Emile Griffith, a tragic figure in the world of boxing, has passed away at the age of 75. The embattled athlete, whose sexuality has always caused speculation, suffered from kidney troubles and dementia pugilistica, a degenerative brain disease often contracted by boxers and other athletes due to repeated injuries.
Griffith, probably best known for being the first world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands and for his legendary match against Benny Paret, had always been tight-lipped about his sexual proclivities, but was long rumored to be gay in boxing circles. His fury during the bout with Paret, which resulted in the latter’s death, was allegedly fueled by Paret’s hurling of the gay slur “maricón,” which roughly translates to faggot.
Griffith’s trainer, Gil Clancy, insisted in interviews that the slur had nothing to do with the fight. On the night of March 24, 1962, Griffith delivered a devastating 17 punches in five seconds. Paret died 10 days later.
“I didn’t want to kill no one,” Griffith said in the documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. “But things happen.” Griffith’s unease with the sport grew substantially after these events, as he became scared of injuring his opponents.
After being assaulted outside a gay bar in 1992, Griffith ultimately met his end caused by kidney injuries from the attack. While Griffith never actually “came out,” he had stated in a 2005 interview with Sports Illustrated, “I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.”
Griffith’s marriage to Mercedes Donastorg eventually ended in divorce. While we will never know the whole truth, Griffith surely felt societal pressure, especially as an athlete in the 1960’s, to remain as straight as possible to the outside world. Griffith is survived by his three brothers, Franklin, Tony and Guillermo; four sisters, Eleanor, Joyce, Karen and Gloria; and his longtime companion and adopted son, Luis Griffith.