Friday, October 2, 2009

Thursday Night on the Lower East Side: Emile Griffith, Ron Ross and "Nine Ten and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith" at Bluestockings

Last evening we went to one of our favorite bookstores in the city, the wonderful Bluestockings, to see the legendary boxing champ Emile Griffith and his biographer, Ron Ross, author of Nine Ten and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith .

We were 10 years old and in Mrs. Zweig's class 6-1 at P.S. 203 in Flatlands and have clear memories of the March 1962 title fight at the old Madison Square Garden between Griffith and Benny (Kid) Paret, which was broadcast on NBC on Saturday night in an age when middle-class boys like us actually followed prizefighting (a word that now seems quaint). And we can definitely remember talking with our friends as we looked at the grim Daily News front page headlines in the ten days between the fight and when Paret finally died from the fatal beating at Griffith's hands.

Watching the brutal series of uppercuts Griffith delivered to a helpless Paret in the corner of the ring during the twelfth round will always be in our memory. What's remarkable to us know is that it didn't really diminish our boyish interest in boxing, which if anything, got more intense in junior high as we and our friends followed the heavyweight bouts between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali when he was still called Cassius Clay. And whatever horror we felt after Benny Paret's death didn't stop us from avidly following Emile Griffith's later bouts with Dick Tiger and Nino Benvenuti.

Of course the horror we felt in fourth grade when we angrily punched a kid in the jaw and he crumpled to the floor didn't last that long, either. (We got invited to the kid's bar mitzvah and invited him to ours even though we went to different junior highs so we stayed friends.)

So although the death of Benny Paret haunted Emile Griffith's career and he thought about quitting boxing, he went on after his three terms as welterweight champion to be middleweight champion three times.

But as his biographer Ron Ross said last night, the central question of Emile's life was: "I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin."

Even before Ring of Fire, the 2002 documentary film about Emile and the fatal fight, for years pretty much everyone knew the boxer was gay/bisexual and that at the weigh-in Benny had enraged him by calling him a maricón, as he had in the weigh-in before their previous bout. (Griffith had taken the welterweight title from Paret in their first match and Paret won it back in the second.)

Ron Ross, himself a professional boxer, fight promoter and manager as well as a novelist (the Runyonesque boxing-and-mob novel The Tomato Can), sat up front with Emile and Emile's adopted son and caregiver Luis. It was clear from when we walked in and saw Emile at one of the front tables drinking coffee that he has some form of dementia. He has that sweet, pleasant smile that we've seen in our mom with Alzheimer's. A young Brooklyn boxer we know who trains at the gym by Starrett City told us that he that he'd assumed Emile was "punchdrunk." Technically it's dementia pugilistica, made worse when Emile was nearly beaten to death leaving a gay club near Times Square in 1992. But he said hi to us with a friendly smile and made a playful pointing gesture with both index fingers.

Reading lots of little excerpts from the book, Ron told Emile's story, from his boyhood in St. Thomas - his large family struggled, particularly after his father left, and at one point he was placed in the care of a physically abusive relative who was so cruel that Emile sought and received asylum in a juvenile detention center. Here he is with his sister Joyce, whom he once carried two miles to a hospital when she had injured herself and was bleeding copiously.

In New York, he lived uptown and eventually got work as a stock boy at the hat factory owned by Howard Albert. Emile had no thoughts of boxing - at the time he had even tried his hand at designing some hats, which were good enough to sell well - until one hot day, he was working shirtless in the stockroom and his boss, taken aback by Emile's V-shaped torso (Ron said he'd then had a 44-inch chest and 26-inch waist) got him into boxing with the trainer Gil Clancy, who broke his rule about never letting a fighter in the ring until he'd trained for at least year because Emile was so skilled. He won his first bout without even having fully learned how to use his right hand effectively.

Ron recounted Emile's quick rise to the highest ranks of the welterweight division and also his first "serious life partner," Matthew, a kid around 18 whom he'd met when his father brought him to the gym just around the time of his third, momentous fight with Benny Paret.

In the audience were a mixture of Bluestockings' usual young progressive crowd and people from the boxing world like Daily News columnist Bill Verigan and Brooklyn's former junior welterweight champ Paulie Malignaggi.

Emile's story, as told by Ron, is fascinating. Emile, he said, has some records that will never be broken, like his fighting 339 championship rounds; he also has fought more times in Madison Square Garden than any other boxer.

Emile's greatest gift, though, maybe his talent for making and keeping friends, including his boxing opponents. Despite their three legendary battles, he was close to Nino Benvenuti and is godfather to Nino's son (as well as to Marvis Frazier, Joe Frazier's son) and many others; Emile was known as the Pied Piper of Chelsea for his helping out kids in the neighborhood. He also was always surprisingly open about being gay - as Ron said, he always walked into gay bars through the front door, not the back door. Here's a great interview at Dumb-Out.

We're looking forward to reading Nine Ten...and Out! and are grateful to Ron Ross for telling Emile's story and to Bluestockings for another memorable evening in their wonderful bookstore.

And we're grateful to Emile Griffith for his contributions as a boxer and human being. This video has the climactic scene in Ring of Fire in which Emile meets Benny Paret Jr. in Central Park and the two men spontaneously embrace:


Pete said...

I'm not familiar with Griffith, but this book sounds fascinating. Though I abhor boxing's violence, I still have a strange attraction to the sport's golden era. Incidentally, I recently picked up Budd Schulberg's fight novel The Harder They Fall - you've read it, I presume?

Richard said...

Yes, I've read it. Great book.

Pete said...

It's near the top of my pile, though I might still put off reading it until early 2010, lest my Best of 2009 list inevitably requires the subtitle "The Year of Budd Schulberg." Have to be fair to other writers and spread the love a bit wider.