The graceful champion battled memories of a tragic night and his own personal issues
Emile Griffith fought 111 times from 1958 to 1977. He won 85 of those bouts, earning six world championships across three weight classes on the way to his 1990 enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But for all his accomplishments, the graceful and ebullient Griffith, who died on July 23 at 75 of kidney failure and complications from dementia, will always be remembered for—and was forever haunted by—a harrowing 20 seconds in Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962.
It is one of boxing's signature moments, preserved in the stark black and white of old TV footage: In the 12th round of a hard-fought welterweight title bout with Benny (Kid) Paret—their third; Griffith had taken the championship from Paret the previous April and lost it back in September—Griffith pinned Paret in a corner and unleashed a series of 29 unanswered punches before Paret slumped to the canvas and referee Ruby Goldstein stopped the fight. Paret, who never regained consciousness, died 10 days later.
The incident rocked boxing, laying bare the sport's inherent violence but also exposing the then-taboo issue of sexuality. At the weigh-in Paret had taunted Griffith, questioning his masculinity and using a Spanish slur for homosexual. Enraged, Griffith had to be held back by his trainers.
It was said that Griffith went into the ring intent on punishing Paret for his comments, but Griffith always insisted he was only going for the knockout. Griffith would box for another 15 years, but he was never the same fighter. "After Paret, I never wanted to hurt a guy again," he told SI's Gary Smith in 2005. "I was always holding back."
In time, though, Griffith would stop holding back outside the ring, addressing the long-whispered rumors that he was gay. Griffith, who was born in the Virgin Islands and endured an abusive childhood before coming to New York City as a teenager, told Smith, "I've chased men and women. I like men and women both."
Griffith struggled in his later years, a decline captured poignantly in Dan Klores and Ron Berger's 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire. But that film also captures a long-awaited moment—a meeting and embrace between Griffith and Paret's son, Benny Jr. "Are you the Kid's son?" says Griffith, through tears. "I didn't go in there to hurt no one."
KEYSTONE/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (GRIFFITH)
GUARD UP A superbly polished boxer, Griffith won world titles at welterweight, middleweight and junior middleweight.