I don’t like boxing. If I ever get into a boxing ring, I’ll be in the corner with the governor of California, Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown, who in 1963 called for ‘the abolition of this barbaric spectacle’ because another man had just been beaten to death in the ring. That man was Davey Moore, who had defended boxing before it killed him on the grounds that no one stopped the Indianapolis 500 when racing drivers get killed.
But another dead man is the focus of this book: our hero is the captivating, frustrating, brutal Emile Griffith, who we meet at the age of 22, ‘happy and beautiful’, and who one year later battered to death the Cuban fighter Benny Paret, the first man whose death was shown live on television (the second was Lee Harvey Oswald). Griffith was not the only boxer to have killed another, but in most other ways he was unique: a man with the rippling muscles of an Adonis and a prodigious talent for punching, he was a closet homosexual all his life. And what a closet gay he was: defiant, comfortable, oblivious, even though these were times in which, according to a nasty documentary produced by CBS, Americans considered homosexuality more harmful to society than adultery or prostitution, and it was still considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.
Luckily for Emile Griffith, it was also considered so shocking that he was left to be ‘different’ by the press, at least as long as he was a world champion fighter. So he could frequent the gay bars around Times Square with impunity. He could be found French-kissing his friend Calvin Thomas in his dressing room after a fight, and nothing would be said until years later. There were barbs, of course: he did actually make ladies’ hats, so he was the ‘Mad Hatter from Manhattan’; he had ‘outrageous flamboyance’. But still, no press went further than that, until the weigh-in before his fight with Paret, when the Cuban called him a ‘maricon’, a powerful slur, and mimed humping him from behind. Is that why Griffith beat him to death? McRae doesn’t think so, but then he often gives Griffith a lot of leeway. (Though they only met when Griffith was dying of dementia pugilistica and unable to speak, McRae is clearly fond of his subject.) Griffith, in an attempt to divert gossip, once told the press that he had hit his girlfriend to seem more manly. (The New York Post didn’t bother reporting it.) Nor did he ever come out, even when times changed. Although McRae is convinced that Griffith’s long-term companion Luis was his lover, Luis and Griffith always referred to each other as father and adopted son.
McRae’s omniscience about Griffith’s thoughts and feelings is never fully explained: if they didn’t talk, how does he know that after Martin Luther King’s assassination, ‘the world could seem confusing and mean’? Or that he ‘preferred making ladies’ hats to punching men in the face’? I conclude that McRae used transcripts from another book about Emile Griffith’s double life, by Ron Ross, though he calls Ross’s book ‘supplementary’ to his research.
Whatever the source, Griffith had a hell of a life. His mother Emelda is monstrous, in girth and manner. Not only because she abandoned him as a young boy in St Kitts, to a lifestyle that he found so upsetting that he begged the local reformatory to let him in. But also because like many young boxers, who are family cash-cows, Griffith supported his mother and family to extraordinary lengths: at one point he was supporting Emelda, his four sisters, three brothers, three cousins and his feckless lover Matthew.
No wonder he took refuge in the gay and drag-queen bars of Times Square. He was known and welcomed there, and left alone. That was where he went after he ‘just kept punching’ Benny Paret in the ring, until Paret’s brain was damaged beyond repair. McRae presents Griffith’s sorrow over this as life-long, culminating in a redemptive meeting with Paret’s son Benny Jr in a New York park. The reaction to the death at first was ugly: he was a ‘murderer,’ but also a ‘nigger’ and an animal who belonged in a cage. For a while he wouldn’t fight, but then he did. It was his business. When Sugar Ray Robinson killed a man, and at the inquest was asked whether he had deliberately got the man into trouble, he answered, ‘Getting a man in trouble is my business. I’m in the hurt business.’
Griffith was forgiven. The mantra of this book is Griffith’s comment in later life, when he said: ‘I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.’ There is repetition, too much padding and the odd trip into purple prose, such as Orlando Cruz, the first boxer to declare himself gay, ‘reflecting on his lush and troubled island’s homophobia’ (Puerto Rico). But there is substance to go with the padding, like a decent boxing glove.
Boxing history mixes with the politics of homosexuality as easily as they did for Griffith. It’s flawed, but McRae has done what Griffith’s old friend Freddie, a hero of Stonewall, wanted when he said that ‘Emile lived in two worlds. He was a great fighter and they loved and respected him in boxing. In his other world, in my world, he made gay people feel so proud. He lived two lives but each one should be remembered. Each one should be celebrated.’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17 Tel: 08430 600033. Rose George’s books include Ninety Per Cent of Everything, about shipping, and The Big Necessity, about human waste.