Emile Griffith was the epitome of a reluctant boxing superstar. After moving to New York from the Virgin Islands in the early 1950’s, went from hat factory worker to professional boxer in just a few short years.
On April 1, 1961, Emile stepped into the ring to fight reigning welterweight champion, Cuban fighter, Benny “Benny the Kid” Paret. Emile won the match by knockout. Their much anticipated rematch took place just months later on Sept. 30th. This time, Emile lost to Paret by split decision.
By their third match on March 24, 1962 at Maddison Square Garden, their rivalry reached a fever pitch.
During the weigh in of the match, Paret called Emile a “maricon” and laughed. While many were aware that Emile frequented gay bars, many in the boxing world did not speak about it. Remember, this was years before the Stonewall riots of 1969.
By the time the televised match entered its 12th round, and just seconds after the commentator remarked, “This is probably one of the tamest round of the fight.”, Emile backed Paret into a corner and struck him repeatedly in the head before the referee stopped the fight. Paret slowly collapsed against the ropes and lost consciousness. Paret died 10 days later.
As a result of the match, Emile was bombarded with death threats, a government committee was assembled to investigate the sport and boxing was pulled from television for almost a decade. The match would haunt Emile for the rest of his life.
Emile retired in the late 1970’s and became a boxing trainer before working as a correctional officer.
In 1990, Emile was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Two years later, Emile was viscously beaten by a homophobic gang after leaving a New York gay bar. He spent four months in the hospital.
In a sports illustrated interview before his death, he was quoted saying: “I like men and women both. But I don’t like the word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better…I like women.”
Emile died on July 23, 2013.
Today, we remember and speak the name of a champion.