Emile Griffith: A Tortured Soul
By Simon Graham
On March 24th, 1962 those in attendance at Madison Square Gardens and the millions watching Friday Night Fights bore witness to a fight so savage and brutal that it had the shocked world calling for the sport of boxing to be banned such was the backlash to what was witnessed that night.
Sponsors pulled their ads from Friday Night Fights resulting in live boxing being banned from television for almost a decade.
To understand what happened that night we need to take stock of the era and the unabated bigotry of the time. One of the fighters in the fight, Emile Griffith was gay, thankfully times have changed, the 60’s however, was another story.
Griffith born in the Virgin Islands came to America as a teenager to seek his fortune and soon found work as a hat maker, a job he thoroughly enjoyed. One summers day during the blistering New York heat Griffith asked his employer if he could remove his shirt. Upon seeing the chiselled muscular physique of his co-worker it was suggested that the trainee hat maker go to the local boxing gym, sceptical and an unwilling to participant Griffith agreed to give it a go, within 2 years he had become the Golden Gloves National champion.
Griffiths was an unassuming young man, polite, softly spoken that could at times come across as being shy. But inside he was tortured and a frustrated man unable to portray his identity he would secretly cruise New York’s gay scene all the while dominating the welter and middleweight divisions. It was highly suspected and hinted at within the boxing fraternity that Griffiths was gay though nothing was ever publicly announced that is until one pre-fight weigh in.
Benny ‘Kid’ Paret was a Cuban fighter also making waves on the boxing scene he and Griffith would exchange world titles with one another during a trilogy of fights. During his career he was seen as a boxer who could go the distance, take a lot of punishment but always rally back to win. Like so many fighters of his era and those before him Paret was a victim of an unscrupulous manager whose only desire was to see his man fight and make him money no matter how badly his fighter was getting beaten, some historians claim that Paret was homophobic, but me personally I don’t think so.
Outside of the ring Paret and Griffith were friends at times even played basketball together they were never best buddies but they were civil and respectful to each other.
On the day of the weigh-in before their 3rd meeting Kid Paret began to trash talk with Griffith, totally out of character calling his opponent ‘maricon’ (a derogatory slang name for a gay person in Spanish) in full earshot of the boxing press.
The fight was a back and forth affair, Griffith getting dropped in the 6th round but on the whole winning the fight. By the time the 12th round came round Paret was a spent force a fighter clearly on the decline heading for another loss.
What happened next is something I am actually finding hard to put into words. But what I will say is this within 6 seconds that one single off the cuff comment ‘Maricon’ released so much anger, years of frustration and torment within the core of Griffith that it manifested itself into 25 or so unanswered punches pummelling his foe, as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret lay dying on the canvas floor.
The live TV commentator with seemingly no remorse for the stricken fighter lying helpless in the corner tried to interview the new world champion the realization of what he had done to another human being slowly began to dawn on the now visibly shaken Griffith he had snapped out of whatever trance he had been in, however the guilt would remain with him for the rest of his life.
In 1992, Griffith was viciously beaten and almost killed on a New York City street after leaving a gay bar. He was in the hospital for four months after the assault, the violent attack was motivated by homophobia. In 2007 Griffith would have a very emotional meeting with Benny Paret Jnr during their time together Paret Jnr would exonerate Griffith of any blame in the death of his father showing true genuine compassion and forgiveness.
Emile once said “They can forgive me for killing a man, but they can’t forgive me for loving a man”