Emile Griffith delivers a crushing blow to Benny "Kid" Paret… (The New York Daily News )
It was only last October that boxer Orlando Cruz, after 24 years as a professional fighter and with nine knockouts to his credit, announced, in an effort to be "true to myself," that he was gay. Like NBA player Jason Collins, who came out publicly in April, and Robbie Rogers, a former member of the U.S. national soccer team who did so in February, Cruz took what was seen as a brave step given the macho culture of professional sports. At the time of his announcement, The Times reported that Cruz was believed to be the first professional boxer to declare that he was gay.
FOR THE RECORD:
Boxing: A July 25 editorial said boxer Orlando Cruz had been fighting professionally for 24 years when he announced he was gay in 2012. In fact, he had been a professional for 12 years. —
It's a new world for gay athletes, and those who don't remember the old one need only read the obituaries in Wednesday's papers of Emile Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight champion who died Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y. Griffith struggled with his sexuality for many years and eventually acknowledged his attraction to men — but before that, a slur on his manhood may have led to a fatal fight at Madison Square Garden.
It happened at a nationally televised welterweight title bout against Benny Paret on March 24, 1962. At the weigh-in, Paret called Griffith — who had been rumored to be gay — a maricon, a nasty Spanish slur for homosexual. Griffith was furious. He was taken for a walk to cool off, but in the fight, he cornered Paret in the 12th round and began hammering him with uppercuts, an "unrelenting fusillade," according to Sports Illustrated, "as remorselessly as the clapper of a great dark bell." Paret died 10 days later.
Was Griffith punishing Paret for the slur? Who knows. Later, in his dressing room, he reportedly said, "I pray to God — I say from my heart — he's all right." Over the next few years, Griffith repeatedly won and lost the middleweight and welterweight championship titles. Eventually, he publicly acknowledged his attraction to men. In 1992, he was badly beaten outside a Times Square gay bar by five men wielding bats and chains.
There may be no lessons to draw from Griffith's life and death other than to remember the obvious: that gay men and lesbians have always existed in all parts of the world, in all social classes and professions, but that until very recently, they have often been forced to hide and deny who they were, sometimes at enormous cost to themselves and others. That Orlando Cruz received what he called "unconditional, 100% support" for his announcement last year, and that Jason Collins got a phone call of support from President Obama, are signs that while the road to justice and acceptance is a long one — with bumps and depressing detours — we are traveling in the right direction.