ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Emile Griffith died this week at age 75. He was a world champion boxer, but he's best known for one of the sport's lowest moments. In 1962, at Madison Square Garden, Griffith was fighting Benny "The Kid" Paret and in the 12th round, Griffith pummeled Paret until he crumbled.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Paret goes down from pure exhaustion. Look at him there. Dr. Smith is coming over to look at him. Paret has collapsed from exhaustion from that beating on the ropes.
SIEGEL: It wasn't just exhaustion. Benny Paret was down and 10 days later, he died. That haunted Emile Griffith for the rest of his life, as did questions about what might have preceded that fight, Paret's use of an offensive Spanish homophobic slur aimed at Griffith. Joining us now to talk about Emile Griffith's life is Ron Ross, a boxing historian and the author of a biography of Emile Griffith. Welcome to the program.
RON ROSS: Hi.
SIEGEL: And let me ask you, first of all, about Emile Griffith. Where was he from? What kind of a man was he?
ROSS: He was, to try to put it bluntly, a social animal. He just enjoyed people. He was 10 years old when he came over from St. Thomas and he and his mother moved to the upper upper Harlem and, coincidentally, he was friendly with another kid in the neighborhood named Benny Paret. And they were friends until Benny and his family moved to Miami.
Then, they met years later in the ring and became a benchmark in their third fight.
SIEGEL: It is said that in that third fight that Griffith's rage reflected this slur from Paret that he'd heard earlier. What actually happened?
ROSS: When they're at the weigh-in, as he got on the scale, Benny Paret stood up behind him, made motions, wiggling his hips and all and called out, hey, maricon.
SIEGEL: Maricon is Spanish. Anybody in the streets of New York knows what it means. It's a very abusive way of calling somebody, we can say now, gay. And it wasn't a compliment.
ROSS: Right. And Griffith was shocked, especially coming from a friend. Griffith himself told me when he went into the ring he was upset, but it was not hate. He said, I hit him and kept hitting him. But he said, I would've hit any fighter and kept hitting him and it haunted Griffith all his life.
SIEGEL: Was Emile Griffith gay?
ROSS: Emile Griffith never used the word gay because back in his generation, it was just a negative connotation. Emile Griffith lived his life very openly. He would go into gay bars. He didn't slink any alleys. He didn't go in the side entrance. He walked in the front door. But he didn't come out and say it until after a documentary was made about him, that we made back in 2005, and he walked out after the movie, which the premiere was at the Beekman Theatre in Second Avenue in Manhattan.
And the streets are thronged with people who just stood there giving him a standing ovation. He turned around to me and to his adopted son, Luis, and he said, that's for me. He said, they really like me for who I am.
SIEGEL: Ron, after the death of Benny Paret, as you've said, this weighed terribly on Emile Griffith. How would you describe what the experience did to him?
ROSS: Emile was so upset at what happened, actually seeing visions of Benny Paret at night when he'd go to bed. He'd be shaving, he swore to me that he saw Benny Paret in the mirror. All through his life, that vision of what happened to Benny Paret haunted him. The immediate effect, he wouldn't fight after that. He refused to go back in the ring, took him months. And Emile Griffith was never able to really throw the right hand again what he did before the Benny Paret fight.
He still went on as a great fighter, but he was a different kind of fighter.
SIEGEL: Well, Ron Ross, thank you very much for talking with us today.
ROSS: Robert, thank you. I appreciate the fact that we had this chance to speak.
SIEGEL: Ron Ross is the author of "Nine, Ten, and Out: The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith," who died this past Tuesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.