Sports+Illustrated+Smith+on+Emile+Griffith (1)

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Unformatted text preview: “in dramatic fiBXBUHKD ***********CHR—RT L01**C~038 #1391 87980 Elfiflfifil BUEONJUB Fl JULGS MHRK SCHUSTEF’I (1030 BISHBP HBUSE WM 109 #03542 115 BULLEEE (WE 1300471 NEW BRUNSWICK .HJ 089131-9544 LETHAL COMBINATIONS In the 12th round, Griffith pounded the suddenly defenseless Paret into a coma. BEAT BENNY (KID) PARET TO DEATH IN THE RING AFTER PARET - CALLED HIM QUEER. THAT WAS 43 YEARS AGO. HE’S STILL STRUGGLING TO COME TO GRIPS WITH IT. SOAREWE BY GARY SMITH Photograph By Charles IfOff/A'cw York D111!) 7M1“ \ — l [ EMILE GRIFFITH T WAS SILENT in the backseat of the car. The old boxer had just left the gay bar outside of which a gang of men had beaten him to the edge of death on a summer night 13 years ago. He couldn’t remember how or why it happened. He had given up trying. The traffic light on Eighth Avenue turned red. His head turned toward the passenger window. ,3 “Look!” he cried. “There I am!” There he was, five-time world champion Emile Griffith, 12 inches from his nose, on a poster plastered across the side of a bus that had just stopped beside his window. He stared at himself. It was him, wrapped in anguish and shadows, on a spring night 43 years ago when he beat a man who had called him a marico’n—a faggot~to the edge of death . . . then beyond it. :2“ “I don’t have any clothes on!” he cried. “No, Champ, you’ve got your black boxing shorts on,” assured his adopted son. “But you can’t see any shorts!” “That’s because you’re in shadows.” “No! I’m naked!” “But you used to be naked in the locker room.” “But . . . but I should have clothes on!” The bus belched exhaust and pulled away. The old boxer kept star- ing out the window, but there was only smoke. GET USED TO THE SMOKE. Let it fill your lungs and sting your eyes. There’s no getting rid of it, not in a story about Emile Griffith, not in the one American arena where the smoke just doesn’t seem to dissipate. A policeman or a judge or a lawyer can openly be something other than heterosexual. A doctor or teacher or carpenter can be, along with, of course, an actor or a musician or a writer. Even executives on Wall Street now can. But a male athlete in a major sport? Not one has ever emerged, not while he was still playing. Odd—isn’t it?—because what sports does best is break down barriers and bring people of all colors and creeds together. Odd that no hat or ball or fist or foot could smash through this wall. On April 20 a striking documen- tary about Emile Griffith—Ring of Fire, directed and produced by Dan Klores with Ron Berger and being promoted on buses all over New York City—will premiere on USA Network at 9 pm. ET. Later in the year a biography of Grif- fith by Ron Ross, also addressing the issue of the fighter’s sex— uality, is expected to appear, and the rights to produce a feature film on the big screen have been sold. You’d think, under all those klieg lights and reading lamps, that the smoke’s about to GOING T00 FAR The weigh-in before the 1962 fight was the second at which Paret (left) had taunted Griffith about his sexuality. clear. But this is Emile Griffith. This is sports. And this is us. So the smoke may only grow thicker. BUT I SHOULD HAVE CLOTHES ON! SORRY, Champ. You’re naked again, except for underwear and socks. You’re approaching a weigh-in scale in front of a couple of dozen people, mostly writers and photographers. It’ll be 15 years before you retire with more championship rounds under your belt than anyone in boxing history: 51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson, 69 more than Muhammad All. It’s 1962, when a handful of writers—Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal—are virtually the only people known to be gay in all of America; even Liberace files a lawsuit against those implying he’s a homosexual, for fear of what he’ll lose. “Easy, Emile,” whispers his trainer, Gil Clancy. But how can Emile be easy? The last time he and Benny (Kid) Paret— his opponent tonight at Madison Square Garden—met at the weigh-in scales, before their fight six months earlier, Benny did the unthinkable. Swished his limp wrist and hissed that word, marico'n. Thank God the reporters pretended it didn’t happen. Thank God it was 1961. ~:‘ I , Then Paret nailed the insult to the i ‘ . wall of Griffith’s heart, winning a con- troversial decision that night and tak- ing back the world welterweight crown that Emile had snatched from him nearly a half year before. Now it’s their third fight, the clincher. The fear of what Benny might do at the weigh‘in climbs up Emile’s throat, “If he says anything to me before the fight, I’ll knock him out,” he mutters to Clancy. Emile steps on the scales. “Watch out,” hisses Clancy. Too late: Benny’s already slipped behind him, wriggling his body, thrusting his pelvis, grabbing Emile’s ass. “Hey, maricén,” Paret coos, “I’m going to get you and your husband.” 60 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED HJJIJ'I ‘IIJN ll COURTESY 0F EMILE GRIFFITH Emile blinks, in his underwear, at a room full of boxing afi- cionados, reporters and photographers. If he doesn’t respond, that means he’s afraid, means he’s weak . . . means he may be just what Paret says he is. Clancy steps between them. “Save it for tonight.” he begs Emile. IT’S TONIGHT. THE 12TH ROUND. THE WHOLE country’s watching. It’s fight night on TV. The smoke of 7,600 men in sport coats and ties, sucking in and exhaling their Chester- fields and Camels and Lucky Strikes and White Owls, descends over the ring at the old Madison Square Garden. That blue nico— tine fog, as Pete Hamill, a writer puffing for the New York Post at the time, calls it. In the center of the smoke crouch two black immigrants from the islands. They’ve played basketball together in the neighborhood they share in the shadows of the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Paret, 25, the sugarcane cutter from Cuba who carries his two-year-old son, Benny Jr., everywhere on his shoulders, fighting in What he has decided will be his last prize- fight . . . never dreaming how right he’ll be. Griffith, 24, a Virgin Islander who never wished to be a fighter, who just happened to ask if he could take off his shirt on a sweaty sum- mer day as a teenager working in a hat factory on West 39th Street owned by a former amateur boxer named Howie Albert. Albert had never seen anything like it: a 26-inch waist fanning out to 44—inch shoul- ders, all rippling with muscle. “Shoulders,” says boxing writer Bert Sugar, “that you could serve dinner for six on.” The young man didn’t have the lust for hurting people—would’ve been happy hauling boxes of bonnets to Macy’s and Gimbel’s all his life—but his body was a destiny that had to be fulfilled. Albert took him to Clancy, a trainer with a growing reputation at a gym on 28th Street. Two months after he laced up the nth-grade dropout, the kid was a finalist in the New York Golden Gloves. A year later he was the national Gloves champ. Boxing solved things. It gave Emile a release for something that just didn’t fit with the ear-to-ear smile he always showed the world: a mon- strous rage that he felt whenever his family was insulted or his manhood was challenged. Boxing gave him—in his co—managers, Clancy and Albert—two of what he’d never really had one of: father figures. It gave him money for the first time and enabled him, after each pro fight, to fly one more of his seven siblings up from the Caribbean to New York City and attempt to re-create something that exploded in his V LID LIFTER Photos of Griffith with flowery hats were one of several things that made observers wonder about his private life. childhood in St. Thomas, back when his absentee father cleared out for good and headed to America, when his mother left to take a cooking job for the governor in Puerto Rico, when his brothers and sisters were scattered like shrapnel, landing in the homes of their mother’s relatives and friends. Emile landed hardest: on his knees, on the bricks at Aunt Blanche’s house, holding cinder blocks overhead as long as he could, knowing that when his arms dropped, her switch would rake his back. That was his punishment for dawdling in his daily task of hauling water in a steel drum up the hill to her house. He loathed living there so much that he begged to enter Manda], St. Thomas’s home for wayward and orphaned boys, and finally was accepted. Somehow, as the oldest child in the family, he felt responsible to gather all its splintered pieces one day and glue them back together. He’s 23 now, living with Mama and all her brood in the five- bedroom house he’s just bought in Queens Village. A champ but still a child, leaping into the referee’s arms to hug him the first time he takes the title from Paret and then, when the astonished ref fumbles him onto the canvas, doing a backward somersault. Running up $100 candy bills in the gift shop at the Concord Hotel, where he trains in the Catskills, doling out gum and grins to everyone, falling asleep with a wad of Bazooka in his mouth that Albert has to scoop out. So sweet—maybe too sweet, the men in the city’s boxing gyms have begun to whisper. They’ve started adding things up: that high-pitched singsong voice . . . those Sunday mornings singing tenor at St. James Missionary Church . . . those pants as tight as tape on his broomstick legs . . . those young Latino males who seem to appear wherever he does . . . that teenager he always lets use his car and calls his “son.” But what’s this all add up to? It can’t be that, not in 1962 or even 2002: a prizefighter, a champion, a limp wrist with a knockout punch? It’s the ulfi- mate contradiction, the perfect smoke, so dense that Emile himself can’t see through it. “It was irrecon- cilable . . . to be homosexual and a world champion,” says Sugar. “As long as he was beating the s—-- out of people, it gave lie to the slander. You couldn’t confirm it, you couldn’t deny it, you just had to put it . . . over there.” “Besides,” says Bob jackson, 3 New York City trainer who was just getting started at the;t‘i'rne, “we’re like the police, the blue wall. There’s a code. We might talk among ourselves about it, but nobody would talk in public about something like that.” Nobody . . . except a desperate man. Paret has taken a beating in three straight fights, including APRIL 18, 2005 s: «4| EMILE GRIFFITH that dubious decision over Griffith; the most recent one, when he went up in weight to fight middleweight Gene Fullmer, was so frightful that even the cheap-seat sadists left the arena with a hollow in the pit of their guts. But Benny’s still dangerous be cause he can catch a wrecking ball with his chin and remain vertical, then take five or six more for good measure, then— what?——blink away the fog and flatten you . . . the way he did just moments ago to Emile, in the sixth round of this third fight. Clancy got in Emile’s face after the round and shouted, “Emile, look, when you go inside I want you to keep punching until Paret holds you or the referee breaks you! But you keep punch— ing until he does that!” Midway through the 12th, Emile stuns Benny with a short right. Benny reels into a corner, eats another hammer, then an- other. His head and shoulders slump. The only way to nail his jaw now is with uppercuts, and so that’s what Emile begins to hurl—or rather, that’s what hurls out of Emile, an eruption of fury so mechanically precise that it seems to come from an en— gine house in hell rather than from the realm of human kinetics. At last Benny tilts, but the turnbuckle keeps him from collaps— ing, from saving himself, and now begins the terrible tick-rock of his cra- nium, left-right~left—right-left-right, combinations bursting from Emile faster than eye and brain can process. The ref! Where’s the ref? Who’s the ref? Ruby Goldstein, a victim of his own expertise, a respected pro who knows this sport so well that he knows Emile’s not a big finisher, knows Paret’s a chronic possum, knows the Hispanics in the house will riot if he stops this fight just as their possum’s about to pounce. Goldstein is caught flat-footed as 18 punches land in six seconds—29 consecutive unanswered punches in all—bouncing brain against skull again and again. Eyes puffed shut, blood oozing from his nose and his cheek, Benny slithers down the ropes, at last, as Goldstein grabs Emile and his cornermen run to wrap him too. Silence falls over the ring. “I think we just saw a gay murder,” a col- league murmurs to Pete Hamill. But even now, in the face of death, Emile remains an innocent. “I’m very proud to be the welterweight cham- pion again,” he tells the TV audience, “and I hope Paret is feeling very good.” Paret leaves in a coma, on a stretcher. It’s not Emile’s fault, of course. It’s not the fighter’s job to stop throwing punches. But now he’s done it. Now that Benny lies near death, the media feel compelled to reveal the insult that would’ve been swept under the rug, the word that lit the fuse that may have exploded Paret’s life. When the New York Times boxing writer Howard Tuckner at- MIGHT MAKES WRITE While training in the Catsldlls in 1968, Griffith, then the middleweight title holder, made a statement in the shower. tempts to explain to his tender readership that man'cén is gutter Spanish for homosexual, an editor changes the word so that it ap- pears as “anti-man.” “A butterfly is an anti-man!” Tuckner later rages to Hamill. “A rock is an anti-man!” For hours, just after the fight, Emile tries to gain entry to Paret’s hospital room, finally gives up and races down the street, trying to run right out of his own skin. He ends up on 42nd Street, where passersby who’ve heard the news shower him with insults. Paret dies 10 days later. There’s smoke hanging over his death, a half-dozen contributing causes: the ref’s hesitation . . . the havoc in Paret’s head wrought by Fullmer’s fists three months earlier . . . the lack of a careful medical exam before this fight . . . the hunger of Paret’s manager, Manuel Alfaro, to squeeze one more payday—some boxing insiders allege—from a shot fight- er who told his wife the day before the bout that he didn’t feel right and didn’t want to fight. “Fullmer ate the meal, but Emile picked up the check,” says trainer Bob Jackson. But all that is far too much ambiguity for the cerebral cortex of homo sapiens, much less for 15 inches of newspaper ink. So Emile goes down in boxing history as the man who killed Paret for calling him a faggot. 'WHAT HAPPENS TO A CHILD when he kills a man? Nightmares. Decades of them. Dreams of Benny walking down the street, calling out greetings, extend- ing his hand . . . but when Emile takes it, it’s as cold and clammy as last week’s trout, awaking Emile in a bath of his own sweat. Dreams of one empty seat at a fight. “May I sit there?” asks Emile. Avoice says yes, but as he takes the seat it dawns on Emile that it’s Benny’s voice, and now he must sit beside the dead man and watch two men wallop each other’s heads for an entire night. Emile grows afraid of sleep. Afraid of silence. Afraid of alone. Here comes the hate mail from Latinos convinced that Emile ended Paret’s life on pur- pose. Here come the questions about Paret’s death from every interviewer from now till kingdom come. Here comes the public outcry to banish box- ing, and the seven-man commission appointed by New York governor Nel— son Rockefeller to investigate the tragedy and 'the sport. There go the fights on TV. Sixteen weeks later, at lunch on the day of his next fight, against Ralph Dupas, Emile buries his head in his hands. When he backs Dupas into that corner, Paret’s coffin, he jumps back as if shocked and lets the contender escape. Emile wins by guile in 15 rounds. “After Paret,” he’ll admit years later, “I never wanted to hurt a guy again. I was so scared to hit someone. I was always holding bac .” AXSNI'IV)! JDHOEE) 62 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED l! COURTESY 0F EMILE GRIFFITH He wants to quit, but where else can he get what boxing gives him? How else can he play father, put siblings and nephews and nieces through college, pay poor people’s rents, buy friends cars, outfit kids’ baseball teams, buy meals for the homeless? Kids trail him everywhere. He becomes the Pied Piper of Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood near Clancy’s gym, even takes home a pair of white twins from their quar- reling parents while the couple iron out their differences. He doesn’t just give to people. He gives his last. He turns on the glitz. Brand-new Lincolns, sprinkled with glitter. Seven-dozen suits, from baby blue to chartreuse, and double-breasted red sweaters festooned with white buttons, mother of pearl. Hmmm. But, hey, he’s from the Caribbean; those tropical guys all love bright colors. Big black leather bag strapped over his shoulder, tiny white poodle cradled in his arm. But, hey, it’s the ’60s: Is he being gay . . . or feeling groovy? “I’m nobody’s faggot,” he says to the few who screw up the courage to ask. But what does that mean? Women keep flocking to him, and Emile seems happy to ac- commodate them all. A singer at the Concord Hotel named Ce’Vara gives him a picture of herself and signs it: 1. God. 2. Earth. 3. Emile. Not a bad ranking for any boxer. Thefre firecrackers, these ladies with Whom he’ll merengue or mambo or mashed potato the night away. He cuts a single for Columbia Records entitled A Little Bit More. She brings out the tiger in me She makes me feel like a man And she tries so hard to please me Anytime that she can You know the old saying. Where there’s smoke . . . well, does there have to be fire? No, there doesn’t. That’s what Emile’s co-manager Howie Al— bert concludes. Otherwise why would he have blown even more smoke right up the writers’ nostrils—the myth that Emile’s job, in Albert’s millinery, is hat designer? Why had he brought a dozen bonnets to Emile’s press con- ference before the Gaspar Ortega fight in ’61 and beamed as the flashbulbs popped and Emile placed the fuzzi- est one of all on Ortega’s head for the cameras? Rest easy, America. This Milliner Is No Sissy. Honest, that’s the caption beneath the photograph the Associated Press sent across the land. And Emile, God bless him, rose to the occasion, actually began to design a few chapeaus and pick up the lingo. “The Jackie Kennedy pillbox will remain in vogue,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But hats will come in a greater variety of shapes and materials than ever this year. We’re featuring maribu, ostrich, novelty braids, feathers and velours. With the bouffant coiffure SHORT AND SWEET After marrying, Emile and Sadie stayed together less than two years, during much of which Emile was not around. still in vogue look for higher pillboxes.” Howwwwieeeee. . . . But now Howie can’t win. He needs the feathers and velours even more, to warm and fuzzy up a man marked as a murderer. “I have a date with a killer, Emile Griffith,” declares Brian Curvis just before their ’64 match in London. Curvis’s terrified wife, Barbara, says she’s not coming to the fight, no way. But the killer’s lost all killer instinct. Clancy has to smack him between rounds to get his blood up. His boxer’s a craftsman now, fond of clinching, targeting belly and spleen rather than jaw and tem- ple, staying away from cuts when he opens them, staying busy enough with his hands to keep opponents crouched behind theirs . . . but never again exploding. He decisions Mr. Curvis in 15 rounds. He presents Mrs. Curvis with a hat. It all keeps growing smokier, one complication vvreathed around the next. The event that exposes the question about Emile’s sexuality—Paret’s death—provides him with the perfect cover: How can a fighter whose fists killed a man not be a man? Oh, but, at what cost. Because now two things can come whistling out of the dark to ambush Emile. Safest thing to do? Keep everyone smiling. When he gets knocked out in the first round by Hurricane Carter in ’63, the press surrounds him in the locker room, everyone lost for words. Who knows Where such a deadly silence might turn? “Merry Christmas!” he suddenly shouts, cracking up everyone. He’ll never be without a pet phrase, a red herring to yelp, the rest of his life. Safest thing to do? Keep running. More and more at night, he slips away alone, ends up in the gay bars near the Port Authority on Eighth Avenue or down in Greenwich Vil- lage, throwing down seven—and- sevens. He doesn’t disguise himself or change his name. Hell, sometimes he doesn’t even change after fight- ing in a Garden main event, show- ing up at bars wearing his boxing trunks and shoes, no shirt . . . and a mink coat. He’s a child, not a plot- ter, not a calculating man. It’s ille— gal in New York for two men to be on a dance floor without a woman present, so when the lights flash on, that’s a warning to break the clinch, push your partner away because the cops are raiding the joint again. The men in Trix and The Anvil marvel: A boxer. . .’here?A world champ? But they protect him, just as the boxing world does. Kathy Hogan, owner of several of Emile’s haunts, learns to smell a bender coming. She empties Emile’s pockets, sometimes 15 or 20 grand, takes the jewelry and the poodle and the mink so he doesn’t lose them all. Four or five days later, when the wad of 1005 that she let him keep is gone, he returns, groaning, APRIL 18, 2005 63 F “Mommy’s gonna kill me! I think I got robbed,” and she puts him in a cab with his cash and baubles and pooch and tells the cabbie not to dare stop anywhere—but Mommy’s. But he never lets his nightlife affect his training. He’s still ready at the crack of dawn to run his five miles through the Catskills. Still brilliant enough as a boxer to win the world welterweight championship back from Luis Rodriguez, to jump in weight and take the world middleweight title from Dick Tiger, to retain it twice against Joey Archer, to lose it to Nino Benvenuti in 15 rounds and then win it back. Even with hell’s engine house padlocked. IT’S 1967. MIKE WALLACE CONCLUDES HIS groundbreaking 60 Minutes segment entitled “The Homosexu- als” with these words: “The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a crim- inal; shunned by employers, rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that Gays in Sports: A Poll EMILE GRIFFITH matter, with a man. At the center of his life, he remains anony- mous. A displaced person. An outsider.” Emile flies to St. Thomas a few years later. He enters a bar named Bamboshay. He sees a 24-year-old knockout on the dance floor, a former member of a world—touring dance troupe named Prince Rupert and the Slave Girls. She’s wearing blue hot pants. Emile’s wearing brown hot pants. But, hey, it’s 1971. Might just be disco fever. Emile and Mercedes (Sadie) Dona- storg begin to do the bump at 11 pm. They don’t'stop until 4 a.m. Dropping her off at her mother’s house, he says, “Sadie, marry me.” She says, “What? Are you crazy? You don’t even know me.” He says, “That’s what I want, that’s what I want, I want to marry you.” Cooler heads prevail. He returns to America. They get married two months later. Smokin’ Joe Frazier makes a smokin’ best man. So maybe all the whispers are wrong. Now Americans believe they have become more accepting—but have they? AROUND THE same time that Magic Johnson disclosed that he had HIV, afar less luminous star in the NBA cosmos gave thought to dis- closing that he was gay. He de- cided that lugging around the se- cret of his “lifestyle” like a spare tire was, finally, less burdensome than facing the consequences of revealing it. A friend of the play- er‘s told SI that the potential for disrupting that ineffable. all— important team chemistry figured into the decision. But the most important factor was the fans’ po- tential reaction. “He had visions of getting booed when he touched the ball and being subjected to slurs every night,” says the friend. “And the road games would have been worse." That was in the early |990s. In the decade since. attitudes toward homosexuality in sports have . . . well, it’s hard to say what they've done. In response to the buzz created at the Sundance Film Festival by Ring of Fire, the documentary about Emile Griffith. and in anticipation of its telecast on April 20. NBC and USA Network commissioned a national poll last month on the issue of homosexuality in sports. Responses reveal that the subject not only cleaves public opinion—which, of course, was already known by folks on both sides of the red state-blue state division—~but is also a source of deep conflict for individual respondents. Consider that of 979 people interviewed. 86% agreed that it is 0.K. for male athletes to participate in sports, even if they are openly 1‘ u; a 2.. z)“ RING OF FIRE in: lAIIll tJ-lllllll \‘nt't itt'fiiiééfiii‘Aéiiilzd‘l ill/Eli Us I believe that homosexuality as a way of life should not be accepted 61% agree gay, yet nearly a quarter of the respondents agreed that having an openly gay player hurts the entire team. “it was like, I’m 0.K. with this, but if you press me, I have some doubts," says Doug Schoen. whose firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland As— sociates, conducted the poll. In the face of such data it comes as no great shock that while homosexuals are thought to com- pose anywhere from 4% to l0% of the general pop- ulation. among the 3,500 or so men active in the It is 0.K. for male athletes to participate in sports even if the are open y gay 86:40. four major professional sports not a single ho. It would hurt mosexual is “out.” The few pro athletes who have an athlete’s divulged their homosexuality have, tellingly, done career to be so in retirement, long after they depended on openly gay teammates to pass them the ball or execute a block and long after they depended on fans to, ef- 6 8 O/ fectively, pay their salaries. The gay lifestyle may 0 be increasingly accepted—embraced even—in a agree mainstream popular culture that beams Will & Grace‘s Jack McFarland and a not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it ethos into our living rooms. But in a sports culture that hemorrhages testosterone and is widely read as a barometer of machismo. homo- sexuality remains the love that dares not speak its name. Examples of athletes showing hostility toward gays are many and var- ied. from running back Garrison Hearst's declaring. "I don’t want any faggots on my team" to Allen lverson's rapping about “faggot tenden— cies” to Sterling Sharpe’s telling HBO that his former Seattle Seahawks teammate Esera Tuaolo was wise to have concealed his homosexuality while he was an active player. "Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices, he'd have never gotten to the other team," Sharpe said. 5 Even professed tolerance can be revealing. During his disastrous ap- pearance before Congress last month, Mark McGwire read a statement SNUUUHCIOIM N00“ 3H]. HIGHS JO ASJIUHOU ll____________=: 64 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Howie Albert has a retort for writers who nudge him and ask The Quesn'on: “Go ask his wife.” They move into an apartment and he adopts her daughter, Christine. Emile goes and goes, to training camp, to fights in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Paris. Sadie and Christine stare out that apartment Window at Weehawken, NJ. Less than two years into the marriage, they’re gone. “Emile said I was a distraction because he had to keep his BOXED IN Public opinion hasn’t swung so far that a male athlete of Griffith's stature could comfortably come out. mind on What he was doing,” says Sadie, “but we remain friends.” What else could anyone be with Emile? He doesn’t just cry, “My pleasure!” when he’s asked by strangers for autographs. He writes “(Smile)” beneath his name and thanks them. Benvenuti, after they fight a third time, flies Emile to Italy so his newborn son will have the world’s sunniest godfather, then keeps fly- ing him back, just to feel the sunshine again. Color, nationality, status, sex, age . . . none of it matters to Emile. It’s a beautiful thing, and a blurry thing too: Nobody can tell anymore who’s a friend, who’s a lover, who’s a “son,” who’s a sponge. it maddens his family, never knowing who’ll be at Emile’s elbow when he materializes at 5 a.m., whom he’ll leave in their house when he vanishes again. He’ll just sit there, smil- ing blankly at everything his brother Franklin hisses at him until finally he hisses that word, and then Emile nearly loses his mind. Off he goes again, looking for family someplace else. He finds it in 1979. Finds it two years after Clancy calls him to is data,” says Schoen, “I Wou say. i if [hat/e an openly gay athlete, I may Well have 1 ms] do APRIL 18, 2005 65 J EMILE GRIFFITH board boxes and suitcases and shoes and buckets and barbells crammed everywhere. Curls around the heads and fists of box— ing trophy figurines poking through old black plastic bags just inside the front door. Emile rubs out the cigarette before it’s half done. Luis, 42, fixes him breakfast and hands him the medication for gout and dementia that Ring 8—an organization that looks out for indi- gent fighters—pays $300 for each month. He lays out Emile’s clothes in matching colors and puts Emile’s bracelet on him, each gesture’s tender patience rewarded with a tender thank you, their relationship sealed when adoption papers were signed not long ago. Then Luis leaves for Manhattan, where he works in a mailroom elbow to elbow with Benny Paret Jr. Yes, Emile’s son and Benny’s son, bent over the same bins of manila en— velopes every day together, both hired by Ring of Fire director Klores to work in his public relations firm. Emile dozes when Luis leaves for work. There’s nothing to do in Hempstead, Long Island, he grumbles, but he didn’t want to live alone, and that’s where Luis wanted to move—away from the temptations of the city and Luis’s old cocaine habit—after Emile’s mother died in 1997 and the family sold the house in Queens Vil- lage a few years later. In the afternoon, after he watches his favorite show, judge fudy, Emile grows lonely. He takes a walk through downtown Hempstead, stops at the bodega and the bar to bid hello to the regulars, sits in the park and makes goo—goo sounds and tickling gestures toward the toddlers until they smile. He’s fine near the apartment; he won’t get lost. But a few times a year he boards the N-6 bus to Queens, switch- es to the F train to 42nd Street and re- turns to his old haunts, and worries the hell out of Luis. Twice a week Stechman picks him up and takes him to the Starrett City Boxing Club on the edge of Brook— lyn. The champ goes around the room giving out bubble gum and ad- vice, handshakes and grins. “Don’t start!” he yelps, out of the blue, to young boxers and old trainers. “I’ll call Judge Judy!” He’s beloved at the city’s gyms and all its boxing gatherings. Larry Holmes hugs him. Gerry Cooney kiss~ es him. Most of them have shared mo- ments with him like the one Ron Ross will never forget, the night Ross grabbed the microphone at a surprise 40th wedding anniversary celebration that his daughters threw for him and began singing It Had to Be You to his wife—When he heard another voice, a tenor. He turned and saw Emile, Who’d come to lmow the Ross family during the three years that Ron worked on Emile’s biography, standing and singing along as tears streamed down his cheeks. 68 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED STILL STANDING Under treatment for dementia, Griffith occasionally makes the rounds of New York’s fight gyms, where he is beloved. It’s way too late now. Hate’s missed the boat. Funny how that works, how it doesn’t matter anymore to the boxing fraternity whether Emile is or isn’t. They’ve gotten to know him. “A111 see when I look at him,” says trainer Randy Stevens, “is love.” Now, of course, if it’s somebody else you’re talking about, some other boxer who might be gay. . . . “Promoters wouldn’t touch him,” says former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres. “It wouldn’t bother me, but most fighters would hate him. And then, if someone loses to him? You lost to this gay guy? Get out 0ftownf” “A gay boxer would be ostracized,” says Showtime boxing an— alyst Steve Farhood. “It would take amazing courage.” “Better kick everybody’s ass first, then tell ’em you’re gay,” says trainer Jimmy O’Pharrow. Five times world champion. That’s sufficient ass kicked. And still not enough, not nearly enough, for Emile to have been a Jackie Robinson, nor even to look back a quarter century after re- tiring and tell us what it was like for him, so the sports world can learn and begin to move forward. But it’s not even fair to compare. Because Jackie and everyone else could see the barri- er he was facing—it was right there on his skin—while Emile couldn’t even go near his wall, the wall that hides the scariest thing. No, not homosexuality, not exactly, but something that’s all tangled up with it. It’s the thing, when two men fight, that’s more frightening than the pun- ishment meted out by the one who dominates: the weakness of the one who submits. That’s every boxer’s, every athlete’s, deepest fear. That’s what must be kept locked in the clos- et. That’s why Pete Williams, who was “outed” by a magazine, could be the Pentagon’s TV spokesman in the first gulf war, the face of America’s war machine . . . but a gay man can’t be a boxer. That’s Why it’s still 1962, when it comes to sports and male sexuality, while the rest of the coun- try moves ahead. Today is Thursday. Emile says, “I’m not gay! It’s craziness. I go to gay bars to see my friends. What’s the differ- ence? I have my drink and talk to peo- ple, same as any bar. Then I finish and go outside. I don’t do anything wrong.” Today is Friday. Emile says, “I will dance with anybody. I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: ho- mosexual, guy'or faggot. I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better . . . I like women.” Tomorrow is Saturday. He may say something else. That’s just how smoke is. Especially since the beating. “The beating?” he says. His eyes flash. “What beating?” The one in the early ’908, when those men beat you up. “Me? Beat up?” says Emile Griffith. “I beat them.” El JGIMHOVI )IOIHIVd A110 MI’ ...
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This note was uploaded on 10/02/2011 for the course ARTS AND S 90:101:59 taught by Professor Markschuster during the Fall '10 term at Rutgers.

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