Emile Griffith, Boxer Who Unleashed a Fatal Barrage, Dies at 75
Published: July 23, 2013 112 Comments
It was the night of March 24, 1962, a nationally televised welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret, known as Kid. Griffith was seeking to recapture the crown he had once taken from Paret and then lost back to him.
Larry Morris/The New York Times
John Lindsay/Associated Press
Robert Maxwell/USA Network
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But this was more than a third encounter for a boxing title. A different kind of tension hung in the Garden air, fed by whispered rumors and an open taunt by Paret, a brash Cuban who at the weigh-in had referred to Griffith as gay, using the Spanish epithet “maricón.”
Fighters squaring off always challenge each other’s boxing prowess, but in the macho world of the ring, and in the taboo-laden world of 1962, Paret had made it personal, challenging Griffith’s manhood.
On a Saturday night about 7,500 fans — not a bad crowd for a televised bout in those years — had trooped to the Garden, then at Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, to watch the fight through a haze of cigarette and cigar smoke. By the 12th round of a scheduled 15, Griffith and Paret were still standing. But in the 12th, Griffith pinned Paret into a corner and let fly a whirlwind of blows to the head.
“The right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin,” Norman Mailer, a ringside witness, recalled in an essay.
Griffith delivered 17 punches in five seconds with no response from Paret, according to Griffith’s trainer, Gil Clancy, who counted them up from television replays. Griffith may have punched Paret at least two dozen times in that salvo.
At last the referee stepped in, and Paret collapsed with blood clots in his brain.
“I hope he isn’t hurt,” Griffith was quoted saying in his dressing room afterward. “I pray to God — I say from my heart — he’s all right.”
Paret died 10 days later at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.
Griffith, who had batted away rumors about his sexual orientation for years, survived a beating outside a gay bar in Times Square in 1992 and later acknowledged an attraction to men, died on Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y., his boxing earnings and his memory long gone. He was 75.
The cause was kidney failure and complications of dementia, said Ron Ross, the author of “Nine ... Ten ... and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith,” published in 2008.
Griffith won the welterweight title three times and the middleweight title twice and briefly held the newly created junior middleweight title. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. But he was most remembered for the death of Paret. It followed him for the rest of his life.
Emile Alphonse Griffith was born on Feb. 3, 1938, one of eight children, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. His father left the family when Griffith was a child, and his mother came to New York to work after sending the children to live with relatives.
When Griffith was a teenager, his mother sent for him, and he worked as a stock boy at a Manhattan factory that manufactured women’s hats. When the owner, Howard Albert, a former amateur boxer, noticed his physique — a slim waist with broad shoulders — he sent Griffith to Clancy, who developed him into a national Golden Gloves champion. Griffith turned pro in 1958, with Clancy remaining as his trainer.
Griffith won the welterweight title with a knockout of Paret in April 1961, but then lost the crown to Paret on a decision that September.
In boxing circles, Griffith had been rumored to be gay, and Paret seized on that to needle him at the weigh-in for their third fight.
“He called me maricón,” Griffith told Peter Heller in 1972 for “In This Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art,” a book of interviews with boxing champions. “Maricón in English means faggot.”
Griffith wanted to attack Paret on the spot, but Clancy held him back and told him to save it for the ring. “Anytime you’re inside with this guy, you’ve got to punch until he either falls or grabs you or the referee stops you,” Clancy recalled telling him, as quoted in the book “In the Corner” by Dave Anderson, a former sports columnist for The New York Times.
But Clancy did not believe that Griffith had gone into the fight looking to make Paret pay for his slur. “I’ve always thought that what happened at the weigh-in had absolutely nothing to do with what happened in the Garden that night,” he said.
Paret’s death brought an inquiry by the New York State Athletic Commission, which absolved the referee, Ruby Goldstein, for his delay in stopping the fight.
Griffith lost his welterweight title to Luis Rodriguez in March 1963, then regained it in a rematch that year. He won the middleweight championship by a decision over Dick Tiger in April 1966, but that required him to give up his welterweight crown.
He lost the middleweight title to Nino Benvenuti of Italy in April 1967, won it back from him, then lost it again in their third bout. He briefly held the new junior middleweight title in the early 1960s.
After losing three consecutive fights, Griffith retired in 1977 with 85 victories, 24 losses and 2 draws. He later worked occasionally as a boxing trainer and lived in Hempstead, on Long Island.
In 1992, Griffith was severely beaten after leaving a gay bar in the Times Square area, his kidneys damaged so badly that he was near death. The assailants were never caught.
“That really started a sharp decline in his health,” Ross, his biographer, said on Tuesday.
Over the years, the questions concerning Griffith’s long-rumored homosexuality kept surfacing.
“I will dance with anybody,” Griffith told Sports Illustrated in 2005. “I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both.”
He added: “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.”
That same year, he spoke to Bob Herbert, then a columnist for The Times.
“I asked Mr. Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no,” Mr. Herbert wrote. “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 1960s 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,” Mr. Herbert went on. “He’d had relations, he said, with men and women. He no longer wanted to hide.”
Griffith’s marriage to Mercedes Donastorg ended in divorce. Survivors include three brothers, Franklin, Tony and Guillermo; four sisters, Eleanor, Joyce, Karen and Gloria; and his longtime companion and caretaker, Luis Griffith, whom Ross described as Emile Griffith’s adopted son.
Griffith said he was tentative in the ring after the death of Paret.
“After Paret, I never wanted to hurt a guy again,” Sports Illustrated quoted him saying in 2005. “I was so scared to hit someone, I was always holding back.”
In “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story,” a 2005 Dan Klores-Ron Berger documentary film about his life, Griffith embraces Paret’s son, Benny Jr.
“I didn’t want to kill no one,” Griffith told him. “But things happen.”