A biography dedicated to the life and times of one of boxing’s greatest and most unique champions, who was left haunted after killing an opponent in the ring while living a double life as a gay man.
Even by boxing’s crazy standards, the story of Emile Griffith is astonishing. His boxing accomplishments stack up against the very best in history: a five-time world champion across the welterweight and middleweight divisions, no fighter has ever contested more than the 337 world championship rounds fought by Griffith.
Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in its inaugural year and ranked by Ring Magazine as one of the finest boxers in history, Griffith is assured of his place in pugilism greatness.
Yet Griffith’s many achievements inside the squared circle tell only a fraction of his story – a story retold by award-winning author Donald McRae in A Man’s World.
An elegant, ferocious and ruthless fighter, away from the sweet science Griffith was a sensitive and softly-spoken soul more interested in making ladies hats than punching men in the face.
Griffith’s interest in women’s fashion was at odds with the macho world of boxing and not only drew ridicule from the fight community, but led to rumours regarding his sexuality. Only the rumours were all true.
I keep thinking how strange it is. I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person. To so many people this is an unforgivable sin.
It was a double life that tore at Griffith – his public and private personas kept strictly apart during an era when homosexuality was deemed a crime and a disease. In a strange twist of fortune, the stigma attached to homosexuality actually helped him live out his double life as the media refused to even print the word, let alone report on rumours. Even when Griffith was caught by a pack of reporters kissing a man after a fight in London, not a word was mentioned in the papers.
It was this internal conflict that would play a central role in the defining moment of Griffith’s boxing career, when on March 24, 1962 in Madison Square Garden, the epic trilogy with Benny ‘Kid’ Paret ended with the Cuban fighter’s death in the ring.
Paret had mocked Griffith at the weigh-in with effeminate body language and constant taunts of ‘Maricon’ – the worst of Spanish insults referring to a homosexual. Griffith responded to the ridicule by dishing out a savage beating that would cost Paret his life. It was the first time a death had been broadcast live on American TV.
Following Paret’s death, Griffith found solace in the gay bars around Times Square – just as he did in times of celebration, or indeed any other occasion when not in camp preparing for a fight.
A Man’s World delves deep into this episode of Griffith’s life as he struggles to come to terms with how his “small hands” could kill another man. But it is how the Paret tragedy would shape Griffith’s life, more than the night itself, that takes prominence.
After all, the fight took place in just the fourth year of Griffith’s near two-decade long career, although the ghost of Paret looms large for the rest of Griffith’s life in and out of the ring.
Griffith would go on to compete in another 80 fights over a 15-year period, and McRae expertly weaves the fighter’s career into the wider and rapidly evolving society of the 1960s and 70s. Prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali and John F Kennedy, and major events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Civil Rights movement, all feature to provide context to Griffith’s timeline.
McRae also documents the gradually changing attitudes towards homosexuality, dedicating a chapter to the Stonewall riots which featured a number of Griffith’s close friends. The shifting perceptions of homosexuality within boxing are also addressed as McRae travels to Puerto Rico and spends time with boxing’s first openly gay fighter Orlando Cruz.
Beyond boxing, it’s the personal relationships in Griffith’s life that are most fascinating: trainer Gil Clancy and manager Howie Albert not only steer Griffith’s career but assume father figure roles, Esther Taylor – Griffith’s long-term girlfriend during his younger years who remains a loyal friend, and Calvin Thomas – the boxer’s ‘partner-in-crime’ on New York’s gay scene, are all central figures.
Emile lived in two worlds. They loved and respected him in boxing. In his other world, he made gay people feel so proud. We not only liked and respected Emile. We loved him. Yeah he lived two lives but each one should be celebrated.
Then there is Griffith’s doomed marriage to Sadie and his long-term on-off boyfriend Matthew. While the man Griffith would spend most of his life with only features towards the end of A Man’s World, Luis Rodrigo’s importance to the former boxer’s life is made clear and is McRae’s most vital source in being able to tell Griffith’s story.
But the relationship that dominates much of Griffith’s life is with his mother Emelda – a large, controlling and manipulative woman who attempts to dictate her son’s life while relying on him to provide financially for her and their entire family.
Griffith may be the most unique of boxing champions, but that did not make him immune from the pitfalls suffered by so many pugilists, namely financial ruin and damaging long-term health, and his demise is another reminder of the dark side of boxing.
McRae is the author of one my favourite ever books, Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing, and the outstanding In Black and White, so I have been meaning to read A Man’s World for quite some time. Now I finally have, it was worth the wait.
McRae is one of the finest writers and interviewers in the world, and only an author of his skillset could do a story as remarkable and complex as Griffith’s justice.