Photo by Werner Baum/EPA

The Tragic Life of Boxer Emile Griffith Is Set to Become a Movie

“They forgave me for killing a man, but they couldn’t forgive me for loving a man.” — Emile Griffith

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Nov 18 2015, 2:55pm

Photo by Werner Baum/EPA

Emile Griffith killed Benny Paret in the ring on March 24, 1962, when he was just 24-years-old. Paret was 25 and had only been welterweight champion of the world for six months, having beaten Griffin by split decision for the belt the previous September. Six months before that Griffin had beaten Paret by 13th round knockout, meaning the two men fought each other three times in the span of one year. And in between fights two and three—that fateful and fatal fight—Paret, in a delusional fever, tried to take the middleweight crown from Gene Fullmer as well. Undersized, Paret was pummeled by the champion for 10 awful rounds. In a reasonable world he would have been made to sit on the sidelines for at least six months to recover. But boxing has never been a reasonable world, especially not back in 1962, so not three months after getting battered by Fullmer, Paret was back in the ring at Madison Square Garden facing his old nemesis Emile Griffith. Twelve rounds later he was lying on a stretcher in a coma. Ten days later Benny Paret was dead.

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Emile Griffith was bisexual. He would often patronize the gay bars around Times Square looking for escape. This being 1962, secrecy was paramount. So when Benny Paret slapped Griffith on his backside and whispered a Spanish gay slur at him—maricón, maricón—at the weigh-ins before their rubber match that spring day in New York City, Griffith's first instinct was to look around the room, horrified someone else may have heard. Then he lunged at Paret and their handlers had to separate them. All that anger would find its outlet in the 12th round of their fight later that night.

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The footage of Emile Griffith's final beating of Benny Paret is nearly impossible to watch. It's more an assault than a sporting event. Lying against the ropes, the Cuban champion offers no defense as Griffith throws 10, 12, 15 enormous right uppercuts to his face. The force of the blows sends Paret's reeling backwards, where, tragically, he is then held up by the corner post, giving Griffith the chance to the throw at least 10 more blows. Doubtless Paret is out on his feet and on his way into a coma even before Griffith throws those last punches, but referee Ruby Goldstein stands passively behind Griffith as he mauls the champion, waiting for god knows what to happen. It's only after all the life has left Paret's body that Goldstein finally leaps in to stop the fight. He pulls Griffith back and Paret sags down to the canvas like a sack of rice—"from sheer exhaustion," the announcer says.

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"As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. ... As he went down, the sound of Griffith's punches echoed in the mind like a heavy axe in the distance chopping into a wet log. ... Paret died on his feet." — Norman Mailer

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Ruby Goldstein worked 39 championship fights during his 21-year-career as a referee and he never apologized for his inaction at the end of the Griffith/Paret fight. After being cleared of any charges of negligence by a three-man panel of the New York State Athletic Commission, Goldstein said, ''No one is to blame. It's the type of sport it is. Death is a tragedy that occasionally will happen.''

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Before Paret's death, Goldstein, a former pro boxer himself, known during his fighting career as the "Jewel of the Ghetto," had actually developed a reputation for stopping fights too early. He was criticized for stopping the 1957 fight at the Polo Grounds that gave the middleweight championship to "Sugar" Ray Robinson and for stepping in to stop the 1959 heavyweight championship bout between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johannson at Yankee Stadium after Patterson was knocked down for the seventh time.

Not long before the Paret/Griffith fight, Goldstein had made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he was applauded for being the kind of referee who stopped fights before boxers got "really hurt."

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This week Irish film director Lenny Abrahamson announced that he is set to make a movie about Emile Griffith's life, based on the book A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith by Donald McRae. "As a character study, Griffith is incredibly compelling," Abrahamson told Deadline. "There was a gentleness and innocence about him, and he never seemed conflicted about his sexuality; indeed he found joy in it. He inhabited two worlds—the underground gay scene in New York in the '60s and the macho world of boxing. The societal stigma at that time was dreadful and created a crushing pressure on him."

Abrahamson's latest film, Room, which comes out this month and is generating a surprising amount of Oscar buzz, is about a mother and her young son who are held captive for years in a small room by a mysterious tormentor before escaping and then finding themselves ill-equipped for dealing with the outside world.

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Emile Griffith spent his childhood at a boys' detention home in the Virgin Islands. During the day he was forced to hold heavy water buckets in the crushing heat for hours by sadistic administrators. At night those same adults would come to Emile's room and take advantage of the young man as he lay in bed.

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After that fateful night at Madison Square Garden in 1962 Emile Griffith fought 80 more fights. He even won several more titles, but boxing analysts all said he was never the same fighter after killing Benny Paret. They said he began pulling his punches and was afraid to knock out his opponents. In interviews Griffith admitted as much, saying the fear of killing someone was with him every time he walked into the ring. He finally retired in 1977 at the age of 39, after three ugly losses.

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In 1992 Griffith was leaving a gay bar near the Port Authority in Manhattan when he was attacked by a group of teenagers, one of whom was carrying a baseball bat. The 54-year-old fought back but was eventually overcome. Still he managed to drag himself to his feet and onto the subway. Griffith spent four months in the hospital with brain damage, broken ribs, a broken jaw, and a ruptured spleen.

He died in 2013 after suffering for years from severe dementia pugilistic, punch-drunk syndrome.

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"They forgave me for killing a man, but they couldn't forgive me for loving a man." — Emile Griffith