Any series on sporting rivalries is bound to include that most elemental of sports, the purest and most primitive form of one on one combat, boxing. The first in the series is a rivalry well known to an older generation of boxing fans, one which ended in tragedy.
Benny ‘Kid’ Paret was a tough Cuban boxer who arrived in the USA with no family and little English. By 1960 he was world welterweight champion. Emile Griffith, from the Virgin Islands, was one of eight children. His mother migrated to the US and he joined her at the age of 12. As a teenage factory worker, he asked his boss if he could work shirtless. One glance at Griffith’s magnificent, broad shouldered, narrow waisted frame convinced the owner, a former amateur boxer, to take Griffith down to Gil Clancy’s gym, where he made rapid progress under the tutelage of Irishman Clancy and Jew, Howie Albert. Clancy said, ‘’It was the only partnership in history where the Irishman and Jew teamed up and the mick had the brains.’’
On April Fools’ Day 1961 Griffith knocked out Paret to claim the welterweight crown. Only five months later, Paret won it back on a split decision. The third and final of the series came on March 24, 1962. In the interim, Paret had fought Gene Fullmer for the middleweight crown and taken a considerable beating. The fact that Paret had endured three very tough fights in a short period of time, yet been allowed to take on the March fight, was to cause great controversy.
Griffith had a high singsong voice and had worked in a women’s shop. It is likely that in the run up to the fight, Paret’s slightly shady manager, Manuel Alfaro, looking for an angle, made a suggestion to his boxer. At the weigh in, Paret touched Griffith’s buttocks and used the Spanish word ‘maricon’, meaning homosexual. Whether or not Alfaro knew that Griffith was said to frequent gay bars is unknown but the boxer was beside himself with rage and manager Clancy had to calm him in the hours before the fight.
Paret began the fight well and in the sixth round he dropped Griffith hard with a combination. Griffith was saved by the bell. By the 12th round, Griffith had taken control and trapped Paret on the ropes. He launched a savage, two fisted attack, then as Paret hung defenceless on the ropes, he smashed right hand uppercuts, again and again into his head. Referee Ruby Goldstein, who had a reputation for being ‘soft’ on boxers, had recently received heavy criticism for stopping fights too early. He stood back and allowed the punishment to continue.
As Paret slid down the ropes to the floor, the commentator remarked that he had been overcome by exhaustion but Paret was badly injured. He slipped into a coma and died ten days later, in hospital. The fight, which had been broadcast live on Friday Night Fights, horrified many viewers and following the death of Davey Moore a year later, boxing was banned from network television until well into the seventies.
Griffith went on to win the middleweight title and fought against some of the greatest names in middleweight history, including Carlos Monzon, who also came to a tragic end and three match ups with Nino Benvenuti. However, after the Paret fight, Griffith said, ’’I would have quit but I didn’t know how to do anything else but fight.’’ He was never quite the same boxer and later admitted to ‘going softer’ on opponents. This is borne out by the fact that after Paret, few of his fights ended in a knockout.
Griffith struggled with his sexuality all his life but allegations of homosexuality when he was in his prime, in the macho world of boxing, would have been fatal for his career. Late in life, he admitted that he had liked both men and women.
Leaving a gay bar in 1992, he was set upon by thugs and took a severe beating. He became, in his later years, a victim of dementia and died in 2013.