By Terence Dooley
“I remember Benvenuti. I fought with Nino. We beat each other so much but we became such friends. We became friends for life.”
- Emile Griffith
Emile Griffith was sat on the veranda of his biographer, Ron Ross’s, house in Long Island. The former fighter looked out across the water as random memories from his distinguished career washed up like arbitrary debris on the sands of his mind.
The former undisputed welterweight and middleweight world champion was there but not always present during our long conversation. Emile, 72, suffers from dementia pugilistica. His condition was exacerbated in July of 1992, shortly after Emile had taken Juan LaPorte into a fight against Kostya Tszyu, when Emile was attacked outside a nightclub on New York’s Ninth Avenue, a hate crime perpetrated due to Emile’s patronage of a gay bar. The attack left Emile fighting for his life. The beating further quickening the damage accumulated during Griffith’s storied boxing career.
His adopted son, Luis Rodrigo, who acts as son, friend, confidant, and steadying hand for the former fighter, cares for Griffith. Emile’s memories come washing back onto the shores of his mind only to then desert him as quickly as they came; Luis then fills in the gaps.
Emile was content to sit back in his chair as Ron, Luis and I talked about Griffith’s career. The man who headlined at Madison Square Garden twenty-eight times, a record that will never be broken, listened as the anecdotes of his own life were trotted out, laughing as heartily as he would if he was hearing these stories for the first time.
However, Emile did vividly recall the importance of his residency at The Garden. “I still get memories from Madison Square Garden,” revealed Griffith in his pleasant, lilting voice. “I fought a lot of guys there, too. Most of my fights in the Garden were professional fights, not amateur (fights). I fought Dick Tiger there.”
Nino Benvenuti also, a fighter who shared 45 rounds with Emile over three torrid title fights and who later asked Emile to be godfather to his child. “Nino Benvenuti, he was very good, very tough,” laughed Emile.
“We had tough fights, oh gosh. I gave him a nosebleed, yes. You remember the fight better than I do! Dick [Tiger] is my friend. When I fought Tiger, man that was a fight. Carlos Monzon was tough, my toughest fight? I think so. We fought in Monte Carlo. He was heavier, really good.”
Emile had initially struggled to remember who Tiger was, this despite sharing 25 rounds with the tough Nigerian, who was dumped to the canvas for the first time in his career during their first encounter. Still, Emile has lived a million lives, had told a thousand stories with his fists, and was, perhaps, content to once again hear the stories of this fighter named Emile Griffith, a boxer who had come from the Virgin Islands to New York, and who had fought more championship rounds than almost any other boxer.
Fortunately, Ron Ross had spent many afternoons with Emile prior to the deterioration of Emile’s memory. Ross whisked his own mind all the way back to the hot New York summer of 1956.
“Emile came to the USA and found himself at a garment centre, working for Howie [Albert], that is how the road to becoming a prize-fighter began for Emile,” explained Ross. “There was no predilection in Emile for fighting. Howie Albert saw this young man’s 42-26 body, that V shape, and Howie, who had always dreamed of being a prize-fighter, started living his dream vicariously through Emile, who said, ‘I don’t want to fight!’”
Griffith himself laughed at the memory before shaking his head. “Howie never stopped pushing me!” he exclaimed. “Gosh,” he laughed. “I had forgot all about that (the boxing career). I wish I could fight again. I went back to the gym and was training the kids. I was very happy to go back there [to the gym] again, as a trainer. The kids in the gym were training and were very close to me. They got angry with me when I was late, because I was at other gyms, and they were sad when I didn’t come back to the gym. I still watch the fights, I still enjoy training the fighters.”
Luis told me that Emile is still keeping his hand in. “He works with the kids, helping them lace up the gloves, work the heavy bags, and he watches their sparring sessions,” confirmed Luis.
Emile smiled. “The kids see me come into the gym. I tell them ‘Do this, do that’; they call me ‘champ’ and say they love the way that I train them. They ask me to come back and I tell them I’ll be back tomorrow. It is nice when they call me champ. Who started calling me ‘champ’?” asked Emile, who retired from boxing with an 85-24-2 (23) record.
Luis reminded Emile of a famous photo session, George Kalinsky was kept waiting for hours by the flamboyant fighter, who had just won the welterweight title, and then captured a famous shot of Emile. “George, remember?” prodded Luis after Emile had failed to recall that famous photo. “He got you to go into the shower and wrote the word ‘champ’ on your chest in soap, and everyone started calling you ‘champ’.”
Griffith laughed as the memory returned. “Yes, I remember now”, he grinned, “they still call me champ. They call me ‘champ’ but I would like to be able to get back into boxing, do what I do, and please them and please myself.”
Emile’s natural aptitude, not to mention desire, for all types of sport coupled with his still-evident desire to compete, and succeed, carried him to the finals of the first tournament he entered, the Golden Gloves.
“Not only did Albert never stop pushing Emile,” revealed Ross. “He entered Emile into the NY Golden Gloves! One-day, Emile gets the mail and his mother opens his letter and tells him that he has to go for a physical, Emile is now thinking, ‘Oh my god! They are sending me into the army!’, he had no idea that there was no draft, he just assumed that it was a physical.
“Then they read it carefully and saw that it was for the NY Golden Gloves, so he goes down there and tells them he doesn’t know a thing about it, but does the physical anyway. Back in work, Emile tells Howie that he went for a physical and it dawned on Emile that Howie knew more about this than he was letting on. Then Howie gives Emile a gift, signed from the girls at the plant, and the gift was a pair of boxing gloves and some trunks, Emile tells Howie that he can’t be a fighter, so Howie tells Emile that the girls in the factory will just have to get over their disappointment at him not fighting.”
Albert’s moment of cod-psychology, plus, more importantly, the decision to bring in Gil Clancy, set Griffith on the path of boxing success, a path that reached its first peak when Emile took the welterweight world title from Benny ‘Kid’ Paret in 1961. The Peret fight was to be Emile’s launch pad; Benny, instead, became a quagmire.
Their rematch, which took place in the September of 1961, saw Emile lose the title to the man from Cuba. A rubbermatch was essential. It took place in the Garden, where else, on the 23rd of March 1962, a night that would link Emile’s name with Paret in the most grisly of ways.
With his lavish clothes, flamboyant lifestyle and softly spoken mannerism, Emile was different than most boxers. Whispers circulated about his sexual predilections, the press in those days ran a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy towards this type of thing, opponents, however, were not tied by these laws. Paret had quietly dropped a first hint during the weigh in for their second contest and then openly mocked Emile, calling him a Maricón, during the weigh in for the third fight.
The fight itself was anti-climatic, Paret had been badly beaten by Gene Fulmer just three-months prior to the third Griffith fight and was a fading force as each round ticked by, though he managed to drop Emile in the sixth round. Finally, in round 12, Emile hurt Paret and trapped him in the corner, letting rip with anything between 17, 25 and a gazillion shots, depending on whom you are talking to. By the time referee Ruby Goldstein realised what was happening Paret was heading for Ali’s metaphorical ‘black lights’, he would not return, dying ten-days later from injuries sustained in the bout.
That ‘Maricón’ comment was dusted off by the press, Emile was charged with premeditation in the court of public opinion, some people believed that he must have wanted to beat Paret to the point of no return, in truth, though, Griffith was merely doing his job, to nick Ray Robinson’s defence, of punching until the referee intervened or his opponent went down.
“There was anger there, but never hate”, explained Ross when discussing Emile’s frame of mind that fateful night, “there was the desire to win but without seriously hurting his opponent. They say he hit Paret with 17 to 20 unanswered right hands. After the fight Emile was asked how he had felt, and he answered, ‘I was angry with him, but there was never hate’. That is not part of what Emile felt. Hate would have destroyed who he was in life.”
Emile did not have to self-destruct; the politicians and newspapermen took up the cause, promoting Emile as a killer and boxing as little more than sponsored barbarism. The politicians, in particular, took up Benny’s body and used it as a pulpit for their ‘ban boxing’ spiel.
In doing so they committed the crime that they had accused boxing of perpetrating, they used Paret as an means rather than an end, a chance for them to do a little bit of political grandstanding. Emile was adjudged a murderer and, in a cruel blow, referee Ruby Goldstein was drafted in and charged with the role of accomplice, copping the blame for the fight’s fatal finish.
“Yeah, there are people who try to fault Ruby for what happened,” recalled Ross. “There was no scapegoat to be made in this fight, there was no one at fault, it was a matter of circumstance, the risk is inherent in this sport, there is danger, you get hit and you can get hurt, and you can get killed.
“On that particular night, there was no one at fault. Ruby, and I’ve watched this time and time again, was partially shielded by Emile’s location, there was no clear view of Paret. Paret had a reputation of playing possum in a fight, and Ruby was a fine referee, a smart referee, he knew of Paret’s reputation, and that became part of the equation of what happened that night – there was no fault.”
“Unfortunately, it destroyed the reputation of Ruby Goldstein, a person I consider to be a great referee,” continued Ross. “There was the Gene Fulmer factor also, the beating Gene gave Paret was one that you cannot recover from, and Paret went into that fight [Griffith III] complaining of a headache, he told his manager that he could not go into the fight, but there was TV money on the table, you cannot pull those fights.”
The short turnover of fights was a real problem back then. Paret’s ten-round beating at the hands of Fulmer in December of the previous year should have resulted in a three-month ban from fighting, and training in an ideal world, leaving Paret with the time needed to rest up and heal.
A similar thing happened in the fight between Primo Carnera and Ernie Schaef, who had also taken some fierce blows in his previous fights, including a war with the heavy hitting Max Baer. Sugar Ray Robinson versus Jimmy Doyle, who had been sent to hospital after an earlier loss to Artie Levine, also springs to mind, though circumstances vary. As mentioned, Emile was a victim of circumstance rather than a ‘vicious killer’.
Sure, boxing does have the inherent potential of tragedy yet when a terrible event occurs the sport tends to look after its own. Participants accept the risk of danger as a key part of their trade, politicians, however, are a far more savage beat and they used the controversy swirling around the fight to push their own agendas.
What Emile did is forgivable, understandable even if you appreciate the nature of the sport, what the politicians did, or tried to do, is unforgivable. Far from a desire to make boxing safer, the politicians wanted an outright ban, which would only have served to push the sport underground, which, in turn, would have made it a far more fatal pursuit.
What the politicians really wanted, and this is what all anti-boxing arguments boil down to, was to remove boxing from TV screens so that they would not have to confronted by the primordial nature of the sport, they managed to do this for a while, public disapprobation brought about a TV blackout, hurting a lot of boxers, Emile included, in the process.
“Oh, well I don’t find it strange, it is human nature, politicians are an animal all to themselves,” sighed Ross when recalling the aftermath of Paret-Griffith III. “Politicians have to jump onto a bandwagon and espouse a cause to get themselves a name, politicians who knew nothing about boxing suddenly became experts on the sport, talking about the danger, why society needed to abolish it. The result was that it went off network TV for years.”
Luis interjected at this point. “Emile’s endorsements were hurt,” explained Luis. “His finances were hurt. Emile would have been good for marketing things on television. People also missed out on watching Emile fight all over the world. There was now a shadow on boxing.
“Muhammad Ali overcame all of that because he had a public voice; Emile wasn’t that kind of person. Emile is very shy, he would speak up, but Emile is very classy in front of the camera, he is a stand up person, he couldn’t be rude and make predictions and be boastful. Ali did that, and backed up his words. Emile was a placid person, after the fight he would be your best friend, like with Nino Benvenuti.”
Still, boxing survived, returning to the TV screens, the politicians found another cause to push, not knowing, or maybe not caring, about the damage that their crusade had done to the earning capacity of the athletes that they had sought to ‘protect’. All that remained was Emile’s guilt, pain and shame. Guilt over what happened to Paret. Pain brought on by the memories of the fight. His shame overrode them both, though, as he worried that the smears on his reputation, and the ‘killer’ tag, would outlive him.
Also, Griffith lives in two worlds, it is a difficult thing to understand but you have to view Emile as a victim of his times. Emile has recently confessed to loving ‘both men and women’ but he found this admission extremely difficult, almost impossible, to make due to the fact that he fundamentally does not believe that the information is of anyone’s concern but his own. The throwaway comment by Paret was a boomerang constantly circling the rest of Emile’s life, the moment his two worlds, the homosexual world and the ultra-straight world of boxing, collided. Whispers persisted over Emile’s sexuality from that moment on.
As we talked about Emile’s sexuality the fighter shifted a little in his seat. He is still loath to talk of himself in terms of sexuality, believing that he should not have to put himself into a pigeonhole. For Emile, ‘gay’ is an artificial label place on him by a society that cannot countenance variety and must therefore pigeonhole every strata of human existence.
“These two worlds [the space between boxing and his private life] were not created by Emile,” stressed Ross. “We set them up as a society, he accepted that and lived very comfortably in both of them. There had to be a meshing of the two worlds, but it was never an incompatible meshing.”
Indeed, Luis told me that Emile moves easily between both worlds, he would unwind and relax in the gay bars of New York before heading into the gyms, where he would be the kind of fighter and, later, tough task master, that boxing lauds as the epitome of masculinity.
“The sight of him in that other world is something that most people don’t see,” said Luis. “This divide between the boxing world and the gay community. Emile protects both of them by keeping them separate from each other. I like both of those worlds, they make Emile into the whole package that he is, I wish he was a little bit more open and honest with himself, but I understand how he feels, too, the boxing side of the world makes you have to appear as a stand up person.”
Ross nodded. “Emile has great friends in the boxing world, but, as a whole, it is possibly the most homophobic segment of our society.”
Emile perked up when talk turned to the bars he had once frequented. “I do enjoy the nightclubs,” he smiled. “I remember a lot of places that I liked, some I go to and some I don’t, but I can take my time and I get there. I love New York; I would not lie about that. There are so many places in New York that I love. I sometimes get the train to 42nd street!”
Luis gently chided Emile for this wilfulness. “Then he forgets how to get back home. I find him crying for help!” declared Luis.
Despite all of this boxing still calls to Emile; the former fighter leaned forward and said something that left us in no doubt as to what the sport means to him. “I look at the champions (of today) and think I can beat them,” confirmed Emile. “I still enjoy boxing. I know I cannot be there at the fights all the time but I can enjoy my boxing through the TV.”
That sounds like comeback talk to me, Emile.
“Oh yes (laughs), you know it. I like Floyd (Mayweather Junior), yes. I like Manny (Pacquiao); he is very good.”
Luis: “We went to see Manny last year, they invite us over every time we go to Los Angeles.”
Emile nodded at the memory. “I shook his hand,” he said with a smile. “I like to take Luis with me wherever I go, so he can help me remember things, he brings memories back to me. I still love the gym. Especially Jimmy Glenn’s Gym, I trained Juan LaPorte there. I trained Wilfred Benitez there. We are going back now!
“Howie Albert got me to the gym and got me to train this one and that one. Wilfred Benitez, oh gee whiz, when I trained him he was a good little fighter. When his father was training him he was still a good fighter, but I had made him make progress and look good in the ring and everything else. His father wanted to be boss. Juan was nice, a very good friend, that is my buddy.”
Emile had been lucky enough to have a truly loyal trainer in Gil Clancy. Clancy was a forthright taskmaster in the gym; Emile still respects the man who instilled a bit of discipline in him.
“Gil Clancy, I saw him before I came down here today,” confirmed Emile. “He used to be very strict? He is still very strict! That is my papa. What he used to do to me, he would give me a tap on my face, a slap, a smack, that would not annoy me, that would wake me up fast, he used to do that in the big fights.”
Gil’s biggest slap to Emile’s face came in 1977, when Gil sat his charge down and told him that the time had come to retire. Emile looked into the distance when reminded of that day before confirming that Gil’s word had been followed to the letter.
“Well, he told me to retire, I knew he means it, so I said, ‘Ok’. I went home to my bed and cried. I talked about it with my mammy. She said that my manager and trainer knew what to do, if they want you to retire, retire, so I did,” said Emile with more than a hint of sadness.
Now, years later, Emile looked down at his biography, Nine…Ten…and Out!; he smiled as he flicked through the pages, turning each one slowly and taking in the photos before looking at Luis. “Seeing these pictures, I don’t know who is who,” sighed Griffith.
Emile paused before that photo, the one in which he has ‘Champ’ emblazoned across his chest in soapy letters; he smiled at the memory. The man who has been given a million adjectives uttered the one that will always define him in the minds of boxing fans.
“I’m the ‘Champ’ - Emile Griffith,” conclude Griffith with a twinkle in his eyes.
Emile’s ring record:
Emile is a member of Facebook and is happy to accept friend requests from genuine boxing fans. Visit his page by going to www.facebook.com/people/Emile-Griffith/1659624022 ; purchase his biography, which was superbly researched and written by Ron Ross, by visiting www.ninetenandout.com