left and rights. The referee was slow to stop the beating, as Paret lay unconscious and slumped against the ropes. Ten days later, Paret died.
I didn’t watch boxing for almost a year after witnessing a man being beaten to death.
Griffith talked about it in later years. He intended to knock Paret out, but was sorry he died.
There had been rumors about Griffith’s sexuality, and there was a report that said the Cuban boxer called Griffith a name, a homosexual slur, in Spanish, and Griffith became enraged.
The commonality of professional athletes who have come forward with their sexual preference is that they all lived in fear of doing so for many years.
Griffith was one of the best boxers of his time. But, he lived in two worlds. He was a ‘tough’ guy, emulated by many other tough guys. But at night he would secretly visit gay clubs. 1962 hadn’t witnessed the beginnings of the civil rights movement. There was no possible way the United States was ready for a black man who was also gay.
Of course I, and the thousands of other boxing fans who witnessed the fight, had no knowledge, and certainly no reason, to believe that Griffith was a bisexual.
He never spoke openly about his personal life, a life he attempted to hide from the rest of the world, even though attitudes were changing. “I got tired of people calling me [a gay slur],” he told the New York Times in 2005.
I was a fan. I never pointed a finger at him for that night in 1962. Every time I saw the film, I realized he was doing what a boxer is taught to do. But, the referee was slow to respond to the helpless Paret.
His personal life was his life. I wouldn’t have thought less of him as a boxer or a man. But, I do understand his fear. I grew up in an age when young men and women were pariahs in much of society if they were ‘queers,’ black, Hispanic, or even Jewish. It’s impossible for me to imagine the internal struggle he suffered for much of his life.
What will be remembered by all boxing fans is his incredible talent and ability in the ring.
He fought as both a welterweight and a middleweight. He had 112 bouts, winning 85, losing 24, and had 23 knockouts. 80 of his bouts were fought after the death of Benny “the kid” Paret. He only had 12 knockouts. Later, he admitted that he ‘held back’ and relied on his superior boxing skills, and not merely his punching power.
One of the greats of professional boxing, Emile Griffith is dead at 75.
Alfred James reporting