Remembering Emile Griffith: A pioneer before his time

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When professional basketball player  Jason Collins told the world he was gay back in April, the long line of supporters stretched from sports locker rooms to the White House.

But it wasn’t that way for former boxing champion Emile Griffith, who died yesterday at the age of 75.

When he was plying his trade in the boxing ring 60 years ago, being a gay athlete didn’t bring cheers but only scorn, hateful whispers and isolation.

In fact, Griffith’s sexual orientation, something that shouldn’t really matter to anyone, was the defining mark on his life.

When his chief nemesis, former champ Benny “Kid” Paret taunted Griffith with the epithet “maricone,” which translates in street Spanish to “faggot,” Griffth was incensed. In a highly anticipated televised third fight of their great rivalry, the artful, soft-spoken Griffth turned murderous slugger and beat Paret to death.

These days, boxing is a minor player in the sports landscape. But in the early days of television in the 1950s, boxing broadcasts were happenings that drew entire neighborhoods together to watch the battles on a small flickering black and white screen.

And the bad press from the televised execution of Paret nearly destroyed boxing as a sport.

The sport survived, just barely.

So did Griffith’s career. But things were never the same for the champ. After killing Paret, Griffith employed a relatively passive style in the ring. It was a credit to his athleticism and speedy jab that he went onto remain a top-ranked challenger for the title into the 1970s.

But the sexuality of the Virgin Islands native played a role in one final cruel twist in his life.

Upon exiting a gay bar in 1992, Griffith was beaten to within an inch of his life in a hate crime.

Of all the somber tones in the Griffth life saga, the saddest might be that his excellent boxing career will serve as minor sidelight to the Parret death. In the ring, Griffth beat all-time greats such as Dick Tiger, Nino Benvenuti and Gaspar Ortega.

Sports fans should do themselves a favor and view the 2005 documentary “Ring of Fire” an excellent work that explores Griffith’s life. It ends with an aged Griffth meeting the son of Kid Paret for the first time and it is among the most riveting scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

I knew what was coming and I still teared up like a damn baby.