I first became aware of Emile Griffith when I was a teenage boy. In 1975 I was fourteen years old and living in South Africa, at the height of apartheid, when Griffith, an ageing former world champion boxer, arrived in Johannesburg. He was due to fight Elijah ‘Tap Tap’ Makhathini in the black township of Soweto. As kids we loved Tap Tap’s nickname – even if we knew little about Makhathini as either a boxer or a man. Griffith was far more famous. He had been a five-time world champion.
The sports boycott against apartheid had begun to bite. Rugby and cricket tours were cancelled again and again. South Africa was a pariah in sport, and the wider world. So whenever an international contest was about to be staged in the country my friends and I were agog. We were besotted. We lapped up every single detail we could devour in the sports pages of the Rand Daily Mail and The Star.
Emile Griffith was hailed as a boxing great, and a gentleman. It was very strange to hear a black man being called a gentleman in white South Africa. But the black American had been allowed into the country as ‘an honorary white’.
We were still a year away from television being unbanned – and whites were forbidden, and were too frightened anyway, from entering Soweto. So we had no chance of seeing Emile Griffith in action. But that didn’t stop my excitement rising as the days passed and the fight approached. I could read all about it in the Sunday papers after the fight took place on the Saturday afternoon of 9 August 1975.
Suddenly, everything changed. The fight was in danger of being cancelled. Gil Clancy, Emile’s venerable trainer, had been told he could not accompany his fighter into Soweto. Clancy was white and, according to the Group Areas Act, Soweto was a strictly ‘non-white’ location.
Emile Griffith was outraged. “I can’t go anywhere without Clancy,” he said.
He was politely reminded that, in South Africa, white and black people could not mix. People who broke the highest law of the land ended up in jail.
“I don’t care,” Emile said. “I tell you one thing straight – no Clancy, no fight. You can lock me up or send me home. I know what’s right and wrong. And this law is wrong. I refuse it.”
I could not believe it when the normally unbreakable white government simply buckled. They knew that white people were desperate for international sport and so they gave in to Griffith. He could be accompanied into the black heart of Soweto by his white trainer.
Emile Griffith, I decided, must be a very powerful man.
But I was shocked again when I read newspaper reports of the fight. Griffith had been outpointed by the Zulu warrior. Tap Tap had won easily. The sportswriters explained that Emile looked very old in the ring.
He had lost; but I was still impressed that he had won a far harder battle against apartheid.
I thought of those strange times years later, in 1999, when I saw Gil Clancy in a hotel bar late one Saturday night in Las Vegas. He had just worked the corner for Oscar de la Hoya in a controversial fight against Felix Trinidad. De La Hoya had clearly won the fight but the decision had been gifted to Trinidad.
Gil was a kind and intelligent man. He reacted warmly when I walked over to him and mentioned Emile Griffith and his impact on me in South Africa. Gil offered me a seat and we spoke for the next few hours. It was one of my most riveting encounters in boxing and the seeds of this book were sown that night in a heaving Las Vegas.
I knew, then, about Griffith’s tragic trilogy of fights with Benny Paret. I also knew all the rumours of his conflicted sexuality. But Gil spoke about Emile with such insight and compassion that he emerged as a fascinating man.
It took me many more years to reach the point where I could write this book. Marriage, children, other books and ordinary life took hold. But, in the end, in December 2012, I finally sat down next to Emile Griffith – in a nursing home in Hempstead, Long Island.
I noticed his hands first. Emile Griffith’s hands were so small it was hard to believe they had once killed a man. They were curled into tiny black fists, resting against the white sheets, but they did not look like the weapons that had helped him become a multiple world champion during an era when boxing still carried profound meaning. It was easier to believe that these were the delicate, almost girlish hands with which he had held different men. Emile, showing as much courage as he did inside the ring, had remained true to his real self at a time when homosexuality was derided as a disease, condemned as a sin and classified as a crime.
Fifty years since his life had changed forever at Madison Square Garden, on the night he and Benny Paret fought for the third and final time on 24 March 1962, Emile gazed unseeingly into the distance on a snowy winter afternoon in Hempstead. His last lover and closest friend, Luis Rodrigo, who also called himself the dying man’s adopted son, embraced the former champion.
‘Hey, Junior,’ he said, ‘look who’s come to see you.’
Luis glanced encouragingly at me. He then turned back to Emile, his round face creased with love. ‘C’mon, champ,’ he said to the patient he visited every day, in between working Monday to Friday in the post room of a Manhattan film production company and as a Domino’s Pizza delivery man in Hempstead at night. ‘Give us a smile.’
Emile did not smile, blink or emit any other sign of life as he stared at me. It was hard to reconcile that empty shell with the brave and vibrant man who had straddled opposing worlds of brutality and frivolity, fame and secrecy.
No other boxer had fought as many as the 337 world championship rounds that Emile had racked up in a career spanning nineteen years – from 1958 to 1977. He had fought fifty-one more world title rounds than Sugar Ray Robinson, and sixty-nine more than Muhammad Ali. Emile had won his first world title in 1961, defeating Paret in the opening bout of their savage trilogy, when there were only eight divisions and one champion of each weight category. To most respected fight historians, he was one of the finest welterweights in history.
Yet his place in the pantheon was darkened by the death of Paret, the Cuban fighter who had taunted him as a ‘maricón’ (a faggot) at the weigh-in before their deadly battle in the Garden. The fight had happened before my first birthday but the ghosts of our past swarmed around us.
Luis understood. Four hours earlier, in his and Emile’s cramped apartment down the road in Hempstead, surrounded by old photographs, world championship belts and their little dog, Princess, I had explained the black fighter’s impact on my life as a white South African. ‘Take Emile’s hand,’ Luis suggested on that hushed Saturday afternoon, ‘and tell him what you told me.’
It felt strange at first, my hand curled around Emile’s, my words sounding stilted in our one-way conversation. Luis leaned down to tilt the champ’s head on his pillow, so that his eyes once more locked onto me. It became more natural to talk about the days when Emile visited South Africa. I tried to explain that his insistence on Gil joining him in Soweto helped me to start thinking more clearly about South Africa. Seven years later I even ended up teaching in Soweto – where Emile was still revered by the black boxing fraternity.
I also told Emile about Orlando Cruz, who had just become boxing’s first openly gay fighter. He would once have been impressed that a gay Puerto Rican, who had boxed professionally for twelve years, had found the resolve to declare his sexuality publicly.
Six weeks earlier, at home in San Juan in October 2012, in his first newspaper interview as a gay boxer, Orlando Cruz told me how he had ‘decided to be free’. We had spoken about Emile, and the tragedy he shared with Benny Paret. Orlando had looked as if he was close to crying when I read to him a quote from Emile: ‘I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.’
A strange expression flitted across Orlando’s face. ‘It shows the hypocrisy of the world,’ he said in Spanish. ‘But, fifty years ago, Emile was not living in the moment we are now. He was not as lucky as me.’
Luis told Emile that, on my next visit to Long Island, Orlando Cruz would join us. Orlando would also fight for a world title in 2013, and he promised to dedicate that history-making night to Emile. I recalled Orlando’s words: ‘I have been living with this thorn inside me. I wanted to take it out of me so I could have peace within myself.’
The Puerto Rican had glanced down as if in search of an invisible wound. ‘You can’t see it,’ he said of his hurt at the age of thirty-one, ‘but it was here. Now it’s different. They can call me maricón or faggot and I don’t care. Let them say it because they can’t hurt me now.’
Benny Paret had sneered ‘maricón’ with such wounding intent that he had paid for that insult with his life. Emile had struggled to forgive himself for the next half-century, and had suffered from nightmarish visions of Benny, but I was moved by the way in which he had lived both in and outside the ring.
Emile’s skin looked very black against the white bed linen and his mustard yellow T-shirt. I still held his small hand. Luis leaned over and stroked Emile’s blank face.
‘Hey, champ,’ he said.
Luis paused. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked as he looked up in surprise. ‘Did you see Emile smile? It’s gone now but I saw it. He heard us. He heard us …’