Boxing Legend: "I like men and women"

Lee Cleveland Updated
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Orlando Cruz's recent coming out about his sexuality made mainstream headlines with some in the media asserting Cruz is the first openly gay boxer.

But Orlando Cruz is not the first high-level boxer to proclaim homosexual tendencies.

That distinction belongs to a legend of the game, Emile Griffith (85-24-23-2-1 NC).

The first boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands ever to become a world champion, Emile Griffith is a former real and legitimate World Welterweight, Jr Middleweight and Middleweight Champion who fought at a time when there was only one champion.

A pugilistic powerhouse, Emile Griffith defeated other legends, world champions and world class contenders such as Nino Benvenuti, Joey Archer, Benny "Kid" Paret, Luis Rodriguez and Holly Mims. 

RING Magazine's Fighter of the Year in 1964, Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in its initial year (1990) and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

Emile Griffith, whose career spawned from 1958 to 1977, engaged in over 20 world championship fights. He was a popular boxer who possessed excellent fighting instincts and good speed.

And while boxing fans remember him as an all-time great, he will be remembered most for killing Benny Paret in the ring following disparaging comments the latter allegedly made about Griffith's sexuality prior to their third bout.

Pictured: A young Emile Griffith


There had always been rumors about Griffith's sexual preference, even back in the 1960s and 70s.

And finally, in a 2005 interview with Sports Illustrated Griffith said, "I like men and women both. But I don't like that word: homosexual, gay or f*gg*t. I don't know what I am. I love men and women the same..."

An Insult's Tragic Result?

Griffith turned professional in 1958 and captured the Welterweight title from Cuban Benny "The Kid" Paret on April 1, 1961 via a 13th Round knockout. Six months later, Griffith lost the title to Paret in a narrow split decision setting up their third and final bout on March 24, 1962.

Sadly, their third meeting would have tragic consequences.

Many years after the bout, Griffith would tell Sports Illustrated Paret called him a maricón, the Spanish equivalent of "f*gg*t, in the pre-fight presser or weigh-in. Inflamed, Griffith went after him and immediately had to be restrained.

Its believed the media at the time either ignored the slur or used euphemisms such as "anti-man."

But unlike Orlando Cruz today, it would have been career suicide for a champion boxer in North America to proudly proclaim his bi-sexuality and/or homosexual tendencies. Keep in mind, it was the early 1960s.

Griffith and Paret's third fight, which was nationally televised by ABC, took place at the fabled Madison Square Garden.

In the sixth round, Paret nearly ended matters with a multi punch combination that appeared to put the challenger in a stupor but Griffith was saved by the bell. After the round his trainer, Gil Clancy, implored Emile "when you go inside I want you to keep punching until Paret holds you or the referee breaks you! But you keep punching until he does that!".

Pictured: Emile Griffith , right, lands fatal blows on Benny Paret in their third bout


Fueled by his mentor's emotion and perhaps rage from Paret's alleged insult during a pre-fight event, Griffith trapped Paret on the ropes in the 12th Round, knocking his foe unconscious . Unfortunately, there was no where for Paret to fall. He was literally 'out on his feet.' 

While Paret stood helpless against the roles, Griffith unleashed wicked headshots, one after another, until Ruby Goldstein, one of the best referees at the time, finally stopped the fight.

Paret never regained consciousness and died a week and a half later.

This incident, and insuing widespread publicity and criticism of boxing which accompanied it, became the basis of the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. 

For many years, Griffith reportedly felt tremendous guilt over Paret's death, and has purportedly suffered nightmares about it and Paret for over 40 years.

Did Paret's alleged homophobic comment fuel the merciless beating unleashed upon him by Griffith?

In 1992, a 54 year old Griffith was jumped, brutally beaten and almost killed in New York City after exiting a gay bar near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was hospitalized four months after the assault and its not known whether the beating was a hate crime.

Source for rightside photo: Roberto Vicario


Today, at 74, the former three division champion and fight legend requires full time care and suffers from pugilistic dementia. 

So Orlando Cruz is not the first high-profile (or semi-high-profile) boxer to have homosexual tendencies. Although he must be credited for his courageous declaration, he lives in an age where the public is more open-minded and accepting.  

Who knows? There were probably a few more gay fighters, even world class like Griffith, from years past who didn't come out because they simply couldn't.

Griffith vs Paret Facts

  • New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller created a seven man commission to investigate the death of Paret and the sport.
  • ABC, which televised the tragedy live, ended its boxing broadcasts and other U.S. networks followed; The sport would not return to free television until the 1970s. 
  • Referee Rudy Goldstein, the 'Mills Lane' or 'Steve Smoger' of the day, would never again referee a fight. 

Tragedy in the Ring: Emile Griffith kills Benny Paret


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