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Documentary Sheds New Light on Emile Griffith

April 18, 2005 B Five-time world boxing champion Emile Griffith is 67 and long out of the fight business. Despite this, the aging champ has gotten more press in the last month than Mike Tyson.
The Virgin Islands native son is subject of a documentary, "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which airs on the USA Network Wednesday at 9 p.m.
Directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger, the film was acclaimed at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary details the 1962 fight in which Emile beat Benny "Kid" Paret into a coma before a live audience on national television. Paret died 10 days later.
Emile is the cause celebre of the media right now, and no wonder. He has more fights under his belt than anyone in boxing history: 51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson, 69 more than Muhammad Ali.
There's the film, magazine stories, a movie deal, and a biography by Ron Ross expected later this year. And, if things go as planned, Stephanie Scott-Williams and Westline Productions are organizing a tribute to Emile on St. Thomas in June. He was honored at Government House a few years ago, but Scott-Williams says, "This is for the people; so they can come out and tell Emile how much they admire him."
Griffith continued to fight until he was 39 when, after 110 pro fights and more main events than anyone else in the combined history of Madison Square Garden, it was finally over.
However, without revealing too much of the story, Emile met Paret's grown son, Benny Paret Jr. – who was three when his father died – last year in New York City's Central Park. In what one reviewer called "the part of the film you will remember," the man told Emile he had forgiven him.
"Ring of Fire" is a story of violence and redemption. The Paret bout had a lasting impact on not only the sport, but also on the media and politics of the day. The television industry imposed at 10-year moratorium on broadcasting fights.
Along with the outcome of the fight, Emile had another issue that haunted him throughout his career, his supposed homosexuality, an issue he until recently, had declined to discuss.
Before the fight, Paret had taunted Emile about his alleged sexuality, and not for the first time.
He called him "maricone," which in Spanish is a derogatory term for homosexual. Paret was Cuban.
Emile discusses his sexuality candidly in an April 14 interview with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. He told Herbert that he wasn't gay, but he had relations with both men and women. And he said it was impossible in the 60s for an athlete in the ultra-macho sport of boxing, to say "Oh, yeah, I'm gay."
Herbert remarks that times have changed, but not that much. He says: "Things are not as bad as they were in 1962, but they're not good."
According to his older brother, Frankie Griffith, "Emile was never the same fighter after the Paret fight." Speaking from his Long Island home Saturday, Frankie said, "Emile wanted to retire after that, but he was forced back into the ring by his trainer, Gil Clancy, and manager, Howie Albert. He fought differently – he'd never try to knock anyone out. Most of his fights were won by decisions."
Born on St. Thomas in 1938, Emile moved to New York with his family in the 50s
"Our father died in 1969, and Emile had to stop school in the 11th grade and go to work to help to help the family," Frankie said. Emile got a job in the garment district, in a hat factory. The owner of the factory, Howard "Howie" Albert, noticed what an incredible physique Emile had. Albert was an amateur boxing fan. And he also noted Emile's quiet demeanor. How could he have that body, and be so gentle?
"Emile loved to play ball, that's what he wanted to do. He'd played in St. Thomas, and he played in New York back in the early 50s. But Albert knew he had a build for boxing. So, he took him to a gym on 18th St. and 9th Ave., to Gil Clancy. Clancy was astounded. He started to train him right away. Clancy said he didn't have to do too much reinforcing, Emile caught on quickly."
Frankie continued: "Junior – that's what everybody called him – had the physique of a fighter, and he learned well. Clancy told him, 'Junior, you have a gift and you have to take care of this gift. Never underestimate yourself, or anybody else.' Clancy entered him in the Golden Gloves three or four months after he got him." Frankie said 'Junior' lost, but "the next year, he went all the way and won in open class. After that, he fought professionally."
Meantime Frankie had returned to St. Thomas. "When Emile came down in 1959, I said I wanted to go back with him. We were very close when he was pursuing his boxing career. I knew he would do well, but the first fight I went to, he lost. I didn't want to go again, I was afraid I'd jinxed him. But I did.
"Emile was on a crescendo right up until the time of that Paret fight. He'd fought him before, and Paret had taken his title from him. That night, he wanted to get his title back. At the weigh-in, Paret called him a 'maricone'. Emile knew Spanish. He knew what Paret meant. He didn't mean to do what he did. Paret had taken a beating about three months before, and he was weak."
Frankie said his brother was a free spirit. "He would go places I wouldn't go. He would go to a gay bar. I always talked to him and told him to watch his image."
Emile, Griffith said, went to work as a corrections officer at a New Jersey institution. "He met this 16-year-old kid, Luis Rodrigo, whose father had died. The kid loved Emile and wanted to be his son. After he got out of the institution, Emile adopted him. He calls me 'Uncle Frankie' now. He still lives with Emile and helps take care of him."
Frankie said Emile now has "cognition" problems, though he can carry on a conversation.
"What happened, and after all those fights, Emile had come back from Australia where he was training fighters, and he went to a gay bar in Manhattan someplace before he came home. When he left the bar, a gang attacked and beat him within an inch of his life. He was in the hospital for two months. He takes medication now, and that helps."
In another chapter of the story Emile came to visit St. Thomas in 1971, and he met and married Mercedes (Sadie) Donastorg. They met in the old Bambousay Nightclub, and danced all night. They married shortly after, and she and her daughter moved to New York with Emile, but he was away a lot and they separated after a couple years.
However, they are still good friends. Mercedes Griffith Golston talked about Emile last week on AMVI Radio One with host Lee Vanterpool and Stephanie Scott-Williams. Golston had recently come back from viewing the film preview in New York.
"It's beautifully done," Golston said. "It's well put-together. Everyone there was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. All his close friends attended the preview. Clancy was there, Howie from the hat factory was there, and Joe Frazier was there."

The Sports Illustrated April 12 issue has a probing, Incisive profile on Emile, "The Shadow Boxer," by Gary Smith. It is available online at www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com.
Scott-Williams, who is doing the AMVI show on Radio One this week between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. is asking anyone interested in helping with the June project to call the station, 774-8255, or her home at 775-0635. She said she is trying to get the Emile Griffith Park for the festivities.

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