South African sportswriter Donald McRae’s biography A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith
(2015) narrates the life of welter- and middleweight boxer Emile Griffith, whose homosexuality was an open secret in an era when to be gay was a crime. McRae focuses on the 1962 fight in which Griffith killed his opponent Benny Paret in the ring. Many commentators speculated that Griffith had been incensed by Paret’s use of homophobic slurs during their weigh-in for the fight. Griffith struggled for decades with his guilt over Paret’s death. A Man's World
was shortlisted for the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.
McRae introduces Griffith at the age of 22. “Happy and beautiful,” Griffith is in his prime. Enjoying a stellar career as a boxer, and nurtured by kindly trainer Gil Clancy, Griffith is modestly wealthy, famous, and able to live a gay lifestyle under the radar of both press and police. One year from now, however, he will beat to death the Cuban boxer Benny Paret.
McRae moves back to fill in the details of Griffith’s early life. Born in 1938 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Griffith was still a child when his mother, Emelda, emigrated to America together with his elder siblings, hoping to make enough money to send home. In her absence, Griffith was sexually abused by his uncle. Eventually, Griffith ran away from home and begged a local reform school to take him in.
Emelda summoned Griffith to New York when he was old enough to work. His first job in the US was at a hat factory. One steamy day, Griffith requested his supervisor’s permission to work without his shirt. The supervisor—former amateur boxer Howie Albert—impressed by Griffith’s muscled physique, took him to meet trainer Gil Clancy.
Griffith initially had no interest in fighting; he enjoyed his factory work, but he agreed to let Clancy put him in for the Golden Gloves Championship. Griffith won, and soon he was climbing the professional ranks. By the age of 22, in only his third year as a professional fighter, Griffith was the Welterweight champion.
The most financially stable member of his family, Griffith supported his mother as well as seven siblings and three cousins. McRae shows that although Griffith’s generosity was unending, his family was grasping and ungrateful. In truth, the boxer’s most familial relationships were with his trainers Albert and Clancy, who sometimes took steps to protect him from his relatives’ demands.
Griffith spent his leisure time in the gay and drag-queen bars around Times Square. Although homosexuality was illegal, that a boxing champion should be gay was so shocking to the sports press that they were reluctant to report it. This left Griffith free to form relationships with men and become a figure in New York’s gay community.
Nevertheless, Griffith’s sexuality was an open secret, and he had to endure winking slurs in the press, which usually leaned on his day-job as a ladies’ hatmaker. He was dubbed the “Mad Hatter from Manhattan” and accused of “flamboyance.” Once, in an attempt to give himself a more manly reputation, Griffith told the New York Post
that he hit his girlfriend (they didn’t think it interesting enough to report).
Things changed in 1962, when Griffith challenged Cuban fighter Benny “The Kid” Paret for the Welterweight title, which Paret had taken from him earlier that year by a narrow judges’ decision. Their back-and-forth contest for the title had added piquancy due to tensions between the US and Communist Cuba (although Paret, in fact, lived in Florida, Castro having outlawed professional boxing).
At the weigh-in, Paret called Griffith a “maricon
” and touched his buttocks. Griffith had to be restrained from attacking him on the spot. The press reported this encounter euphemistically, but the subtext was clear to the informed. Griffith’s girlfriend (although he identified as “gay” he pursued relationships with men and women) confronted him about his sexuality.
After nearly being knocked out in an early round, Griffith trapped Paret against the ropes late in Round 12. Griffith held his opponent in place and unleashed a savage series of blows to the head with his free hand. Paret, stunned, was unable to protect himself. Norman Mailer, in the audience, later said that Griffith’s punches were the hardest he had ever seen.
Paret lost consciousness and did not regain it. He was rushed to the hospital, where Griffith followed him, unsuccessfully trying to gain entry to Paret’s room. When he finally gave up, Griffith ran in anguish through the streets of the city, enduring the taunts and abuse and passers-by.
The press reaction to Paret’s death was heavily tinged with racism. Griffith was called a “nigger” and an animal. These insults served to deepen Griffith’s profound guilt, shame, horror, and loneliness. Unable to fight and support his family, Griffith took refuge in the community he had found in New York gay bars.
McRae asks whether Griffith deliberately went too far in his assault on Paret, in revenge for his opponent’s homophobic attack, as many in the press claimed both at the time and subsequently. McRae concludes that his subject did not mean to kill or seriously injure Paret. Rather, Paret’s death was a tragic accident.
In need of money, Griffith returned to the ring. Initially, Griffith struggled with what may have been PTSD. He saw Paret’s face in every boxer he overwhelmed. Unable to trust his instincts, Griffith was impaired in the ring. He took more punches and won fewer fights. He would later admit that after Paret’s death, he never again used his full power in a fight, relying instead on technical skill.
Much needed emotional support came from the South African boxer Wille Toweel. Griffith had fought Toweel earlier in his career, and Toweel had also since killed an opponent in the ring. He sent Griffith a letter of support when Griffith was at his lowest ebb. The two men became friends, and Toweel later supported Griffith during a trip to South Africa, where he protested apartheid.
For McRae, Griffith’s late career as a boxer is less important than his struggle with guilt. The climax of McRae’s book comes when Griffith meets Paret’s son Benny Jr. in a New York park, where he receives Benny’s forgiveness.
McRae closes the book by discussing the career of Puerto Rican Orlando Cruz, the first openly gay boxer, arguing for the historic importance of Griffith’s story.