Obituary: Emile Griffith / Boxing champ fatally beat an opponent

Feb. 3, 1938 - July 23, 2013


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Emile Griffith, who won the welterweight and middleweight boxing titles and fought professionally for 20 years, but who was most remembered for a fatal barrage of punches in a championship bout at New York City's Madison Square Garden, died Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y. He was 75.

The causes were kidney failure and complications of dementia, said Ron Ross, the author of "Nine ... Ten ... and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith," published in 2008.

It was the night of March 24, 1962, a televised welterweight title fight between Mr. Griffith and Benny Paret, known as Kid. Mr. Griffith had knocked Paret out to take his championship, had lost it back to him and was seeking it once more. But this was more than a third encounter for a boxing crown. There was an uneasy tension in the air, a product of rumors and a taunt by Paret, who had called Mr. Griffith a homosexual.

The 12th round of the scheduled 15-round fight was nearing its close when Mr. Griffith pinned Mr. Paret into a corner and then unleashed a whirlwind of blows to the head.

"The right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin," Norman Mailer, a ringside witness, recalled in an essay.

Mr. Griffith delivered 17 punches in five seconds with no response from Paret, according to Mr. Griffith's trainer, Gil Clancy, who counted them from television replays. Mr. Griffith may have punched Paret at least two dozen times in all in that salvo.

At last the referee stepped in, and Paret collapsed with blood clots in his brain.

"I hope he isn't hurt," Mr. Griffith was quoted as saying in his dressing room afterward. "I pray to God -- I say from my heart -- he's all right."

Paret died 10 days later at a New York City hospital.

Mr. Griffith won the welterweight title three times and the middleweight title twice, and briefly held the newly created junior middleweight title. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

But he would be shadowed by the death of Paret. When Mr. Griffith died, all of his ring earnings were gone, and he had lost much of his memory.

Emile Alphonse Griffith was born Feb. 3, 1938, on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one of eight children. His father left the family when Mr. Griffith was a youngster, and his mother moved to New York to work after sending the children to live with relatives.

When Mr. Griffith was a teenager, his mother sent for him, and he worked as a stock boy at a New York factory that manufactured women's hats. When the owner, Howard Albert, a former amateur boxer, noticed his physique -- a slim waist with broad shoulders -- he sent Mr. Griffith to Clancy, who developed him into a national Golden Gloves champion. He turned pro in 1958, with Clancy remaining as his trainer. Clancy died in 2011.

Mr. Griffith won the welterweight title with a knockout of Paret in April 1961. After making one defense, he lost the crown to Paret on a decision that September.

In boxing circles, Mr. Griffith had been rumored to be gay, and Paret, a Cuban known to be brash, seized on that to needle him at the weigh-in for their third fight.

"He called me maricon," Mr. Griffith told Peter Heller in 1972 for "In This Corner," a book of interviews with boxing champions. "Maricon in English means faggot."

Mr. Griffith wanted to attack Paret on the spot, but Clancy held him back.

Paret's death brought an inquiry by the New York state Athletic Commission, which absolved the referee, Ruby Goldstein, of delaying too long in stopping the fight.

Mr. Griffith lost his welterweight title to Luis Rodruguez in March 1963, then regained it in a rematch three months later. Mr. Griffith won the middleweight championship by a decision over Dick Tiger in April 1966, but that required him to give up his welterweight crown.

Mr. Griffith lost the middleweight title to Nino Benvenuti of Italy in April 1967, won it back from him, then lost it again in their third bout. He briefly held the new junior middleweight title in the early 1960s.

After losing three consecutive fights, Mr. Griffith retired in 1977 with 85 victories, 24 losses and two draws. He later worked occasionally as a boxing trainer and lived in Hempstead, on Long Island.

In 1992, Mr. Griffith was severely beaten after leaving a gay bar in the Times Square area, his kidneys damaged so badly that he was near death. The assailants were never caught.

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