Thursday, December 14, 2017
Sports

Former champ Griffith dies at 75

Inside the smaller theater at Madison Square Garden about five years ago, shortly before a world title fight, Emile Griffith was introduced to the crowd. He rose shakily from his seat, waved briefly, then sat down.

The applause kept going.

Revered in retirement perhaps more than during his fighting days, Mr. Griffith died Tuesday at 75 after a long battle with pugilistic dementia. The first fighter to be crowned world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mr. Griffith died at an extended care facility in Hempstead, N.Y.

"Emile was a gifted athlete and truly a great boxer," Hall of Fame director Ed Brophy said. "Outside the ring he was as great a gentleman as he was a fighter."

An elegant fighter with a quick jab, Mr. Griffith's brilliant career was overshadowed by the fatal beating he gave Benny "The Kid" Paret in a nationally televised title bout on March 24, 1962. In the 12th round Mr. Griffith delivered 17 punches in five seconds. Paret collapsed with blood clots in his brain and died 10 days later. The outcome darkened boxing and some network TV stations stopped showing live fights.

It also cast Mr. Griffith as a pariah to many.

But he often attended fights in his later years, especially at the Garden. And he went most years to the sport's Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.

"He always had time for boxing fans when visiting the hall," Brophy said, "and was one of the most popular boxers to return year after year."

Mr. Griffith defeated Paret for the welterweight title in 1961 and lost a rematch five months later, setting up a third meeting. At the weigh-in Paret, a brash Cuban, referred to Mr. Griffith as gay, using a Spanish epithet. Over the years Mr. Griffith described himself at various times as straight, gay and bisexual.

"People spit at me in the street," Mr. Griffith said in 1993, recalling the days after Paret's death. "We stayed in a hotel. Every time there was a knock on the door, I would run into the next room. I was so scared."

After their third fight — many believe Paret never should have been allowed in the ring after a brutal loss to Gene Fullmer three months earlier — Mr. Griffith moved up to middleweight and defeated Dick Tiger for the title in 1966.

Mr. Griffith, 85-24-2 with 23 knockouts, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. He trained several champions, including Wilfred Benitez and Juan Laporte.

The fatal Paret fight became the basis for the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. One of the final scenes shows Mr. Griffith embracing Paret's son.

"I was never the same fighter after that. … I would use my jab all the time. I never wanted to hurt the other guy," Mr. Griffith said. "I would have quit, but I didn't know how to do anything else but fight."

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