Emile Griffith, one of the best fighters of his generation, died tonight at age 75. Griffith won both the World Welterweight and the World Middleweight championships; this was before the days of multiple belts and “champions” at every five or six pounds. Griffith fought 112 professional fights, winning 85. He fought an extraordinary series of luminaries, including Don Fullmer, Luis Rodriguez, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Dick Tiger, Joey Archer, Nino Benvenuti, Jose Napoles, Carlos Monzon, Bennie Briscoe and many more.
But Griffith is best remembered for his three fights against Benny “Kid” Paret. Griffith beat Paret in 1961 to win the welterweight title. Six months later, he lost a rematch to Paret in a split decision. That set up their third match, at Madison Square Garden in March 1962, in which Griffith regained the welterweight crown.
Griffith apparently was gay, or maybe bisexual. Of course, the public knew nothing about this at the time. But Paret reportedly referred to Griffith with a homosexual slur at the weigh-in before their third fight, so within the boxing world, the bout was viewed as something of a grudge match. It was nationally televised, and I happened to watch it. I can still distinctly remember the fight’s tragic conclusion. In the 12th round, Griffith had Paret against the ropes. What happened next was clear to those who were watching on television: Griffith knocked Paret out, but Paret became entangled in the ropes and couldn’t fall down. Griffith did what every fighter is taught to do: he kept hitting Paret until the bell rang or the referee told him to stop.
I believed at the time, and still think today, that the referee was criminally slow in stopping the fight. It was obvious to everyone that Paret was helpless. The referee, I believe, never worked another fight. Paret never regained consciousness, and died ten days later. Griffith was stricken with remorse, and some said that he was never again quite the same fighter. I doubt this, however: the Paret fight was actually quite early in Griffith’s career, and he fought for another 15 years–like many other boxers, for too long.
The Griffith-Paret fight sparked several boxing reforms. Bouts were shortened (although not until some years later) to 12 rounds for championship matches, and 10 rounds for others. Referees became quicker to end fights when one of the boxers was unable to defend himself. In his later years, Griffith’s many accomplishments as a boxer tended to be overshadowed by memories of Paret’s appalling, televised demise and by Griffith’s uncertain sexuality. In death, Griffith deserves to be remembered for what he was: a superb athlete, an indomitable competitor, and one of the most skilled boxers of the modern era.