Perhaps his death doesn’t mean much to people. Not in today’s world of sports with its obsession with today and not the yesteryear. In that world, boxing is an old-line sport without universal appeal. Whatever luster the fight business retains is because of Floyd Mayweather, and he’s not a bright enough personality to hold the faithful’s interest.
Neither, though, was Emile Griffith – not in his prime, and certainly not in the twilight of his life when boxing should have embraced him as one of its envoys, embraced him as all sports do for the elder statesmen who had once been their headliners.
Griffith, who died Tuesday at age 75, did headline big cards at Madison Square Garden in the 1960s. He was a significant figure whose popularity never approached that of Muhammad Ali, Bob Foster or Carlos Monzon.
People seemed to have forgotten that Griffith did have a fine career. They have preferred to dwell on two aspects of his life: the March 24, 1962, fight in which he killed Benny “The Kid” Paret and his homosexuality, which might have had a role in what happened in the Paret fight.
No reason to relive the gruesome details of the Paret fight, because the soft-spoken Griffith had to live with its aftermath for the next five decades. Killing a man is never something a person shakes from his mind, regardless of how hard he tries.
Deaths, however, happen in boxing. The sport’s history is filled with accounts of fights that ended with one man dead, the other mourning. Ask Boom Boom Mancini. The sport is about the business of hurt; and hurt can have tragic, unintended consequences.
Griffith might well have lived with that thought, the belief that horrible events occur in life, but he could never live with the thought of people saying he killed Paret intentionally, that he exacted the ultimate revenge because Paret, at the prefight weigh-in, had uttered a homophobic slur.
In the 1960s, gay men had deep, dark closets, and Griffith’s closet was deeper and darker than most of them. He knew to come out of it was to put himself in peril. Even as the years peeled away, he tortured himself, unable to reconcile homosexuality with the macho box he was put in. He never did use the platform of a celebrity to stand in the front of a Gay Pride parade and denounce those detested his existence.
Nobody should condemn Griffith, a man in conflict with his sexuality, for not doing so. He would not be the last man from his era to remain in the shadows of his sexual interests. Nobody should solely remember Griffith for his fight with Paret, for that should not be the man’s legacy.
What should be Griffith’s legacy is an 18-year career in which he waged memorable battles against champions like Monzon, Jose Napoles and Dick Tiger, and won 85 bouts. What should be his legacy are the champions he trained once his fight days ended; and what should be his legacy is the time he spent in Denmark as coach of its Olympic team.
In this life, people make their decisions about what to remember in a public personality. Often, they make peace with controversial personalities, as they’ve done with Ali, George Foreman, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Bob Knight, John McEnroe, Ray Lewis and Mike Tyson.
Paret’s son made peace with Griffith, which matters more than what other people did. As for those folks, maybe they can step back and ask what might have been the life of Emile Griffith – and anyone else who lived in the closet – had he been able to be himself.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: AP Photo/NBC Universal, Robert Maxwell, File)