“I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.” These are the words of world boxing champion Emile Griffith. A Man’s World tells the incredible story of the black man who lived this terrible contradiction.
Griffith died aged 75, just months after Orlando Cruz, the Puerto Rican boxer, came out publicly as gay in October 2012. He was the first ever professional boxer to do so.
Born in 1938, Griffith’s lifetime spanned both the harsh, repressive environment of 1950s America and the explosive backlash by the LGBT community in the Stonewall riot of 1969 that was such a turning point in the battle for liberation.
The Stonewall Inn was a part of Griffith’s world and he became good friends with Freddie Wright who was a dancer there, including on the night of the riot.
Donald McRae, a sports writer, does a good job of weaving the seismic historical events of the era with the story of the boxers’ life. He describes Griffith and his friend Calvin standing up, in tears, as they hear Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Griffith was not only a world renowned boxer he was by trade an outstanding designer and maker of women’s hats.
Whatever we may think of the brutal world of the boxing ring, this fact alone does much to destroy stereotypes. But instead it was used by the press of the day to attack Griffith for his “difference”.
Much of the book focuses on three boxing matches with Benny Paret of Cuba. Paret would die of injuries sustained in the final bout with Griffith at Madison Square Garden in 1962.
The Cuban and his team had frequently taunted Griffith over the open secret of his sexuality at the match weigh-ins. At their third fight Paret would say, “Hey maricon, I’m gonna get you and your husband.” It rightly enraged Griffith.
Griffith would be haunted for the rest of his life by Paret’s death. And the result of the fight would be an important staging post in the decline of professional boxing.
Throughout his boxing career Griffith and his team went to some lengths to stop the press insinuations about his sexuality — being gay at the time could mean jail.
This included using Griffith’s early girlfriend Esther, to pose for “happy couple” photographs and the like. Esther, who would coincidentally go on to work with young LGBT people, would not learn the truth about Griffith’s sexuality until much later in her life.
There is much sadness in the story of Griffith’s life. It is a story which needs to be known because it sheds much light on those times.
For anyone interested in mid-20th century America and the oppression of LGBT people in the pre-Stonewall period this is an indispensable book.