HIS smile was infectious, his tears flowed unashamedly at sad movies or for the misfortunes of others. He was just as much at home on a sandlot teaching a group of scruffy kids the basic rudiments of playing baseball with equipment that he bought for them as he was on the stage of any nightclub where he would sing and dance the hours away. All memories now. Emile Griffith is no longer with us. This great champion passed away in his sleep in the early morning of Tuesday, July 23, 2013, at the age of 75 after spending the past two years in a near vegetative state in an extended care facility in Hempstead, New York.
The oldest of eight children, young Emile had a happy childhood growing up in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, until his father, a local police constable, deserted the family. Emile came to New York with his mother Emelda, who hoped to earn enough money to bring over the rest of her brood that, meanwhile were left to stay with relatives in St. Thomas.
Emile had dreams of being a professional baseball player and was the star catcher for his high school team but had a rude awakening in his junior year when he was forced to leave school in order to earn money to help his mother make ends meet. After a short stint as an usher in a local movie theatre he got a job as a stock clerk for a millinery firm in the garment centre.
Time for a new dream, this one not of his own making. The owner of the millinery company was Howard Albert, who had nurtured a lifelong dream of being a prizefighter but sensibly realised that this dream could readily turn into a nightmare.
It was a scorching summer day when walking through his plant he stopped in his tracks as he caught sight of his new stockboy who had stripped to his waist because of the oppressive heat. That’s when Howard Albert decided that his lifelong dream was transferrable.
He converted his stockroom into a mini-version of Stillman’s Gym and tried convincing the youngster to consider a career as a boxer. But Emile was a sensitive young man. Hitting people and getting hit was not his thing. What he liked best about his job was that in his spare time he was designing hats – much more to his liking than throwing punches at someone.
Howard Albert was not a quitter and had more tricks up his sleeve than a crooked bridge player, among which was sending in an application for the Golden Gloves tournament, signing Emile’s name.
Realising that it was not a good idea to be Emile’s sparring partner, he brought him over to a local Parks Department gym operated by Gil Clancy. This was the beginning of a lifelong relationship for the three of them, forging ties as strong as a family bond. Emile Griffith now wanted to be a prizefighter, mostly to please his surrogate fathers.
Endowed with an athleticism that enabled him to excel at almost any sport or anything requiring movement, Griffith moved rapidly up the ranks, starting off his pro career with 13 consecutive wins. More important to Emile, who always had a strong sense of family devotion and responsibility, was that, from each fight he would earn enough money to bring over another sibling. In less than three years as a prizefighter, not only did he bring all seven siblings to New York – he also bought a large house for his family in Hollis, Queens.
Griffith went on to a career spanning 19 years, encompassing 112 fights on five continents. He fought any worthy opponent anywhere and fought more fights (28, say BoxRec) at Madison Square Garden than any other fighter – a record that may never be broken – winning six world titles along the way. He captivated the boxing world with his exciting style and a disarming personality. Enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame as a charter inductee, Emile Griffith’s place in boxing history as one of the greatest prizefighters ever to climb into a ring is assured.
It wasn’t always a smooth road, however. A tragic event struck early in Emile’s career. On April 1, 1961, Emile Griffith defeated Bennie “Kid” Paret in Miami for the welterweight championship of the world. Six months later Paret recaptured the crown at Madison Square Garden on a hotly-disputed split decision with 18 of 22 ringside reporters calling it for Griffith. This set the stage for a fight that became a benchmark in boxing history.
On March 24, 1962, Emile and Paret had to be separated at the weigh-in for their third fight when Paret taunted Griffith and called him a “maricon” (faggot). Griffith was shocked and hurt to the core. They had been teenage friends when both lived in upper Harlem in the shadows of the Polo Grounds and played basketball together in the local schoolyard until Bennie moved with his family to Miami.
It was later that night that Griffith pounded Paret with a barrage of right-hand power-punches, knocking him into an unconscious state from which he never recovered, dying 10 days later. Although it was disclosed that Paret told Manny Alfaro, his manager, that he wanted to postpone the fight because of severe headaches that began when, and had become progressively worse since, being knocked out and severely punished by middleweight champion Gene Fullmer less than four months prior, Alfaro said they could not cancel as there was a lot of television money on the table.
Griffith was inconsolable. “Yes, I was angry,” he told me, “but it was never hate.”
Emile did not want to fight anymore. It took months of coaxing and hundreds of support letters, many from people who had been involved in situations that accidentally precipitated the someone’s death, to get the reluctant warrior back into the gym and eventually, under the gentle reassurance of his fatherly trainer, Gil Clancy, to resume his career.
The real irony is that there may never have been another boxer who cared for and respected his opponents more than Griffith. After three historic savagely fought middleweight title bouts with the charismatic Nino Benvenuti, the two maintained such a warm, friendly relationship that Nino made Emile the godfather of his first-born son Giuliani.
Also, Nino, upon first hearing that Emile was having severe medical problems, flew over to visit him and opened a trust fund for the care and maintenance of his now-dear friend.
In 1972, a 33-year old Emile Griffith was in against undefeated Armando Muniz in Anaheim, California. Muniz, California’s Golden Boy, was a college student working towards his masters degree. By the eighth round, administering a steady pounding and having blood cascading down the youngster’s face, Emile lowered his attack to the body, refusing to damage the youngster any further while encouraging him not to give up and to keep punching.
Thirty-three years later, I attended the World Boxing Hall of Fame in Los Angeles with Emile. Before a crowd of onlookers, Muniz smiled and embraced Emile, saying that even though it had been his first loss he was proud that it was to a great champion like Emile Griffith and thanked him “because, really, it was an education. I learned what prizefighting was all about that night.”
Other never-to-be-forgotten highlights of Emile’s career were his four epic battles with Luis Rodriquez, with Griffith winning three and his two victories over Dick Tiger – who Griffith dethroned for the middleweight crown in 1966.
Emile Griffith married Mercedes Donastorg, whom he met and fell in love with on a visit to St. Thomas in 1971. They eventually divorced but remained friends throughout the years. Emile had an adopted daughter, Christine, from the marriage as well as his adopted son, Luis, whom he befriended when working as a guard in a New Jersey youth detention centre in 1979.
He had a zest for life and lived it to the fullest. Where others “liked”, he was able to love. Sadness could become deep sorrow and happiness, ecstatic joy. His world encompassed all. He never hid his life because, as he felt, there was nothing to hide. He simply chose not to flaunt it.
Unfortunately, his philosophy was not shared by everyone. In July 1992 he was attacked by a gang of homophobic thugs armed with baseball bats and chains outside a gay bar in midtown Manhattan. Battered and bleeding, he somehow fought them off and miraculously made his way home. He wound up in a hospital on life support. It was only because of his excellent physical condition that he survived but it was the beginning of a gradual decline in mental faculties and all-around health.
So, to my dear friend Emile Griffith: farewell Champ. You did it all and you did it your way. You showed the world what being a champion was all about – in the ring and out. You opened the door to a better, more accepting world not just for athletes, but people in all walks of life.
You’ll be missed, Champ, that’s for sure. You’ll be missed but never forgotten. Emile Griffith – six-time world champion in the ring and all-time champion in life.