“The Unimaginable”

Guest Writer: Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley

Emile Alphonse Griffith was born February 3, 1938, in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands. In his teenage years, Griffith worked at a hat factory. On one particularly steamy day, the owner allowed him to work shirtless.

That owner, a former amateur boxer, noticed Emile’s promising physique and took the young man to Hall of Fame boxer Gil Clancy’s gym for training. In 1957, Griffith advanced to the finals of the 147-pound sub-novice division but was defeated by Charles Wormley of the Salem Crescent Athletic Club.

The next year, however, Griffith captured the 1958 New York Golden Gloves 147-pound Open Championship by defeating Osvaldo Marcano of the Police Athletic Leagues Lynch Center in the finals.

The athlete began fighting professionally that year, having many of his matches in The Big Apple. He won the welterweight title against Cuban Benny “The Kid” Paret, knocking him out in the 13th round on April 1, 1961.  However, six months later, Griffith was defeated by Paret in a narrow, split decision, thus losing his title.

And the following year, on March 24, 1962, the most famous fight of his life was the Paret rematch. Paret angered Griffith during the weigh-in by hurling taunts, referring to him as a maricón (“faggot”).

LGBQT Gay Wyatt Evans

As Griffith stepped off the scales, Gil Clancy shouted: “Hey, watch it!” Griffith spun around to see a sneering Paret imitating intercourse with him as his trainers howled uproariously.

Paret shook his finger at Griffith, taunting, “Hey maricón, I’m gonna get you and your husband.” It was unimaginable in boxing that a man would be involved romantically, let alone sexually, with another man.

In the world of boxing, machismo ruled.  And there was no insult greater than being called a faggot – especially when it was well-known, yet unspoken, that Griffith was “different.” (It wasn’t just that the athlete often spoke about his pleasure in designing pretty bonnets for ladies or discussed the latest pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy outside the White House.)

Griffith was gay when homosexuality was ridiculed, almost universally considered a disease, condemned as a sin, and considered a crime. Consensual sex between two adult men could cause them to be imprisoned.

In every state of America—except for Illinois–homosexuality was a criminal act.  Meanwhile, the American Medical Association persisted in classifying homosexuality as a “psychiatric disorder.”

Most weekends, the well-known fighter frequented gay bars; yet found it utterly frightening to come out publicly about his sexual preference. He had to hide the truth because a “gay boxer” was an unimaginable phrase. In the early 1960s, the subject was taboo; it was unimaginable that any sports hero, a man’s man, could be a homosexual.

Griffith spent time before this fight walking along the streets of Times Square, where he chuckled and danced amongst the Hispanic gay crowd and the old drag queens. That Saturday morning, on the day of his biggest fight ever, men, women, transvestites, hookers, and strippers shouted out wishes of good luck. Any other day, he would stop and chat with everyone; but this time, the pugilist simply raised his fist to his people and walked on.

You see, he would be fighting for them too.

The match aired on the ABC television network.  The media ignored Paret’s slurs or used rewordings like “anti-man” and “un-man” when speaking of the angst that may have been partially fueling Griffith. In round six, Paret almost stopped him with a multi-punch combination; however, Griffith was saved by the bell.

The 12th round found Griffith trapping Paret in a corner. After too many blows to the head, Paret stopped fighting back and drooped to the side along the ropes– even though his upper body was through them and partly out of the ring. Griffith held Paret’s shoulder, keeping him in position, and used his free hand to hit Paret– who was no longer trying to protect himself.

Then, Griffith landed several right uppercuts to his opponent’s head. Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stepped in, thereby awarding Griffith a win by technical knockout. Immediately after the referee intervened, Paret, who had remained on his feet throughout, slowly slid to the floor. He was carried from the ring on a stretcher.

LGBQT Gay Wyatt Evans

In a television interview, Griffith stated, “I’m very proud to be the welterweight champion again. I hope Paret is feeling very good.” Once the seriousness of Paret’s condition became known, Griffith went to the hospital and unsuccessfully tried for many hours to see him.  Then, ten days later, Paret died in the hospital.

Afterward, the despondent Griffith ran through the streets, being constantly harassed and insulted by passers-by. He received hate mail from the deceased fighter’s supporters, who believed that Griffith had killed Paret on purpose. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller even formed a seven-man commission to examine the incident–and the sport.  Griffith was guilt-ridden and suffered from nightmares for 40 years.

After the Paret fight, Griffith had a classic three-fight series against Luis Rodríguez, losing the first and winning the last two.  Next, he won against middleweight contender Holly Mims.  In another match, however, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter knocked him out in one round.

On April 25, 1966, he fought middleweight champion Dick Tiger, winning a 15-round unanimous decision plus the middleweight title.  After that, he lost, regained, and lost the middleweight crown in three classic fights with Nino Benvenuti.  In 1977, after 18 years as a pro, Griffith retired from boxing.  His record stood at 85 wins (25 by knockout), 24 losses, and two draws.

Griffith’s next chapter was as a corrections officer at the Secaucus, New Jersey Juvenile Detention Facility.  Concurrently, he trained boxers including Wilfred Benítez and Juan Laporte of Puerto Rico, who won world championships.  Griffith was also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.   And in 1979–80, he served in Denmark as the coach of the Danish Olympic boxing team.

In 1992, upon leaving a gay bar near the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal, Griffith was savagely beaten and nearly killed.   He was hospitalized for four months after the beating. It was unknown if homophobia was responsible for the violent act.

Emile Alphonse Griffith died July 23, 2013.  During his last years, he required full-time care, and  suffered from dementia pugilistica, otherwise known as “punch-drunk syndrome” or “boxer’s dementia.” His lover, Luis Rodrigo Griffith, was his primary caregiver.  He was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Queens, New York City.

Though it may be “unimaginable” for a boxer to be gay, Mr. Griffith is proof that:

Here’s a link to the tail end of the 1962 Griffith/Paret fight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4tgzgjqcFA

Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).

A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter.  A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books.  Additionally, Hartsel has charted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.  

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth).  This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”

Hartsel’s upcoming works include Three Words and Four Letters–the second and third installments of his first novel–along with his third music project, Rebel with A Cause.

Bishop Shirley can be emailed at hartselshirley@gmail.com