Emile Griffith's remarkable life ended last week with the boxer's death at age 75, but I hope his story of strength, triumph, tragedy and redemption should never leave us.
We talk and write often about how sports is a microcosm of our lives and the world in which we live. While there's much truth to this, few stories involving sports figures are as compelling as that of Emile Griffith's.
I'm sure a few of you reading this column haven't the foggiest notion of who Emile Griffith was, what he accomplished or what he stood for. He belongs to another era, several generations removed from today. Only old-timers remember the moment that unfortunately defined much of his life, although if you choose, you can see it again and again in living black and white on YouTube.
Griffith beat Benny "Kid" Paret so badly in their March 24, 1962 welterweight championship bout that Paret never regained consciousness and died 10 days later. Even the most extensive of Griffith's obituaries, such as the one published in the New York Times put emphasis on the fatal fight in the old Madison Square Garden on New York's Eighth Avenue that was broadcast nationally on the ABC Television Network.
This is unfortunate, perhaps, because Griffith was a classy fighter and a classy individual. Some years later it would also come out that if he wasn't a homosexual, he certainly was conflicted about his sexuality and it soon formed the back story to the Paret fight and periodic efforts in biographies and later film to make some sense out of what happened in those fatal seconds on the ring ropes more than 50 years ago.
When ABC revived televised boxing in the 1959-60 era, moving the fights from Friday to Saturday, I spent a lot of time watching the likes of Don and Gene Fullmer, Jose Torres, Ruben Hurricane Carter, Harold Johnson, Dick Tiger and Griffith and Paret. These were typically middleweight, welterweight and an occasional light heavyweight fights, the next rung down from the heavyweight fights, whose championships were still the main events of the sporting world.
To me, Griffith was the best of this group and still ranks high among the best boxers of all time, right up there with Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Robinson, Louis, Marciano, Leonard and the like. Boxing is mostly a dud sport today - a Las Vegas show phenomenon. It goes through ebb and flow periods in the American conscious, like many other forms of entertainment. Mixed martial arts and WWF and that like appear to have the attention span of younger people. It's understandable, I suppose, given boxing's dubious history.
As a fighter, Griffith was a smaller, lighter version of Muhammad Ali before Ali became "The Greatest." A much quieter and introverted version of Ali, I should add. He didn't talk much and was a private person in days before the sporting press pried into every facet of an athlete's life. Things might have been different in that respect for Griffith if, say, Ali had beaten Sonny Liston in 1959 instead of 1964, two years after the fight that forever changed Emile Griffith's life.
I watched many of Griffith's fights on TV, including the two he split with Paret before the 1962 bout, and some of his championship wins afterward that included two at the middleweight level. But I actually missed the third and fatal Paret fight. When you're 13, there often are other things to do on Saturday night, after all, and I was out doing something that teenagers do that night.
Word got around fast about what happened, however, as it usually does when something bad occurs, and videotaped replays were already widely in use by ABC, so there were plenty of opportunities to see the brutal 15 seconds where Griffith pinned a defenseless Paret in the corner and hit him 10, 20, 30 times. You can take your pick, because everyone who was at ringside or who has written or commented about it since comes up with different numbers.
Even though there were muted stories in the press at the time that Griffith beat up on Paret because "something" was said before the fight, it would be years before Griffith and the mainstream press would delve into just what that "something" was.
"He called me 'maricon,'" Griffith says in the fine 2005 documentary "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," produced by Ron Berger and Don Klores and directed by Berger. "Nobody ever called me a faggot." You can view the film in its entirety on YouTube.
There are conflicting views if this supposed challenge to Griffith's manhood, which was allegedly made by Paret at the pre-fight weigh in, was the spark that kindled the fatal barrage of punches. To look at Griffith in his final years, after he had survived a near fatal street beating and was suffering from pugilistic dementia, I tend to think not. He was knocked down and almost counted out in the closing seconds of the sixth round of the fight and was lackluster in the rounds that followed. But he landed a solid right to Paret's jaw in the 12th round as Paret backed up into the corner and then kept punching until the fight was stopped.
The referee, Ruby Goldstein, was later criticized for not stepping in fast enough, but if you look at the video, so remarkably graphic that even ABC commentator Don Dunphy commented about it when it was replayed for the viewers watching at home, you can see Goldstein going to the wrong side of Griffith at first and then moving around to pull him off. After Paret died, the politicians got involved, the New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, appointed a blue ribbon panel and legislation was introduced to ban boxing in the state. Everything had a cumulative effect, I suppose. ABC eventually dropped the Saturday fight night telecasts, and in the three-network, no cable days, the only place to watch boxing became live or on closed circuit in the local movie house. Fortunately for boxing, the rise of Ali came quickly afterward, and the furor of Paret vs. Griffith III soon faded.
As Griffith's boxing career continued to flow and ebb over the next 15 years, followed by years working as a boxing trainer and later a youth correctional officer, he says he never got over what happened to Paret. When interviewers asked if he was gay, his response was he liked men and women, he had friends he visited in the gay bars in the Times Square area. But does his sexuality really matter?
In this day and age Emile Griffin might be hailed as a hero in some circles for just that reason. Fifty years ago, however, he was considered a pariah by many people, but that didn't make him any less of a man. He was a true champion, and I hope with his passing he'll be remembered more for his humility and grace and a little less for the unfortunate outcome of the third Paret fight.