Emile Griffith, Benny Paret and sexual identity

On March 24, 1962, Emile Griffith beat Benny Paret so badly in a World Welterweight title bout that Paret fell into a coma and died ten days later. People were horrified to hear about this death in the boxing ring. The bout had been televised live but it was ten years before boxing appeared on television again.

The fight has been revisited recently in anticipation of the release of a new documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story by Ron Berger and Dan Klores. The documentary will air on USA Network on April 20 at 9pm ET/PT.

The documentary contends that you can’t look at the fight without looking at Griffith’s sexuality. People in the boxing community knew that Griffith went to gay bars. At the weigh-in, Paret called Griffith a maricon, the Spanish word for faggot. The fight almost started right then and there. At one point in the fight, Paret put his hand on his hip and blew Griffith a kiss.

There were likely a few factors contributing to the disaster in the ring that night. The referee, Ruby Goldstein, had recently suffered a heart attack and wasn’t effective enough to keep his customary control over the fight. In his previous bout, Paret had taken a terrible beating in a Middleweight Title fight with Gene Fullmer.

Clearly Griffith was unremittingly vicious as he pummeled Paret in the corner of the ring in the 12th round. Did the faggot taunts play a part in the outcome of this fight? In an interview with Bob Herbert in the New York Times today, Griffith repeats what he’s said before. He is sorry that Paret died and he is still haunted by his death, “but what he said touched something deep inside.”

At the end of the interview, Herbert asks Griffith if he is gay. Griffith said that he’s had sexual relation with men and women and he would like to ride in this year’s Gay and Lesbian Parade but he’s not gay. The Sundance Film Festival blurb says that Griffith lives with his long time roommate and adopted son, Luis Rodrigo.

Hatred comes in all shapes and sizes. Yesterday in a courtroom, Eric Rudolph gloated over his victory in avoiding the death sentence by accepting a deal that gives him four consecutive life sentences for bombing the 1996 Olympic Park, two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub. Rudolph’s brother is gay.

He is sorry that Paret died and he is still haunted by his death, “but what he said touched something deep inside.”

It seems to me that self hatred is the most brutal variety. I once had a closeted roommate who threatened me by saying that she knew police in the neighborhood, implying that she would send them after me, because I had been brazen enough to sleep with someone on a first date. She had been raised Catholic, her mother had been raised in a convent, and her aunt lived in an open lesbian relationship but, still, she could not be open about her sexuality. She could not reconcile her church and family’s views with her own deeply felt identity.

If self hatred stopped at self torture, that would be awful enough. But it doesn’t. Self hatred and the pain caused by an impossible situation – you know in your heart that you are gay but you also know that you should hate yourself for it – lashes out in a violent and deeply passionate way.

Very good films about past events always reveal something important about the present. Being gay may be more acceptable but it also seems to be accompanied by a rising culture of hate. If nobody steps in soon enough, hate can kill.