A Man's World

A Man’s World opens in New York, in October 1960. Emile Griffith, at the blissful age of twenty-two, is happy and beautiful. He has the body of a fighting machine, with fast and lethal fists, but his fluting voice and sashaying walk belong to a gentler man. Emile carries that tangled contradiction with the same panache he wears his tight white trousers and red silk shirt to a meeting with New York’s fight press. He is about to step back into the ring at Madison Square Garden that weekend.

His opponent, Willie Toweel, is different. Willie comes from South Africa and, in his grey flannel suit, he seems as conservative and haunted as Emile is flamboyant and carefree.

The reporters already have their story. They know that Willie is scarred by tragedy. They need little encouragement to enter such murky terrain. They ask Willie how it feels to have killed a man – for he had fought Hubert Essakow at the Johannesburg City Hall and beaten him into a coma and then death in March 1956.

“We don’t want to talk about the Essakow fight,” Willie’s brother and trainer, Alan, protests. “That was four years ago …”

It’s too late for Willie. He is back in the sombre place he had never really left. “I think of Hubert every day,” he murmurs. “I said mass for him again this morning. I will do the same tomorrow.”

Willie is stuck. He can’t get Essakow out of his head. His eyes glaze.

“Hey, champ,” Emile says quietly to his disconsolate opponent. “We’re nearly done.”

Emile knew nothing about death in the ring then. But, just eighteen months later, he shared Willie Toweel’s torment after Benny Paret also slid into a coma and then died following their bleak third world title fight. Emile would be haunted by what he had done for the next forty years – but, in one of the book’s more moving discoveries, a letter from Willie Toweel helps him to return to the ring.

Yet the dark heart of the book centres on the trilogy of Paret fights – and the harsh climate of repression, prejudice and ignorance which stalked all gay men in the early 1960s. Such discrimination was felt acutely by Griffith as a gay black champion boxer.

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He had lost his world title to Paret seven months previously – in September 1961. The Cuban had upset Griffith at the weigh-in to that bout by taunting him as a maricón [‘faggot’.] In boxing’s macho world there could be no greater insult – especially when it was an open secret that Griffith was “different”. It was not just that he spoke of his pleasure in designing pretty bonnets for ladies or could discuss the latest pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy outside the White House.

Emile Griffith was gay at a time when even consensual sex between two adult men could result in their imprisonment. Homosexuality was a criminal act in every state of America – apart from Illinois. The American Medical Association, meanwhile, persisted in classifying homosexuality as a ‘psychiatric disorder’.

The renowned fighter visited gay bars most weekends – but he found it impossible to come out with a public statement about his sexual preference. It was imperative to bury the truth because a gay boxer was an unimaginable phrase. In the early 1960s the subject was not only taboo; it was impossible to believe that any sporting hero, a man’s man, could be a homosexual.

Emile didn’t like thinking about it much. He was just happy belonging to two contrasting groups of men, whether he was fighting them or loving them.

On the morning of 24 April 1962, the day of the fateful fight against Paret, Emile took the subway from Queens to Manhattan. He was accompanied by his boyfriend, Matthew. Emile wanted the comfort of walking along the familiar streets of Times Square where, at night, he laughed and danced with the Hispanic gay crowd and the old drag queens. Just before 11 am that Saturday morning, and on the day of the biggest fight of his life, men, women, transvestites, hookers and strippers called out to wish him good luck. Normally, he would stop and talk to everyone. But, then, Emile just raised his fist to his people and walked on. He would be fighting for them too.

At the weigh-in, Paret was in a party mood. But Griffith looked like he was undressing for a funeral. In his underwear, he stepped onto the giant scales. The Kid pointed at the marker and laughed. He could not believe Griffith had come in as light as a fairy – at 144 pounds.

Griffith was about to step off the scales when he heard his trainer Gil Clancy shout: “Hey, watch it!”

He wheeled round. A smirking Paret feigned intercourse with him as his trainers whooped hysterically. He waggled a finger at Griffith. “Hey maricón,’ Paret said in a cooing lisp, ‘I’m gonna get you and your husband.”

If a white fighter had sneered at the colour of his skin Emile would have shrugged it off. But the onslaught against homosexuality ran deep and wide. A homosexual, in 1962, was ridiculed as being sick and cowardly. It did not matter that, in the case of Emile, he was trying to become just one of eight men on earth to call himself a world champion at a time when boxing held profound meaning in America.

Emile, in private, was proud that he could fall for a man. In public, he felt ashamed and angry that his secret life was being demeaned. How could Paret be so cruel?

He was about to hit Paret harder than he had hit anyone before when Clancy dived between the fighters. ‘Save it for tonight, Emile,’ he hissed.

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If Benny Paret has been condemned by history to this mocking role in one of boxing’s most traumatic fights, A Man’s World strives to present a more rounded picture of the Cuban exile. Paret and Luis Rodriguez, a far greater Cuban fighter who met Emile in four tightly-contested bouts, are key figures in the book.

Relations between Cuba and the United States were at their most fraught and dangerous. Yet the human story of Benny ‘Kid’ Paret is much more moving. It’s hard not to be touched when learning that, before he lost his life in the ring, Benny went back to the Bronx. All the mischief of the weigh-in had drained out of him. He felt lonely. Benny wished his wife Lucy had come with him to New York. He remembered how, just four days before he left for his camp, Lucy had held him when he’d cried. They had taken little Benny Jr to the zoo in Miami but, at the entrance, they’d been turned away.

‘You’re coloured,’ Benny had been told.

Lucy had been stunned when her husband, rather than their small son, had shed tears. The injustice reminded Benny that, rather than being a world champion, he still looked like a Cuban sugarcane cutter.

Benny had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to leave Miami with him so she could watch him retain his title. But for weeks, even though she had not told him, Lucy had dreamed terrifying dreams of Benny being hurt. She could not shake the images from her head – or the memory of her husband being battered so badly in the ring in his previous fight against Gene Fullmer.

He normally never said much – but when Benny telephoned Lucy from the Bronx the words spilled out of him like blood from a gash. His head hurt and he did not want to fight. Lucy pleaded with him to withdraw from the contest; but Benny knew his manager, Manuel Alfaro, would never allow it. There was too much money riding on the fight. He said goodbye softly, and the line went dead.

At ringside, alongside the cigar-wielding gangsters and bent politicians, the fight writers were still absorbing the shocking weigh-in. They could hardly believe Paret had acted so graphically – or that Griffith had reacted with such raw pain.

It had been hard for them to know how to write about the incident for their early evening editions but Howard M. Tuckner, of the New York Times, tried his best. He had written sensitively about the weigh-in, aware that homosexuality spelt out forbidden territory on the sports pages. Maricón was the deadliest insult in Hispanic culture; but Tuckner was also aware that they lived in a society where Liberace was still allowed to pretend that he was a straight man. Tuckner, like everyone else on the boxing beat, realized that Griffith was a homosexual. But that did not impinge on his decency as a man and his ferocity as a fighter.

Out of respect to Griffith, and a conservative world, Tuckner reported soberly that the challenger had been subjected to a slur about his sexuality.

Just before 9 p.m., while ringside at Madison Square Garden, Tuckner collared young Pete Hamill and raged against the totalitarian idiots on the copy desk at the New York Times. Hamill worked for the New York Post, a tabloid, but Tuckner had made it to the peak of his profession and the supposedly magisterial sports desk of the Times. Tuckner was incandescent.

The Times sub-editors replaced the offensive word of “homosexual” with the meaningless phrase “un-man”. Tuckner could not believe it when, on his way to the fight, he had picked up the paper and, under his by-line, read that Paret had accused Griffith of being an “un-man”.

Tuckner shouted out his disbelief to Hamill. “Un-man?” he yelled. “What the fuck is an un-man? A butterfly is an un-man. A rock is an un-man …”

He was still yelling when the lights dimmed in the Garden. A visceral roar echoed around the arena. The battle between the macho Cuban sugarcane refugee and the hat-making “un-man” was about to begin.

This book is about much more than boxing and tragedy – even though there are two further nights in the ring when Emile is involved in the loss of a fighter’s life. The stories of Davey Moore and Willie Claassen are as painful as the death of Benny Paret. Emile’s involvement, and his reaction, takes the book into still darker terrain. It also charts his extraordinary career and includes his late fights, and defeats, to Carlos Monzon and Alan Minter. Emile’s subsequent dementia can be seen as a direct consequence of his excessive courage as a fighter.

Yet there is so much life and colour, laughter and joy, in Emile’s other life, outside the ring. The memories of Esther Taylor, his first girlfriend, who only realized Emile was gay years later, are as uplifting as they are warm.

And I felt happy for Emile when one of his close friends, Freddie Wright, a defiant and scantily-clad figure at the Stonewall Riots which changed gay America in 1969, spoke movingly of the great old fighter.

“Can you imagine how hard it was for Emile?” Freddie asked me in the midst of one of our interviews about the fighter’s gay life in New York. “A world champion five times over. And he got called a maricón? Can you imagine the hurt? Emile had a lot of tragedy. He was haunted. But there were many moments of craziness, and joy. He always struggled with himself but he would do such crazy, fun things. Emile would pull up in a limo and come out in this pink jumpsuit, with wild hair, and find me shaking my mamba at a gay joint like The Gilded Grape. We would just laugh and dance and all the pain got washed away.

“Emile lived in two worlds. He was a great fighter and they loved and respected him in boxing. In his other world, in my world, he made gay people so proud – especially because he was a world champion boxer. We not only respected and liked Emile. We loved him. Yeah, he lived two lives but each one should be remembered. Each one should be celebrated.”

Freddie paused to snap on a small lamp because the room where we sat was shrouded in near darkness. The light shone on his weathered face as he looked up. Freddie spoke softly, but urgently, as if talking to his friend and a magnificent champion one last time: “Emile Griffith...what a man.”

“Donald McRae has written for so long and so well about boxing that another gem comes as no surprise, but it is as welcome as any of the others: books or interviews. A Man’s World is more than a boxing book, more than a sports book. It is a story of very human endeavour, about death and not a little reconciliation in the end. Wonderful.” [Kevin Mitchell, The Guardian]

“A Man’s World by Donald McRae is one of the most absorbing books of recent years, a riveting read.” [Andy Bull, The Observer’s Sports Books of the Year]

“Donald McRae has form as an interviewer and author of great sensitivity, who has written celebrated books on several subjects, especially sport. By placing Griffith’s often tortured life in its context, McRae conjures a surprising triumph.” [Nick Pitt, The Sunday Times]

“McRae – a South African who is arguably Britain’s most garlanded author on sport – has done it again….an astonishing story, simply told, through a mix of sensitive interviews and deep reading.” [Simon Kuper, The Financial Times’ Sports Books of the Year]

“Two-time winner of the William Hill award, Donald McRae offers a sympathetic, superbly researched retelling of the life of Emile Griffith.” [The Guardian’s Sports Books of the Year]

“Sensitively exploring Griffith’s double life and delving deep into the worlds of sexuality and violence in 1960s America, McRae produces a triumph.” [The Sunday Times’ Books of the Year]

“This is in many respects not a sports book at all, but it tells a remarkable human drama.” [The Times’ Sports Books of the Year]

“McRae does what few writers want to do these days... he takes himself out of the equation and simply tells the story, letting the intriguing cast of characters imbed themselves in our brain long after it's over... Highly recommended.” [Thomas Gerbasi Boxing Scene]

“Donald McRae’s brilliant book” [Colin Hart, The Sun]

“McRae’s latest contender is a heavyweight in every sense – painstakingly researched, powerfully told; it is a deeply moving story. Elegantly woven together, at times poignant, and always absolutely gripping.” [Sport Magazine]

“A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, is a glorious tribute to the heroic battler. The rumours end, the gossip stops and McRae goes deeper and deeper into a history that simply could not be written at the time. It is gripping in revelation, shocking at times in explicit depth….a brutal but beautiful book.” [Steve Bunce, Sports Journalists Association]

“One of the most compelling books on boxing I have ever read.” [Alan Hubbard, FrankWarren.com]

“McRae explores Griffith’s life in and out of the ring with sensitivity and insight.” [Thomas Hauser, thesweeetscience.com]

“McRae’s gift is his ability to appease those who are both obsessive and indifferent about boxing, using his peerless interview skills to make ostensibly intimidating characters seem vulnerable and relatable. It’s a colossal, emotional tale.” [Shortlist]