Many years ago I contributed to a cult boxing magazine called Round One. This led me to undertake some research into Emile Griffith for an article entitled Emile and the Defectives, a review of his lesser known contests. Griffith was chiefly famous – or infamous- for a fight with Benny Kid Paret. After a flurry of blows, 23 in all, Paret lost and never regained consciousness. Looking back the late fifties and early sixties were a golden age of boxing: you could argue that Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest of all, a young, brash fighter in the heavyweight division trained by Angelo Dundee was emerging, his name was Cassius Clay and in the welter division was Emile Griffith. His background was not the normal one of fighting your way out of penury with stays at the pentientary on the way. Born in the US Virgin Island of St Thomas in 1938, abused by his uncle and maltreated by his cousin, his family moved to New York and he found work in a milliners factory. One day his boss Howie Albert noted, when stripped to the waist, his fine physique. He asked him if he had ever tried boxing to which Griffith replied that he believed his method of stacking hats was fine. Albert took him to the gym of Gil Clancy and the rest is history.
In his fine biography A Man’s World: the Double Life of Emile Griffith writer Duncan Macrae examines in some detail the other unusual aspect of Griffith, that he was gay and hung about louche transvestite bars in Time Square. He did have a girlfriend of sorts Esther but his main companion was a youngster called Matthew. At the weigh-in with Paret the Cuban goaded Griffith by insulting him with the term “Maricon”, Spanish slang for a faggot, and touched his buttocks. It is thought that this insult generated the onslaught that followed. In fact there were two other considerations of relevance: referee Ruby Goldstein in his last fight was slow to react to having a boxer pinned upright on the ropes by one hand and belted to the head by another so unable to defend himself and this would shortly not be tolerated. Secondly Paret’s style in previous bouts was to absorb punishment, one which his trainer Alfora advocated. He should have thrown in the towel. New York Mayor Rockefeller commissioned an enquiry and there was world-wide condemnation of boxing. A few months later Davey Moore was to die after sustaining head injuries in a contest with another Cuban Sugar Ramos. So the golden age of boxing was also one when the fight game was under the strictest scrutiny as to its future . Nowadays being gay would not be so covert, boxing is much better controlled to avoid the lethal impact of fist on brain, but equally at the time of the Paret fight there were only 11 champions across the weights. Boxing has been tarred by the plethora of titles and diversity of weight divisions. I would stick my neck out, avoiding the Griffith uppercut, and argue for all the lack of safety in the early sixties it was a better sport.
Like many fighters of that era he went on too long and by the late sixties and seventies legends like Carlos Monzon, with whom he went the distance, Nino Benvenuti and Jose Napoles had too much strength and ring craft for the older man. It is said that the reason he had few knockouts (only 12 in the 80 bouts after Paret) as a devastating counter puncher was that he never got over that death. One of the oddities of boxing is that the adoption of a different persona in the ring. Outside the ring he had a soft calypso voice and a gentle almost effete manner but within the ropes he could be lethal and courageous, as his three bouts with the tough slugger Luis Rodriguez attest.
Suffering from dementia pugilistica Griffith died a couple of years back. In his post-boxing career, he did marry and adopted his wife’s son, he worked in a detention centre and was a respected trainer, of champion Wilfred Benitez amongst others. Undoubtedly one of the Masters of the Ring who fought more rounds than Ali or Sugar Ray, it was fascinating to learn more of his life and re-acquaint myself with it in Macrae’s superlative book rightfully nominated for the William Hill sports prize.