Emile Griffith, boxing champion who killed rival in ring, dies at 75


Emile Griffith traps Benny “Kid” Paret in the corner and delivers a fatal pummeling in their 1962 fight. (AP/AP)
July 23, 2013

Emile Griffith, a five-time boxing champion whose career of brutal artistry was largely defined by a nationally televised championship fight at Madison Square Garden in 1962 in which he beat his opponent to death, died July 23 at an extended care facility in Hempstead, N.Y. He was 75.

The International Boxing Hall of Fame, to which Mr. Griffith was inducted in 1990, announced his death. He had struggled with pugilistic dementia for several years.

Mr. Griffith was one of the most exciting boxers of the 1960s and held world titles in the welterweight and middleweight divisions off and on from 1961 to 1968. He was often a model of cunning efficiency in the ring, preferring finesse to power. But on occasion he could summon great reserves of strength and unleash devastating torrents of punches on his opponents.

No fighter felt his wrath more than Benny “Kid” Paret, a Cuban-born boxer who was Mr. Griffith’s arch-opponent in the 147-pound welterweight class.

Their rivalry was explored in a 2005 documentary directed by Dan Klores, “Ring of Fire.” The film also examined lingering questions about Mr. Griffith’s sexuality, which contributed to the atmosphere surrounding his fights with Paret.

The two boxers first fought on April 1, 1961. Mr. Griffith knocked Paret out in the 13th round to win the welterweight crown.

After defending his title once, Mr. Griffith narrowly lost a rematch to Paret in September 1961. That set up a third bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962. The fight was carried live on national television.

At the weigh-in that day, Paret confronted Mr. Griffith with what were vaguely described at the time as “remarks questioning his manliness.”

Rumors had circulated through the boxing world that Mr. Griffith, who had worked at a women’s hat factory, was gay. At the weigh-in, Paret touched Mr. Griffith’s buttocks and muttered “maricon,” a Spanish slur for homosexual.

An enraged Mr. Griffith wanted to fight Paret right there, but his trainer, Gil Clancy, pulled him away, saying, “Save it for tonight.”

The fight was exceptionally savage from the opening bell. The referee, Ruby Goldstein, warned both fighters against illegal holding and low blows.

Mr. Griffith gained an early advantage but was knocked to the canvas by Paret near the end of the sixth round. He recovered and nearly knocked out Paret in the 10th.

Midway through the 12th round, Mr. Griffith caught Paret in a corner and attacked with a fury and speed that few people had ever seen.

“Griffith punched faster than most observers could count,” a New York Times account said.

Only in slow-motion replays could the full force of Mr. Griffith’s fusillade be measured. He delivered as many as 29 unanswered punches, including 18 in six seconds.

Amid shouts from the crowd to stop the fight, referee Goldstein belatedly stepped between the fighters. Mr. Griffith’s handlers had to help pull him away from Paret, who slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Mr. Griffith exulted in reclaiming the welterweight championship before he realized the extent of Paret’s injuries. Mr. Griffith went to the hospital, where Paret lay in a coma. He waited for hours, but Paret’s family refused to let him see his fallen opponent.

“I’m sorry it happened,” Mr. Griffith said. “I hope everything is being done for him.”

Paret died 10 days later without regaining consciousness.

The fight, witnessed by millions on television, led to legislative hearings and calls for boxing to be more closely regulated. Several jurisdictions banned the sport outright, and the Vatican denounced it as immoral.

Mr. Griffith, who received death threats, was clearly haunted by the fight. He briefly considered giving up boxing but realized that it was his only real skill, so he kept on fighting.

He lost his welterweight title in March 1963 to Luis Rodriguez but recaptured it three months later and held it until 1966, when he moved up in weight class and defeated Dick Tiger for the middle­weight championship.

He held that title for a year before losing it to Nino Benvenuti. Mr. Griffith won a rematch in December 1967, then lost the title in a third fight to Benvenuti in 1968.

Mr. Griffith retired from the ring in 1977 at age 39, with a record of 85 wins, 24 losses and 2 draws. His 22 title bouts are among the most of any boxer in history.

Many observers said Mr. Griffith was never the same after the death of Paret. He seemed to hold back, not wanting to inflict more damage than he had to. In 80 fights after the third Paret bout, Mr. Griffith knocked out only 12 opponents.

“Things happen in the ring that nobody wants to happen,’’ he said in 1983.

Emile Alphonse Griffith was born Feb. 3, 1938, in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He came to New York in his early teens to join his mother, who worked at a hat factory.

The owner, a onetime amateur boxer, noticed Mr. Griffith’s physique and recommended him to Clancy, a trainer who later became a television boxing analyst. Mr. Griffith was a national Golden Gloves champion 1958 before turning professional.

Early in his career, there were whispers about his sexual orientation — a shocking notion at the time — and sportswriters took winking note of Mr. Griffith’s interest in women’s hats.

He married a dancer, Mercedes “Sadie” Donastorg, in 1971, but they were divorced within two years. For most of his life, Mr. Griffith deflected questions about his personal life, but he admitted that he visited gay bars that featured transvestite dancers. He sustained kidney damage from a severe beating after leaving a gay bar in 1992.

In interviews for “Ring of Fire” and for various publications, Mr. Griffith alternately described himself as bisexual, gay and straight. He participated in New York’s Gay Pride march in 2007.

Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard wrote an opera, “Champion,” about the complex strands of Mr. Griffith’s life. It premiered last month in St. Louis.

Mr. Griffith worked as a youth counselor in New Jersey and as an occasional boxing trainer but lived in poverty during his final years.

Survivors include three brothers, four sisters and a caregiver, Luis Rodrigo Griffith, whom Mr. Griffith called his adopted son.

In the 2005 documentary, filmmaker Klores introduced Mr. Griffith to Paret’s son, Benny Paret Jr. They embraced and wept at the memory of the fatal event in 1962 that forever linked them.

Ever since, Mr. Griffith told the New York Daily News in 2005, he had recurring dreams of seeing Kid Paret in the ring, young and alive once more.

“I wake up sweating and crying,” Mr. Griffith said. “It’s always like that.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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