During his boxing heyday, when he won both the world welterweight and middleweight championships, Emile Griffith was proud to call Hudson County home.
For almost 30 years, Griffith lived on Boulevard East in Weehawken. He also lived for a brief time in Jersey City. He spent a lot of his free time in Jersey City, as a regular at Jack Miller’s Pub on Academy Street.
In fact, Griffith spent so much time at the Jersey City establishment that two of his world championship belts proudly graced the walls of Jack Miller’s.
It was at Jack Miller’s one summer afternoon 25 years ago that I met Griffith for the first time. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship, one that saw Griffith battle his demons and especially later in life, a war with pugilistic dementia. It was that battle that Griffith couldn’t win and he died on Long Island Tuesday morning.
Griffith, a member of both the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was 75 years old.
Griffith was truly a boxing legend. He was one of only three boxers to hold both the welterweight and middleweight championships of the world. He had a career that spanned an amazing 20 years. He fought for either the middleweight or welterweight titles an incredible 21 times – a record that still stands.
Griffith entered the boxing game after working as a messenger/delivery boy for another Hudson County resident, the late Howie Albert of Secaucus, who owned a hat company in Manhattan at the time. Albert went on to manage Griffith’s storied boxing career.
However, there is one glaring moment, one blemish on Griffith's incredible boxing ledger that also made him legendary.
On March 24, 1962, Griffith caused the first live man-to-man killing that was ever broadcast on national television - a full 18 months before Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the hollows of a Dallas prison (which happened the day after Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy).
On that fateful day in March, 1962, Griffith fought Benny "Kid" Paret for the welterweight championship of the world in Madison Square Garden.
Just six months prior, Paret had defeated Griffith in a 15-round decision to win the welterweight crown. So this fight was Griffith’s chance to gain revenge.
Ironically, when Griffith first won the welterweight title in 1961, he had knocked out Paret in Miami Beach.
The March 1962 showdown was a long-awaited rubber match. Both fighters had one win against each other. This fight would determine which one was truly the better fighter.
At the time, boxing was a highly popular sport on television. Every week, there was a card televised, called “Gillette's Cavalcade of Champions: Friday Night Fights,” with famed announcer Don Dunphy on the mike. The boxing cards were watched on a regular basis through the 1950s, into the 1960s, almost as widely viewed as Milton Berle, “I Love Lucy” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The third fight between Griffith and Paret was so anticipated that the producers decide to air the fight on a Saturday night, with the attempt of drawing a larger audience, trying to steal Nielsen rating points away from popular variety shows like “The Hollywood Palace” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Therefore, the fight was staged before a nationally televised audience in prime time.
There was obviously no love lost between the two combatants, especially after two prior grueling fights.
But things got even heated before the third fight, when Paret took a jab at Griffith's sexual preference in a pre-fight press conference, calling Griffith a “maricon,” a word origin that the Virgin Island-born Griffith knew.
There had been some rumors about Griffith’s sexual preference. Because he had been spotted in Manhattan gay clubs and because he had a propensity to dress flamboyantly, including wearing high feminine-looking hats that he designed himself, Griffith was labeled as being gay – although at the time, he never once officially came out of the closet.
Only later in life, in fact in an exclusive interview with Bob Herbert of the New York Daily News, did Griffith admit to being gay. But he did not do that at that time.
So when Paret called Griffith a “maricon,” a slang Spanish word for a gay man, at the press conference, Griffith was incensed and decided to take his anger out in the ring.
Little did Griffith know that the night would change his life – and the world of professional sports – forever.
In the 12th round, Griffith pounded Paret unmercifully, over and over, in perhaps the most brutal beating ever witnessed in the ring.
Allegedly, Griffith muttered the words, “Who’s a maricon now? Who’s your maricon now?” with every piercing blow. Referee Ruby Goldstein, who never worked another fight ever again, didn’t stop the beating. He allowed Griffith to deliver blow after undefended blow in the corner, while Paret lay defenseless against the ropes.
Griffith delivered 18 punches in a span of six seconds, before Goldstein finally stopped the fight. Paret slumped into the corner and was soon rushed to a hospital in a coma from which he never recovered. Paret died 10 days later.
The brutal fight changed boxing forever. It was banned from live television for more than a decade. Stricter regulations were placed upon referees stepping in and stopping bouts when one fighter appeared defenseless.
Griffith was never the same fighter again. In fact, the term “killer instinct” was rarely used around Griffith because of the fatal fight. He did go on to have a brilliant career, holding six different welterweight and middleweight belts.
When he was a regular at Jack Miller’s, either as a patron or as a bartender, Emile Griffith was one of the nicest, sweetest guys in the world. He was cheery, fun-loving, ready to tell a joke and be one of the guys. The rumors of his sexual preference always hovered about, but it didn’t change Griffith one iota.
Griffith loved being with the patrons at Jack Miller’s and considered the owner to be one of his closest friends. Jack Miller was someone he could rely upon, after being almost totally forgotten by people in the fight game, although he was training former lightweight champion Juan LaPorte out of Gleason's Gym in New York for a while.
Griffith didn’t mind talking about boxing, but he never answered questions about the Paret fight that unfortunately became his legacy.
“Some things are too painful to talk about, Jimmy,” he said to me when I did an interview with him some 25 years ago. “I don't want to go back there.”
In later years, Griffith worked as a corrections officer at the Hudson County Youth House in Secaucus. It’s there where he met Luis Rodrigo, who was an inmate at the correctional youth facility at the time. In later years, Griffith legally adopted Rodrigo as his son. The two lived together in Hempstead, Long Island, until Griffith’s death Tuesday.
Over the last few years, Griffith battled dementia. He would show up at different boxing affairs and fundraising events, but lost most of his memory – including that fateful night in 1962.
Emile Griffith was a part of the Hudson County sports circles for more than a quarter century and was proud to be a resident of the county. It’s a shame that his legacy remains that one brutal fight. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.