Still etched in the memory of older boxing aficionados is the ghastly sight of defenceless Cuban Benny “Kid” Paret being pummelled before crashing to the canvas.
That was 51 years ago and the pugilist inflicting the punishment in the nationally-televised welterweight title contest was five-time world champion, Emile Griffith. Enraged by a homophobic slur Paret made to him at the weigh-in, the 1964 Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year pounded his opponent – they were meeting for the third time in 11 months – into a coma. Paret died 10 days later without regaining consciousness.
Griffith, who later said he was “straight, gay and bisexual” and survived a vicious beating after leaving a Times Square gay bar in 1992, succumbed to kidney failure and dementia complications last week in a nursing home in Hempstead, New York. He was 75.
The 1990 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee was the first person from St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) to make it big on the international sports stage. Moving to New York at age 14, Griffith’s boss at a shirt factory he worked at was so impressed with his physique that he took him to Gil Clancy’s gym to train.
As they say, the rest is history.
Griffith fought 10 world champions and boxed a record 339 title rounds which is two more than deceased six-time world featherweight champion, Abe Attell and 67 more than three-time world heavyweight king, Muhammad Ali.
During an impressive 85-win professional career (he lost 24 times), Griffith fought most of the top fighters of his era, including Carlos Monzon, who was the undisputed world middleweight champion for seven years; Dick Tiger – Griffith was the first boxer to put him on the canvas in his successful first quest for the middleweight belt – who was one of Africa’s greatest pugilists; Luis Rodriguez, who was unbeaten in 36 bouts before losing to Griffith in a 1960 non-title fight; former world welterweight champion, Jose Napoles and Toronto resident, Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who knocked him out in the first round at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena on December 20, 1963.
That fight is depicted in the opening scene of the 1999 motion picture, The Hurricane.
“Griffith was a very good welterweight and he was always in good condition,” said three-time Golden Glove champion and Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, Charles “Spider” Jones, who was recently inducted into Rexdale’s Wall of Fame. “He was no Sugar Ray Robinson or Ray Leonard, but I will definitely place him in the Top 12 of all-time.”
Back in the land of his birth, the Emile Griffith Ballpark in downtown Charlotte Amalie is a reminder of the fighter who was known for his elegance and lightning speed in the ring and was the holder of the welterweight and middleweight crowns simultaneously in 1966 and the new junior middleweight belt.
“He has certainly been a great ambassador for us as have Julian Jackson, Tim Duncan and Raja Bell,” USVI Department of Tourism Commissioner and Caribbean Tourism Organization chairman, Beverly Nicholson-Doty, told Share 20 months ago.
Jackson, who is also from St. Thomas, is a former three-time world champion in the light middleweight and middleweight divisions while Bell and Duncan – they are from neighbouring St. Croix – play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
USVI governor John de Jongh Jr. said Griffith never forgot his St. Thomas roots.
“He was charming, hilarious, warm and generous and his courage in life advanced important civil rights issues,” said de Jongh. “It’s so appropriate that many of our territory’s youngsters discover their love of sports at the ballpark in downtown St. Thomas named after our great boxing champion.”
Following three consecutive losses in a 10-week span in 1977, Griffith retired and worked as a boxing trainer, corrections officer and bartender.
His fateful third fight with Paret was the basis for the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. Fascinated by Griffith’s tragic story, Grammy Award winner Terrence Blanchard wrote the opera, Champion, which made its world première last June.
The headliner at Madison Square Garden 23 times, Griffith – the oldest of eight children – fought once in Canada. He defeated former Canadian welterweight champion, Donato Paduano, in a 10-round non-title fight at the Montreal Forum in 1974.