When Emile Griffith launched twenty-nine unanswered punches against the helpless welterweight Champion Benny Paret in Madison Square Garden March 24, 1962, no one watching the fight realized he was witnessing the first death ever broadcast on national television. With Norman Mailer and a legion of New York sports reporters scribbling away at ringside, Griffith in the black trunks unleashed a flurry of punishing left hooks to Paret’s cranium, which ended the fight in the 12th round. Paret’s cornermen and medical personnel rushed to attend the fallen fighter as the media sought to congratulate Griffith. The tragedy took a more macabre turn when the live instant replay was used during the broadcast to repeat the ruthless knockout. Paret never regained conscious and died a few days later in one of boxing’s great tragedies.
Emile Griffith, who himself was never the same again after that match, died July 23, 2013. While he will forever be associated with the tragic events of 1962 it is important to recall Griffith’s role in the struggle for acceptance of diversity in American sports and the broader gay rights movement. During most of his career, Griffith’s sexuality was a closely-guarded secret, but later in life he began to be more open about his sexuality. Still Emile Griffith never was comfortable with describing his sexuality in clear categories. “I’ve chased men and women,” he said. “I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am.”
Had he risen to prominence in a different era would such nuance — and even his failed marriage, to a woman from his native U.S Virgin Islands — have been necessary? Though Jason Collins was at one point engaged to a woman, Collins has been embraced as the first openly-gay NBA player, even to the point of receiving a supportive call from President Obama. In today’s world, an openly-gay athlete like Brittney Griner can appear on the cover of ESPN magazine. The 2012 London Olymipics featured many gay athletes competing for the glory of their nations. Orlando Cruz is an openly gay lightweight boxing title contender who has openly recognized Griffith as a pioneer.
All that was years away in 1962. Paret, the reigning Welterwieght Champion was the highest-profile boxer ever killed in the ring — then or since. In response to his death, the New York media latched onto the idea that Paret had enraged Griffith by calling him a “maricon” (a vulgar Spanish word for a homosexual) at the weigh-in before the fight.
It’s hard to understand how damaging such allegations were in the 1960s. In Paret’s native Cuba, communist leader Fidel Castro was adopting the sort of stringent crackdown on homosexual behavior that became standard in much of the communist world. In America, it wouldn’t be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. While America might dismiss and tolerate openly-gay writers like Gore Vidal or Allen Ginsburg, the world of sports was something different. Such accusations threatened Griffith’s career as a fighter. After the weigh-in Emile Griffith took a walk around New York to cool off. “I was nobody’s faggot,” Griffith explained years later recalling the incident.
In the wake of Griffith’s death, The Los Angeles Times and other publications have tried to cast Griffith as a reluctant fighter. We are told Griffith was plucked reluctantly into the ring from his former career as a women’s hat designer and delivery boy. After becoming a prominent fighter he even posed for a promotional photo amongst women’s hats at his former workplace. We are told in the 2005 documentary on the Griffith-Parrett fight, “Ring of Fire,” that Griffith was never the same as a fighter. Yet, fight he did until 1977 when, following a loss to Alan Minter, his trainers told him to retire. Griffith begged them to continue but soon traded the the boxing ring for the barroom. He became an unofficial bouncer at some of his favorite drinking establishments. In 1992, he was involved in an altercation outside a New York Gay bar which nearly killed him and caused permanent brain damage. Against assailants armed with a baseball bat, the fact that Griffith was a former three division boxing champion mattered little. Yet, even after that incident and a cautious openness about his sexuality Griffith continued to be a prominent in boxing circles in New York. He attended, for instance, the unveiling ceremony for a U.S postage stamp commemorating Sugar Ray Robinson.
Griffith’s life serves as a reminder that the struggle for toleration for gay athletes has been a long one. Changing social attitudes have paved the way for athletes to be more open about their sexuality than in Griffith’s time. There will be no postage stamps to commemorate Emile Griffith life. He wasn’t the first fighter to kill a man in the ring, and he wasn’t the last. He deserves to be remembered for something more.
Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Rainbow flag image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire