Ex-champ Emile Griffith dies at 75

Updated: July 24, 2013, 2:21 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Emile Griffith, the former world champion whose career was overshadowed by the fatal beating he gave Benny Paret in a 1962 title bout, died Tuesday. Griffith was 75.

He died at an extended care facility in Hempstead, N.Y, the International Boxing Hall of Fame said.

Griffith struggled with pugilistic dementia and required full-time care late in life. He was the first boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands to become world champion and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.

[+] EnlargeEmile Griffith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesEmile Griffith, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, struggled with pugilistic dementia and required full-time care late in life.

Hall of Fame director Ed Brophy said Griffith brought joy to the Hall in Canastota, N.Y., when he visited.

"He was a wonderful boxer and a gentleman outside the ring," Brophy said. "He surely will be missed. He made many visits to the Hall since being inducted in 1990. He was a fun-filled person and the flags here are being lowered now."

Griffith often attended fights in New York, especially at Madison Square Garden, where he headlined 23 times. He was also a frequent visitor to the many boxing clubs around New York City. He would slowly rise from his seat, often with assistance, and smile while waving when he was acknowledged.

The outpouring of love that he received late in life stood in stark contrast to the way he was received after the March 24, 1962 bout in which he fought Benny "The Kid" Paret before a national TV audience at the Garden. Griffith knocked out his bitter rival in the 12th round to regain the welterweight belt. Paret went into a coma and died from his injuries 10 days later.

Sports Illustrated reported in 2005 that Griffith may have been fueled by an anti-gay slur directed at him by Paret during the weigh-in. Over the years, Griffith described himself at various times as straight, gay and bisexual.

"People spit at me in the street," Griffith told The Associated Press in 1993, recalling the days after Paret's death. "We stayed in a hotel. Every time there was a knock on the door, I would run into the next room. I was so scared."

The shocking outcome left a cloud over the sport for many years. NBC stopped airing boxing broadcasts, and then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created a commission to investigate the bout and the sport. The referee that night, Ruby Goldstein, never worked another fight.

Author Ron Ross wrote a book on Griffith -- "Nine, Ten and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith" -- and had known the fighter since 1963.

"He was a tremendous boxer and person," Ross said. "It is almost a blessing that he passed away because he has been in a vegetative state the last couple years. To know him was a privilege. He transcended being a boxer, or being gay or straight. He lived life with the fullest joy. He passed that on to everyone he knew, and not many have that as a legacy.

"Emile never felt like he was different; he lived his life openly. He'd go to a gay bar and he wouldn't go into a side entrance; he'd go in the front door. He never flaunted it, but it was natural to him to lead his life the way he wanted to."

The Paret fight became the basis for the 2005 documentary "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story." One of the final scenes shows Griffith embracing Paret's son.

"I was never the same fighter after that. After that fight, I did enough to win. I would use my jab all the time. I never wanted to hurt the other guy," Griffith said. "I would have quit, but I didn't know how to do anything else but fight."

And fight he could.

Known for his overwhelming speed and slick style -- certainly not his punching power -- Griffith was a prodigy from the moment he stepped in Hall of Fame trainer Gil Clancy's gym in Queens. Griffith had been working in a hat factory when, as the story goes, he took off his shirt on a hot day and the factory owner realized how strong he was.

Under the eye of Clancy, Griffith blossomed into a New York Golden Gloves champion and eventually turned professional. He easily defeated the likes of Florentino Fernandez and Luis Rodriguez during an era when it was common to fight every couple of weeks, quickly earning a welterweight title shot against Paret in 1961.

Griffith won the championship with a 13th-round knockout at the Garden before losing the belt to Paret in a rematch five months later.

After winning back the title during his controversial third fight with Paret -- many believe Paret never should have been allowed in the ring after a brutal loss to Gene Fullmer three months earlier -- Griffith would eventually move up to middleweight. He knocked down Dick Tiger for the first time in his career and claimed the title with a narrow but unanimous decision.

Griffith would go on to lose twice during a thrilling trilogy with Nino Benvenuti, his lone victory coming at Shea Stadium in 1967, and lost two bouts against the great middleweight Carlos Monzon. Griffith would finally retire in 1977 after losing his last three fights, his record standing at 85-24-2 with 23 knockouts.

Griffith would go on to train several champions, including Wilfred Benitez and Juan Laporte, among the most popular boxers in Puerto Rican history.

Griffith's humor and generosity buoyed those close to him as his health deteriorated in later years. He would still make the pilgrimage to Canastota, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, regaling fans young and old with tales, even though the details often became hazy, the result of the many blows he sustained during his career.

There was no immediate word on survivors or funeral arrangements.

Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Michael Woods and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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