I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of boxing legend Emile Griffith. I saw the documentary of his life "Ring of Fire" when it aired on the USA Network in 2005 and I remembered being moved to tears by the story of a man who had to keep his true self under wraps for the sport he loved (the full documentary is posted below).
From a 2005 Bob Herbert OpEd in the New York Times ("The Haunting of Emile Griffith"):
An extraordinary new documentary, "Ring of Fire," by the filmmaker Dan Klores and his co-director Ron Berger, tells the story of Emile Griffith and this fight that has never stopped haunting him. The film makes it clear that you can't explore that tragic fight and its aftermath without talking about Mr. Griffith's feelings about his own sexuality, which is the other torment he's had to haul around all these years.
One of the things I thought after watching the film was how far we haven't come in 43 years.
The fight on March 24, 1962, was the third between Griffith and Paret. They had split the first two bouts. Over that period Paret had repeatedly taunted Griffith, who had been a hat designer in the Manhattan garment district and was known to frequent gay clubs. At weigh-ins Paret would mock Griffith, and he called him a "maricón," a Spanish word guaranteed to infuriate.
It still infuriates. At lunch, Mr. Griffith's smile faded as he recalled the taunts he took from Paret. "I got tired," he said, "of people calling me faggot."
He said again, as he has many times, that he was sorry Paret had died. But he added: "He called me a name. ... So I did what I had to do"...
I asked Mr. Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no. But he looked as if he wanted to say more. He told me he had struggled his entire life with his sexuality, and agonized over what he could say about it. He said he knew it was impossible in the early 1960's for an athlete in an ultramacho sport like boxing to say, "Oh, yeah, I'm gay."
But after all these years, he wanted to tell the truth. He'd had relations, he said, with men and women. He no longer wanted to hide. He hoped to ride this year in New York's Gay Pride Parade.
He said he hadn't meant to kill Benny Paret, "but what he said touched something inside."My mind, of course, turned to the story I broke less than a year ago: That of Puerto Rican featherweight professional boxer Orlando "El Fenomeno" Cruz and his decision to come out as a gay man while still active in the sport.
Some wondered if the sport and its fans were ready for a gay boxer and whether Cruz had only set himself up for the pressure of possibly being a target in what at times has been a virulently homophobic sport.
Cruz, instead, embraced his identity like few have done in other sports proudly wearing a the colors of a rainbow flag on his kilt during one fight and dedicating both victories since he came out to the LGBT community.
The pride he has shown in himself in the ring and out of the ring - perhaps improbably - seems to only have won him the respect of the public and so far I do not know of any currently active professional boxer who has brought up the issue of his sexual identity in a derogatory way. If anything, both of his defeated opponents took pains to tell the press that it didn't matter to them whatsoever.
Next up for Cruz on October 12th is a shot at the vacant WBO featherweight title as an underdog to Mexican boxer Orlando "Siri" Salido. It was just announced that HBO sports will broadcats the fight as a pay per view undercard which would bring Cruz greater exposure --- if he wins.
There are echoes, of course, between Griffith's story and Cruz's story and I wondered if the younger boxer was aware about Griffith's legacy and if it had any impact on his life.
The answer came today in statements Cruz made to Puerto Rico's El Vocero.
Emile was an extremely talented boxer and I will be dedicating my October 12th fight with "Siri" Salido in his honor.
As a boxer he had some great years but those times were not the same as today. Imagine if being black was seen as bad, if being gay was something that could not even be said out loud. Now that I think about it, Griffith did good, those were times of greater discrimination.
Those times were different. Before we couldn't get married or adopt kids. But now things have changed. I have a lot of respect for Emile and I understand why he might not have been as open. We are living in a more stable time while rejection was predominant during his time.
We feel very sad about his passing and I hope to win the fight in his honor.I couldn't think of a more fitting tribute to Emile Griffith's life.
- Gay boxer Orlando Cruz pauses to remember Emile Griffith (Los Angeles Times)
- Emile Griffith led a tortured life (USA Today)
- Emile Griffith dies at age 75 (The Guardian)
Originally aired on the USA Network in 2005.