Emile Griffith has passed away at the age of 75. The talented athlete may have been one of the best fighters in an era populated with elite boxers…but he was never given the recognition he was due. The fighter, whose ambiguous sexuality left him vulnerable to homophobic slander, was sadly best remembered for killing his rival in the ring during a nationally televised fight in Madison Square Garden. His brilliant career overshadowed by tragedy .
And yet, the most fascinating parts of Griffith’s life — a life plagued by controversy, homophobia and regret — occurred outside the boxing ring. Here is what you need to know about Griffith, his life and his legacy.
1. He Accidentally Punched His Rival to Death in the Ring
Griffith said was never the same after Benny “The Kid” Paret’s death.
Griffith and Paret’s third fight, was nationally televised in 1962. In the sixth round Paret nearly knocked out Griffith with a multi punch combination but Griffith was saved by the bell.
In round 12 Griffith knocked Paret unconscious yet Paret stood, still propped up against the ropes while Griffith struck Paret repeatedly over the next several seconds before referee stopped the fight. Paret never regained consciousness and died ten days later.
Sports Illustrated reported in its April 18, 2005, edition that Griffith’s rage may have been fueled by an anti-gay slur directed at him by Paret during the weigh-in who his opponent a maricón, Cuban slang for “faggot”
2. He Was Accused of Intentionally Killing Paret
When the seriousness of the situation beacme known, Griffith went to the hospital where Paret was being treated and unsuccessfully attempted for several hours to gain entry to Paret’s room. He would later receive hate mail from Paret’s supporters who were convinced Griffith intentionally killed Paret.
“People spit at me in the street. We stayed in a hotel. Every time there was a knock on the door, I would run into the next room. I was so scared,” Griffith told The Associated Press in 1993, recalling the days after Paret’s death.
3. He Suffered From Haunting Nightmares Involving Paret
In various interviews, Griffith revealed that he always felt the weight of guilt for Paret’s death. He had even suffered nightmares about Paret for 40 years.
4. He Was Openly Bisexual
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who had interviewed Griffith, wrote the following:
I asked Mr. Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no. But he looked as if he wanted to say more. He told me he had struggled his entire life with his sexuality, and agonized over what he could say about it. He said he knew it was impossible in the early 1960s for an athlete in an ultramacho sport like boxing to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m gay.” But after all these years, he wanted to tell the truth. He’d had relations, he said, with men and women. He no longer wanted to hide. He hoped to ride this year in New York’s Gay Pride Parade.
In a Sport Illustrated article featuring the deceased boxer, Griffith was quoted saying:
I like men and women both. But I don’t like that 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.
5. He Was Nearly Beaten to Death by a Homophobic Gang
After leaving a New York gay bar in 1992, Griffith was viciously beaten an almost killed. He was in the hospital for four months after the violent beating.
6. After Retiring He Worked at a Juvenile Detention Center
After retiring from boxing, Griffith worked as a corrections officer at the Secaucus, New Jersey Juvenile Detention Facility.
7. Documentary, “Ring of Fire” Was Based on His Life
In 2005, documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Watch the entire feature above.
8. He Was Inducted in the Hall of Fame
Emile was the first boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands to become world champion and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. According to ESPN, Hall of Fame director Ed Brophy said Griffith brought joy to the Hall when he visited.
“He was a wonderful boxer and a gentleman outside the ring,” Brophy said. “He surely will be missed. He made many visits to the Hall since being inducted in 1990. He was a fun filled person and the flags here are being lowered now.”
9. He Was Married
Griffith married dancer Merccedes Donastrog just two month after meeting. Donastrog, was then a member of the dance troupe “Prince Rupert and the Slave Girls.” Griffith adopted Donastorg’s daughter. The couple separated after only a couple of years. Griffith also adopted Luis Rodrigo Griffith, who was his primary caregiver until his death.
10. He Suffered From Crippling Dementia
Griffith struggled with pugilistic dementia and required full-time care late in life. His disorder was believed to be linked to injuries he sustained while fighting.