It was silent in the backseat of the car. The old boxer had just left the gay bar outside of which a gang of men had beaten him to the edge of death on a summer night 13 years ago. He couldn't remember how or why it happened. He had given up trying.
The traffic light on Eighth Avenue turned red. His head turned toward the passenger window.
"Look!" he cried. "There I am!"
There he was, five-time world champion Emile Griffith, 12 inches from his nose, on a poster plastered across the side of a bus that had just stopped beside his window.
He stared at himself. It was him, wrapped in anguish and shadows, on a spring night 43 years ago when he beat a man who had called him a maricón—a faggot—to the edge of death ... then beyond it.
"I don't have any clothes on!" he cried.
"No, Champ, you've got your black boxing shorts on," assured his adopted son.
"But you can't see any shorts!"
"That's because you're in shadows."
"No! I'm naked!"
"But you used to be naked in the locker room."
"But ... but I should have clothes on!"
The bus belched exhaust and pulled away. The old boxer kept staring out the window, but there was only smoke.
Get used to the smoke. Let it fill your lungs and sting your eyes. There's no getting rid of it, not in a story about Emile Griffith, not in the one American arena where the smoke just doesn't seem to dissipate. A policeman or a judge or a lawyer can openly be something other than heterosexual. A doctor or teacher or carpenter can be, along with, of course, an actor or a musician or a writer. Even executives on Wall Street now can. But a male athlete in a major sport?
Not one has ever emerged, not while he was still playing. Odd—isn't it?—because what sports does best is break down barriers and bring people of all colors and creeds together. Odd that no bat or ball or fist or foot could smash through this wall.
On April 20 a striking documentary about Emile Griffith—Ring of Fire, directed and produced by Dan Klores with Ron Berger and being promoted on buses all over New York City—will premiere on USA Network at 9 p.m. ET. Later in the year a biography of Griffith by Ron Ross, also addressing the issue of the fighter's sexuality, is expected to appear, and the rights to produce a feature film on the big screen have been sold. You'd think, under all those klieg lights and reading lamps, that the smoke's about to clear. But this is Emile Griffith. This is sports. And this is us. So the smoke may only grow thicker.
But I should have clothes on! Sorry, Champ. You're naked again, except for underwear and socks. You're approaching a weigh-in scale in front of a couple of dozen people, mostly writers and photographers. It'll be 15 years before you retire with more championship rounds under your belt than anyone in boxing history: 51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson, 69 more than Muhammad Ali. It's 1962, when a handful of writers—Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal—are virtually the only people known to be gay in all of America; even Liberace files a lawsuit against those implying he's a homosexual, for fear of what he'll lose.
"Easy, Emile," whispers his trainer, Gil Clancy.
But how can Emile be easy? The last time he and Benny (Kid) Paret—his opponent tonight at Madison Square Garden—met at the weigh-in scales, before their fight six months earlier, Benny did the unthinkable. Swished his limp wrist and hissed that word, maricón. Thank God the reporters pretended it didn't happen. Thank God it was 1961.
Then Paret nailed the insult to the wall of Griffith's heart, winning a controversial decision that night and taking back the world welterweight crown that Emile had snatched from him nearly a half year before. Now it's their third fight, the clincher. The fear of what Benny might do at the weigh-in climbs up Emile's throat. "If he says anything to me before the fight, I'll knock him out," he mutters to Clancy.
Emile steps on the scales. "Watch out," hisses Clancy. Too late: Benny's already slipped behind him, wriggling his body, thrusting his pelvis, grabbing Emile's ass. "Hey, maricón," Paret coos, "I'm going to get you and your husband."
Emile blinks, in his underwear, at a room full of boxing aficionados, reporters and photographers. If he doesn't respond, that means he's afraid, means he's weak ... means he may be just what Paret says he is.
Clancy steps between them. "Save it for tonight," he begs Emile.
It’s tonight. The 12th round. The whole country's watching. It's fight night on TV. The smoke of 7,600 men in sport coats and ties, sucking in and exhaling their Chesterfields and Camels and Lucky Strikes and White Owls, descends over the ring at the old Madison Square Garden. That blue nicotine fog, as Pete Hamill, a writer puffing for the New York Post at the time, calls it.
In the center of the smoke crouch two black immigrants from the islands. They've played basketball together in the neighborhood they share in the shadows of the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Paret, 25, the sugarcane cutter from Cuba who carries his two-year-old son, Benny Jr., everywhere on his shoulders, fighting in what he has decided will be his last prizefight ... never dreaming how right he'll be. Griffith, 24, a Virgin Islander who never wished to be a fighter, who just happened to ask if he could take off his shirt on a sweaty summer day as a teenager working in a hat factory on West 39th Street owned by a former amateur boxer named Howie Albert. Albert had never seen anything like it: a 26-inch waist fanning out to 44-inch shoulders, all rippling with muscle. "Shoulders," says boxing writer Bert Sugar, "that you could serve dinner for six on."
The young man didn't have the lust for hurting people—would've been happy hauling boxes of bonnets to Macy's and Gimbel's all his life—but his body was a destiny that had to be fulfilled. Albert took him to Clancy, a trainer with a growing reputation at a gym on 28th Street. Two months after he laced up the 11th-grade dropout, the kid was a finalist in the New York Golden Gloves. A year later he was the national Gloves champ.
Boxing solved things. It gave Emile a release for something that just didn't fit with the ear-to-ear smile he always showed the world: a monstrous rage that he felt whenever his family was insulted or his manhood was challenged. Boxing gave him—in his co-managers, Clancy and Albert—two of what he'd never really had one of: father figures. It gave him money for the first time and enabled him, after each pro fight, to fly one more of his seven siblings up from the Caribbean to New York City and attempt to re-create something that exploded in his childhood in St. Thomas, back when his absentee father cleared out for good and headed to America, when his mother left to take a cooking job for the governor in Puerto Rico, when his brothers and sisters were scattered like shrapnel, landing in the homes of their mother's relatives and friends.
Emile landed hardest: on his knees, on the bricks at Aunt Blanche's house, holding cinder blocks overhead as long as he could, knowing that when his arms dropped, her switch would rake his back. That was his punishment for dawdling in his daily task of hauling water in a steel drum up the hill to her house. He loathed living there so much that he begged to enter Mandal, St. Thomas's home for wayward and orphaned boys, and finally was accepted. Somehow, as the oldest child in the family, he felt responsible to gather all its splintered pieces one day and glue them back together.
He's 23 now, living with Mama and all her brood in the five-bedroom house he's just bought in Queens Village. A champ but still a child, leaping into the referee's arms to hug him the first time he takes the title from Paret and then, when the astonished ref fumbles him onto the canvas, doing a backward somersault. Running up $100 candy bills in the gift shop at the Concord Hotel, where he trains in the Catskills, doling out gum and grins to everyone, falling asleep with a wad of Bazooka in his mouth that Albert has to scoop out.
So sweet—maybe too sweet, the men in the city's boxing gyms have begun to whisper. They've started adding things up: that high-pitched singsong voice ... those Sunday mornings singing tenor at St. James Missionary Church ... those pants as tight as tape on his broomstick legs ... those young Latino males who seem to appear wherever he does ... that teenager he always lets use his car and calls his "son." But what's this all add up to? It can't be that, not in 1962 or even 2002: a prizefighter, a champion, a limp wrist with a knockout punch? It's the ultimate contradiction, the perfect smoke, so dense that Emile himself can't see through it. "It was irreconcilable ... to be homosexual and a world champion," says Sugar. "As long as he was beating the s—- out of people, it gave lie to the slander. You couldn't confirm it, you couldn't deny it, you just had to put it ... over there."
"Besides," says Bob Jackson, a New York City trainer who was just getting started at the time, "we're like the police, the blue wall. There's a code. We might talk among ourselves about it, but nobody would talk in public about something like that." Nobody ... except a desperate man.
Paret has taken a beating in three straight fights, including that dubious decision over Griffith; the most recent one, when he went up in weight to fight middleweight Gene Fullmer, was so frightful that even the cheap-seat sadists left the arena with a hollow in the pit of their guts. But Benny's still dangerous because he can catch a wrecking ball with his chin and remain vertical, then take five or six more for good measure, then—what?—blink away the fog and flatten you ... the way he did just moments ago to Emile, in the sixth round of this third fight. Clancy got in Emile's face after the round and shouted, "Emile, look, when you go inside I want you to keep punching until Paret holds you or the referee breaks you! But you keep punching until he does that!"
Midway through the 12th, Emile stuns Benny with a short right. Benny reels into a corner, eats another hammer, then another. His head and shoulders slump. The only way to nail his jaw now is with uppercuts, and so that's what Emile begins to hurl—or rather, that's what hurls out of Emile, an eruption of fury so mechanically precise that it seems to come from an engine house in hell rather than from the realm of human kinetics. At last Benny tilts, but the turnbuckle keeps him from collapsing, from saving himself, and now begins the terrible tick-tock of his cranium, left-right-left-right-left-right, combinations bursting from Emile faster than eye and brain can process.
The ref! Where's the ref? Who's the ref? Ruby Goldstein, a victim of his own expertise, a respected pro who knows this sport so well that he knows Emile's not a big finisher, knows Paret's a chronic possum, knows the Hispanics in the house will riot if he stops this fight just as their possum's about to pounce. Goldstein is caught flat-footed as 18 punches land in six seconds—29 consecutive unanswered punches in all—bouncing brain against skull again and again. Eyes puffed shut, blood oozing from his nose and his cheek, Benny slithers down the ropes, at last, as Goldstein grabs Emile and his cornermen run to wrap him too.
Silence falls over the ring. "I think we just saw a gay murder," a colleague murmurs to Pete Hamill. But even now, in the face of death, Emile remains an innocent. "I'm very proud to be the welterweight champion again," he tells the TV audience, "and I hope Paret is feeling very good."
Paret leaves in a coma, on a stretcher. It's not Emile's fault, of course. It's not the fighter's job to stop throwing punches. But now he's done it. Now that Benny lies near death, the media feel compelled to reveal the insult that would've been swept under the rug, the word that lit the fuse that may have exploded Paret's life. When the New York Times boxing writer Howard Tuckner attempts to explain to his tender readership that maricón is gutter Spanish for homosexual, an editor changes the word so that it appears as "anti-man." "A butterfly is an anti-man!" Tuckner later rages to Hamill. "A rock is an anti-man!"
For hours, just after the fight, Emile tries to gain entry to Paret's hospital room, finally gives up and races down the street, trying to run right out of his own skin. He ends up on 42nd Street, where passersby who've heard the news shower him with insults.
Paret dies 10 days later. There's smoke hanging over his death, a half-dozen contributing causes: the ref's hesitation ... the havoc in Paret's head wrought by Fullmer's fists three months earlier ... the lack of a careful medical exam before this fight ... the hunger of Paret's manager, Manuel Alfaro, to squeeze one more payday—some boxing insiders allege—from a shot fighter who told his wife the day before the bout that he didn't feel right and didn't want to fight. "Fullmer ate the meal, but Emile picked up the check," says trainer Bob Jackson. But all that is far too much ambiguity for the cerebral cortex of homo sapiens, much less for 15 inches of newspaper ink. So Emile goes down in boxing history as the man who killed Paret for calling him a faggot.
What happens to a child when he kills a man?
Nightmares. Decades of them. Dreams of Benny walking down the street, calling out greetings, extending his hand ... but when Emile takes it, it's as cold and clammy as last week's trout, awaking Emile in a bath of his own sweat. Dreams of one empty seat at a fight. "May I sit there?" asks Emile. A voice says yes, but as he takes the seat it dawns on Emile that it's Benny's voice, and now he must sit beside the dead man and watch two men wallop each other's heads for an entire night.
Emile grows afraid of sleep. Afraid of silence. Afraid of alone. Here comes the hate mail from Latinos convinced that Emile ended Paret's life on purpose. Here come the questions about Paret's death from every interviewer from now till kingdom come. Here comes the public outcry to banish boxing, and the seven-man commission appointed by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the tragedy and the sport. There go the fights on TV.
Sixteen weeks later, at lunch on the day of his next fight, against Ralph Dupas, Emile buries his head in his hands. When he backs Dupas into that corner, Paret's coffin, he jumps back as if shocked and lets the contender escape. Emile wins by guile in 15 rounds. "After Paret," he'll admit years later, "I never wanted to hurt a guy again. I was so scared to hit someone. I was always holding back."
He wants to quit, but where else can he get what boxing gives him? How else can he play father, put siblings and nephews and nieces through college, pay poor people's rents, buy friends cars, outfit kids' baseball teams, buy meals for the homeless? Kids trail him everywhere. He becomes the Pied Piper of Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood near Clancy's gym, even takes home a pair of white twins from their quarreling parents while the couple iron out their differences. He doesn't just give to people. He gives his last.
He turns on the glitz. Brand-new Lincolns, sprinkled with glitter. Seven-dozen suits, from baby blue to chartreuse, and double-breasted red sweaters festooned with white buttons, mother of pearl. Hmmm. But, hey, he's from the Caribbean; those tropical guys all love bright colors. Big black leather bag strapped over his shoulder, tiny white poodle cradled in his arm. But, hey, it's the '60s: Is he being gay ... or feeling groovy? "I'm nobody's faggot," he says to the few who screw up the courage to ask. But what does that mean?
Women keep flocking to him, and Emile seems happy to accommodate them all. A singer at the Concord Hotel named Ce'Vara gives him a picture of herself and signs it: 1. God. 2. Earth. 3. Emile. Not a bad ranking for any boxer. They're firecrackers, these ladies with whom he'll merengue or mambo or mashed potato the night away. He cuts a single for Columbia Records entitled A Little Bit More.
She brings out the tiger in me
She makes me feel like a man
And she tries so hard to please me
Anytime that she can
You know the old saying. Where there's smoke ... well, does there have to be fire? No, there doesn't. That's what Emile's co-manager Howie Albert concludes. Otherwise why would he have blown even more smoke right up the writers' nostrils—the myth that Emile's job, in Albert's millinery, is hat designer? Why had he brought a dozen bonnets to Emile's press conference before the Gaspar Ortega fight in '61 and beamed as the flashbulbs popped and Emile placed the fuzziest one of all on Ortega's head for the cameras? Rest easy, America. This Milliner Is No Sissy. Honest, that's the caption beneath the photograph the Associated Press sent across the land. And Emile, God bless him, rose to the occasion, actually began to design a few chapeaus and pick up the lingo. "The Jackie Kennedy pillbox will remain in vogue," he told the Los Angeles Times. "But hats will come in a greater variety of shapes and materials than ever this year. We're featuring maribu, ostrich, novelty braids, feathers and velours. With the bouffant coiffure still in vogue look for higher pillboxes." Howwwwieeeee....
But now Howie can't win. He needs the feathers and velours even more, to warm and fuzzy up a man marked as a murderer. "I have a date with a killer, Emile Griffith," declares Brian Curvis just before their '64 match in London. Curvis's terrified wife, Barbara, says she's not coming to the fight, no way. But the killer's lost all killer instinct. Clancy has to smack him between rounds to get his blood up. His boxer's a craftsman now, fond of clinching, targeting belly and spleen rather than jaw and temple, staying away from cuts when he opens them, staying busy enough with his hands to keep opponents crouched behind theirs ... but never again exploding. He decisions Mr. Curvis in 15 rounds. He presents Mrs. Curvis with a hat.
It all keeps growing smokier, one complication wreathed around the next. The event that exposes the question about Emile's sexuality—Paret's death—provides him with the perfect cover: How can a fighter whose fists killed a man not be a man? Oh, but, at what cost. Because now two things can come whistling out of the dark to ambush Emile.
Safest thing to do? Keep everyone smiling. When he gets knocked out in the first round by Hurricane Carter in '63, the press surrounds him in the locker room, everyone lost for words. Who knows where such a deadly silence might turn? "Merry Christmas!" he suddenly shouts, cracking up everyone. He'll never be without a pet phrase, a red herring to yelp, the rest of his life.
Safest thing to do? Keep running. More and more at night, he slips away alone, ends up in the gay bars near the Port Authority on Eighth Avenue or down in Greenwich Village, throwing down seven-and-sevens. He doesn't disguise himself or change his name. Hell, sometimes he doesn't even change after fighting in a Garden main event, showing up at bars wearing his boxing trunks and shoes, no shirt ... and a mink coat. He's a child, not a plotter, not a calculating man. It's illegal in New York for two men to be on a dance floor without a woman present, so when the lights flash on, that's a warning to break the clinch, push your partner away because the cops are raiding the joint again. The men in Trix and The Anvil marvel: A boxer ... here? A world champ? But they protect him, just as the boxing world does.
Kathy Hogan, owner of several of Emile's haunts, learns to smell a bender coming. She empties Emile's pockets, sometimes 15 or 20 grand, takes the jewelry and the poodle and the mink so he doesn't lose them all. Four or five days later, when the wad of 100s that she let him keep is gone, he returns, groaning, "Mommy's gonna kill me! I think I got robbed," and she puts him in a cab with his cash and baubles and pooch and tells the cabbie not to dare stop anywhere—but Mommy's.
But he never lets his nightlife affect his training. He's still ready at the crack of dawn to run his five miles through the Catskills. Still brilliant enough as a boxer to win the world welterweight championship back from Luis Rodriguez, to jump in weight and take the world middleweight title from Dick Tiger, to retain it twice against Joey Archer, to lose it to Nino Benvenuti in 15 rounds and then win it back. Even with hell's engine house padlocked.
It’s 1967. Mike Wallace concludes his groundbreaking 60 Minutes segment entitled "The Homosexuals" with these words: "The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he's a criminal; shunned by employers, rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter, with a man. At the center of his life, he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider."
Emile flies to St. Thomas a few years later. He enters a bar named Bamboshay. He sees a 24-year-old knockout on the dance floor, a former member of a world-touring dance troupe named Prince Rupert and the Slave Girls. She's wearing blue hot pants. Emile's wearing brown hot pants. But, hey, it's 1971. Might just be disco fever. Emile and Mercedes (Sadie) Donastorg begin to do the bump at 11 p.m. They don't stop until 4 a.m. Dropping her off at her mother's house, he says, "Sadie, marry me."
She says, "What? Are you crazy? You don't even know me."
He says, "That's what I want, that's what I want, I want to marry you."
Cooler heads prevail. He returns to America.
They get married two months later. Smokin' Joe Frazier makes a smokin' best man. So maybe all the whispers are wrong. Now Howie Albert has a retort for writers who nudge him and ask The Question: "Go ask his wife."
They move into an apartment and he adopts her daughter, Christine. Emile goes and goes, to training camp, to fights in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Paris. Sadie and Christine stare out that apartment window at Weehawken, N.J. Less than two years into the marriage, they're gone.
"Emile said I was a distraction because he had to keep his mind on what he was doing," says Sadie, "but we remain friends."
What else could anyone be with Emile? He doesn't just cry, "My pleasure!" when he's asked by strangers for autographs. He writes "(Smile)" beneath his name and thanks them. Benvenuti, after they fight a third time, flies Emile to Italy so his newborn son will have the world's sunniest godfather, then keeps flying him back, just to feel the sunshine again.
Color, nationality, status, sex, age ... none of it matters to Emile. It's a beautiful thing, and a blurry thing too: Nobody can tell anymore who's a friend, who's a lover, who's a "son," who's a sponge. It maddens his family, never knowing who'll be at Emile's elbow when he materializes at 5 a.m., whom he'll leave in their house when he vanishes again. He'll just sit there, smiling blankly at everything his brother Franklin hisses at him until finally he hisses that word, and then Emile nearly loses his mind. Off he goes again, looking for family someplace else.
He finds it in 1979. Finds it two years after Clancy calls him to his home and tells him it's over, at age 39, after 111 pro fights and more main events—26—than anyone else in the combined history of the old and new Madison Square Gardens. Finds it at the Secaucus youth detention facility in New Jersey, where Emile, having burned up most of his ring earnings, works supervising wayward boys. Every day Luis Rodrigo, a 16-year-old whose father died 15 years earlier in a four-story fall at a construction site, runs to the front door to hug him. When Luis finishes his punishment for breaking and entering, he asks Emile to be his father. Of course, says Emile. He takes to calling the boy Emile, the way his own father, Emile Sr.—long ago and far away and never often enough—called him. Luis moves into Emile's apartment. When administrators find out about their relationship, Emile loses his job.
That's how he ends up training boxers in New York City by day and tending bar at Jack Miller's Pub in Jersey City by night. Of course, somebody has to yell Stop! every time Emile pours a drink for a customer, then Emile has to test that drink to make sure he didn't stop too soon, then Emile has to take a gulp from every bottle o