What drew you to write about Emile Griffith?
For me personally, he came to South Africa in 1975. I was 14. He fought a guy called “Tap Tap” Makhathini and Gil Clancy [Griffith’s trainer] was barred from going into Soweto, the black township. Emile, he was not a political person at all, he just said, well the fight is going to be off then if Gil can’t come with me. So that was huge news in South Africa at the time and I couldn’t believe it, the government actually gave in to him and said okay, your white trainer can go into the black township. That made me think this guy is quite a powerful guy. That was the initial link for me.
It was in my head for a long, long time, I just thought this is a book I need to do.
When did you actually decide to write the book?
By early 2012 I was finishing another book and I was thinking what am I going to do next and then I started thinking all about meeting Gil and I’d also met Hank Kaplan, the boxing archivist.
I guess the impetus came when suddenly out of nowhere Orlando Cruz appeared on the scene and I didn’t even know who Orlando Cruz was. In October 2012 he came out. I suppose I’d had six months thinking what would it be like to be a man like Emile Griffith, a world champion and to be gay, and suddenly there comes this Puerto Rican, an obscure guy, not a famous fighter like Emile, who was the first boxer to announce that he was gay. So I thought I’ve just got to talk to this guy. I was quite amazed that in about 24 hours and I had an interview with him and it was his first newspaper interview and I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico a few days later, which I’d never been to before.
So that gave me huge impetus that I must start working on Emile…. It was a story that the deeper I went into it, the more I learned. Orlando is in the book as a footnote in the epilogue. Long winded answer but that was when I simply felt compelled to do this book.
Was it hard to find out about his private life, his very private life really?
It took a long time. I’ve done a few books. I’m quite used to archival work but I also know that newspaper archives can only tell you so much, especially when the person’s personal life is controversial and hidden away. You have to actually find the people who were there. I started on the boxing side and that was simple because people in boxing were so open. Of course the more I spoke to former fighters, former trainers, other journalists who’d known him, they all kept saying to me: we all knew Emile was gay, it was no secret. There was a guy called Calvin Thomas who was Emile’s best buddy, Calvin was also gay. So these names were being given to me, there were other people who he had hung out with whose names were also being given to me. There weren’t many. There were only about four people who spoke to me in detail about his private life and his sexuality but they were amazingly kind and good in their discussion about what it was like to be gay and black in the 1960s and 70s. Then I just kept going and a bit like a detective attempting to find people. I found Emile’s first girlfriend, Esther Taylor, in early 2015, she gave me such an insight. She was with Emile for a long time, she’s now in her early 70s and looking back it’s so clear obviously he was gay but she said at the time she was a naïve young girl and she was in love with him. It was just a case of interviewing people… Boxing is such a wonderful world in the sense that people are open and do welcome you in and do talk about fighters of the past and they give you their contacts. I was lucky because it is a small world because people have died. Then there were others too who weren’t comfortable talking about his sexuality.
I love boxing. The book is about a fighter more than anything, he happens to be gay. Emile is defined by his achievements. I was totally immersed in his boxing world but more and more it was explained to me how these two worlds overlapped. It was fascinating. Also at the time it was unspoken. Talking to some of the old journalists who’d covered the Benny Paret fight, who’d been at the weigh in, a famous, wonderful writer called Jerry Izenburg who’s just amazing, and I interviewed him for hours and hours in Vegas… They all knew he was gay but in the actual copy they just couldn’t talk about it. For me it became more and more fascinating and poignant.
Did writing the book make you more ambivalent about boxing, about how dangerous it can be and how dangerous it was at that time?
In some ways it made me feel better about boxing… I’m sure there were some people in boxing who were uncomfortable with his sexuality but it made me understand boxing, for all its flaws and darkness, boxing is actually quite an inclusive world. So that made me feel good but of course the book is about a number of deaths. Benny Paret, a year later Emile was on the same bill when Davey Moore died, for me that was shocking that Emile suffered that again almost a year to the day that Benny died.
Then 1978, he’s in the corner when Willie Classen ends up dead. So the fact that Emile had three deaths to deal with just made me understand how haunted he was.
In Dark Trade, I loved Michael Watson and I was close to Michael Watson, followed him for a long time as I also followed Eubank and that book is partly about the damage boxing does to fighters. After the Michael Watson fight, because it was so vivid and I knew the people, that’s when I thought: how can I continue watching boxing?
This time I was so much more distant, it was 1962, I also feel boxing is so much safer now in 2016 than it was in 1962 and when I watch Emile fighting and to see that he would fight absolute beasts within nine weeks of each other. He was just fighting six, seven times a year against world class fighters, it’s no wonder that dementia set in and that kind of thing doesn’t happen today.
It also made me understand how good these guys were. To be a top 10 fighter in the 1960s when there were only eight divisions, you had to be someone quite special and there was so much hunger amongst all the contenders. Today a top guy climbing his way up the ladder, he fights a lot of total no-hopers. In Emile’s day he had about 20 tough, tough fights before he got to the world title.
In light of all the work you’ve done on the Emile Griffith book, what do you think when you have top boxers like Tyson Fury with his unique comments on gay marriage, or Manny Pacquiao’s recent comments?
Life is full of people who make stupid comments even in 2016. Tyson, come the Klitschko fight, I was being phoned up by people saying what are your comments on this. Tyson’s been making homophobic comments for a long time. In one of my interviews, it was in a camp in Belgium, he was saying he wanted to learn how to put words together because he left school at eight. He felt sometimes so uneducated. Kind of a noble thing in Tyson, one of the things he wanted to do was better himself. I said, ‘Wow Tyson that’s good.’ Then we somehow led on to why have you been saying these things. He said he follows the bible and homosexuality is not acceptable in biblical terms. I said I’m actually working on a book about a gay fighter, Emile Griffith, who was an amazing fighter, a world champion. And I said I could talk to Mike Tyson about it… Tyson Fury just sort of said well that’s fine, good for him, there was no animosity. Tyson can be quite a laid back. He said, ‘No that’s good for you. It take all sorts.’
Pacquiao, in a way I was more disappointed in that. I’m disappointed in Tyson when he makes those kind of comments because I just think it’s so stupid. But I don’t know why but I wasn’t expecting something so unacceptable [from Pacquiao]. But I don’t think it’s boxing’s fault, all sports or sections of society are going to get dickheads saying stupid thing. I hope slowly people are getting more educated and it’s not such an issue.
It’s also society’s hang ups and stupidity, not just boxing.
You’re well known for Dark Trade, I was wondering how you’d developed as a writer and how you see these stories relating to each other?
It’s hard to believe but it’s going to be 20 years [since Dark Trade was published]. I was totally consumed by boxing and I was excited to be with fighters like James Toney. So I think that book has its place because I think it captured a fight fan’s fervour and the way we can get personally involved with fighters. I think since then the books are a bit more layered and a bit more complicated. They might not have the charge that Dark Trade had because I was there, I was with fighters as they were walking out to fight for a world title, as I would do with James Toney, and because of that, the book has power, I think. But in terms of what I did with Emile, in some ways I feel that book will maybe last longer because I think it was a complicated book to do and to weave the two worlds was quite hard. So in some ways I think I did a better job with a man’s world. Though I think more boxing fans would be pulled towards a book like Dark Trade because it’s got the immediacy.
What unites them, and also the book I did about Joe Louis, I just got totally immersed in this world, it made me think boxing is like nothing else and if you put words together for a living you are just so lucky if you can be exposed to boxing because I think all the dilemmas we face in life, whether it’s life or death issues, or fears, hopes, exultations, it’s all there in boxing and the most wonderful cast of people you could ever hope of meeting.
I just feel privileged to know fighters and people in boxing because they’ve told me some amazing things about themselves and I think I will always be involved in this world because I still love boxing more than any other sport, there’s no doubt about that.