Donald McRae Q&A on ‘A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith’
“I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say that makes me an evil person.”
– Emile Griffith
Emile Griffith is one of the finest welterweights of all time. He won the 147-pound title on three occasions before claiming the middleweight championship twice. In 112 professional bouts, he stood toe to toe with ring legends such as Luis Rodriguez, Benny “Kid” Paret, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, Jose Napoles and Carlos Monzon. And he fought more championship rounds than any other fighter in history.
Impressed? That is only the tip of the iceberg.
In “A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith”, award-winning author Donald McRae tells the story of a remarkable man who underwent a metamorphosis from hat maker to world title taker, while battling sexual prejudice and the torturous aftermath of his knockout victory over Paret, whose life was extinguished following their infamous third encounter in 1962.
Legendary boxing trainer Gil Clancy molded Griffith into a formidable fighting machine who would take on all comers but his external life as a world champion was frequently overshadowed by the internal agony he felt whenever his private life and sexuality was brought to the forefront by his peers and an unrelenting media.
McRae, who also authored the critically acclaimed “Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing”, was born in South Africa and his memories of Griffith stretch back to when the then-former champion fought on the author’s native soil during apartheid in 1975. Since that time, McRae has remained acutely aware of the importance of this story and has finally completed an enduring tribute to the great former champion who passed away in 2013.
RingTV.com spoke to McRae who sheds more light on one of prizefighting’s most compelling characters.
RingTV.com: What ultimately was the deciding factor in you writing this book?
Donald McRae: I met Gil Clancy in 1999 when he was training Oscar De La Hoya and we had a long chat in one of the Las Vegas casinos. He was so welcoming and happy to talk about boxing and eventually the conversation turned to Emile. We talked about his fight in South Africa (against Elijah Makhathini) which took place during the Apartheid when I was 14 years old and Gil also spoke so powerfully about how great a fighter Emile was. He touched on the conflicting sexuality that occupied Emile’s life and that is when the whole thing started to bubble over in my head. However, it wasn’t until 2012 when I started thinking about the third fight with Benny “Kid” Paret and the negativity that boxing gets due to how dangerous it is. It was a much more dangerous sport at that time.
RTV: A quote from the book reads, “Emile was one of only eight men who could call themselves a world champion.” This was back when there were only eight divisions, whereas, in the modern game, there are 17 divisions and multiple governing bodies. It was such a glorious time to be a champion in those days; wasn’t it?
DM: Absolutely. I love going back to that time because newspapers in the United States would have two out of eight sports pages devoted to boxing on a daily basis. When I went to Hank Kaplan’s archive in Brooklyn, it was like heaven to me because, decades ago, he would visit local news agents and buy multiple copies of the New York Times, the LA Times and the Washington Post, all the big ones, and he hoarded all this wonderful stuff. So not only were there eight world champions but you soon discover that these fighters were given so much attention. In the book, I refer to them as “giants of the land” and they were. Some of them were the most powerful figures in sport and for Emile to win the welterweight title during a time when the division was loaded with great fighters speaks volumes about his quality.
RTV: Griffith was barely over the welterweight limit when he was defeating quality middleweights. That’s incredible in this world of catch weights and fights falling through for the sake of a pound or two; isn’t it?
DM: Yes, and when you consider that, towards the end, Emile was fighting the likes of Carlos Monzon, who is one of the greatest middleweights in history. The other thing is the discipline that these guys displayed during that time because they were competing five or six times a year against the best. From 1961 to 1965, the fighters Emile was in with were of the highest caliber and he had roughly eight weeks between fights. The sad part of that is that so many of these fighters suffered from dementia, Emile included, because they suffered terrible punishment.
RTV: Griffith’s third fight with Paret is undoubtedly the most notorious point of his boxing career. What I found interesting is the amount of times that Griffith himself, or another party, mentions the word “kill” or “killer.” Isn’t that label unfair, given the fact that Griffith always maintained that he did not intentionally take someone’s life?
DM: I’m also guilty of using the word because Emile spoke so often about having killed someone and he was very blunt about it. Interestingly, when I interviewed [acclaimed British boxing writer] Colin Hart, I made the mistake of saying, “When Emile killed Benny” and he pulled me up, in a nice way, insisting that you should never say a boxer killed someone in the ring. So you’re absolutely right about that; it’s just that Emile would use that reference and was genuinely mortified about the third Paret fight for the rest of his life.
RTV: Since that time, a variety of safety measures have been implemented into the sport. However, in recent days, Davey Browne Jr. passed away due to injuries sustained in a bout and that comes six months after the death of Braydon Smith. Both of those ring deaths occurred in Australia and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have called for a complete abolition of boxing. Will they succeed and is there anything else that can be done to make the sport safer?
DM: It’s difficult for me to discuss those two incidents because I’m not up to speed on the boxing board in Australia. I do feel that there was a big turning point in the UK following the injuries Michael Watson sustained in his fight with Chris Eubank in 1991 but there is always danger lurking in this sport. Calls to abolish boxing have been around for decades but personally I don’t believe that it will ever happen. It’s tremendously sad that two fighters have passed away in Australia but I do hope that the sport doesn’t get banned over there.
RTV: Griffith was haunted by Paret’s death until the day he died and, while he had more glory nights, the book reveals that he held back on subsequent opponents when they were hurt. Could Griffith have been an even greater prizefighter than he was?
DM: I think so. Gil was interviewed around 1960 or 1961 and said that Emile, technically, could do anything he wanted in the ring. However, what he also said was that Emile lacked killer instinct because he was such a nice guy. The likes of Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson almost got pleasure out of hurting someone but Emile didn’t have that in him. Gil said that after the third fight with Benny, Emile didn’t want to hurt anyone and would purposefully pull his punches. If you look at his later fights, so many of them went the distance, which also meant that he himself was open to more punishment. Emile was a five-time world champion but, yes, without the Paret tragedy, he could very well have done something even more sensational.
RTV: Despite what he endured as a prizefighter, Emile Griffith’s worst moments were probably growing up. Would you agree? I mean there’s some powerful stuff in the early portions of the book in relation to what he went through.
DM: Yes, there was the incident where he was sexually molested and he also had an absent father which comes up so often in stories relating to boxing. Gil Clancy and Howie Albert (co-manager with Clancy) filled that void and Emile had a real need for these older guys who helped nurture him and look after him. He definitely had a difficult life but although I only met him when he was a shell of himself and unable to communicate, I did speak to many people who knew him. The prevailing impression was that he had plenty of joy in his life. He loved boxing; he loved fighters and he loved partying. I think he lived his life to the full.
RTV: The juxtaposition of Griffith and Orlando Cruz is one of the most compelling parts of the book. Cruz received plenty of copy for being an openly gay fighter but he wasn’t crucified the way Griffith feared he would be if his own sexuality was made public. That change in society is a victory in itself but it’s embarrassing that more than halfway through the 20th century, Griffith couldn’t be who he wanted to be. That hurt him deeply; didn’t it?
DM: Yes, all the things that were going on around 1962 when it all kicked off with Benny Paret definitely did. I spoke to [acclaimed US sports writer] Jerry Izenberg about this and he was saying that a journalist once referred to Emile as a “homosexual” in a story and subeditors changed the word to “unman.” This was the New York Times, which is ludicrous, when you look back on it now. Going back to your question about Orlando Cruz, he had come out in 2012 on a Spanish television channel called “Telemundo” but I was the first person to interview him for a newspaper. I don’t think I would have been as compelled to write that story had I not been so immersed in this book but I was blown away with how much he knew about Griffith and Paret. I struck up an instant bond with Orlando and a quarter of the interview we did revolved around Emile. He actually asked me if I could help arrange a meeting and it’s sad that we didn’t manage that because it would have meant a lot to [Cruz]. He would eventually fight for a world title against Orlando Salido [but lost via 7th round knockout] and he dedicated his performance to Emile. It’s amazing to think that it took 50 years for society to get things right.
RTV: The other interesting portion of the story is Griffith competing in South Africa in the latter stages of his career. Apartheid was in force and, despite being tagged as an “honorary white,” he was initially not allowed to have Gil Clancy in his corner. Griffith stood up to that law and said he wouldn’t fight without him and so the Minister of Sport gave permission for Clancy to be involved. I thought that spoke volumes about the kind of character Griffith was.
DM: Yes, and he needed the money at that point because he was losing as often as he was winning. Griffith was a fallen champion by 1975 but decided to take a stand because he thought the issue was simply unacceptable. The man that was closest to him in life, and in boxing, couldn’t work his corner because of the color of his skin. Fighters like Muhammad Ali, who visited South Africa, and Griffith made me realize that the whole business of apartheid was sick and hypocritical.
RTV: Despite enduring so much pain and anguish in his career, personally and professionally, Emile Griffith was a winner in life. Do you think history will be kind to him?
DM: I definitely think Emile Griffith is a winner. Life was dark and painful at times but what he did was hugely significant. His name will not be forgotten and his legacy as a fighter, and as a man, will live on. When I was working on the book, I never once felt that Emile’s story was just complete despair because there was always something that would lift me up and remind me what a special person this guy was. I don’t think he realized his own significance but the documentary “Ring of Fire,” which was made in 2005, was a special piece of work and I hope, in my own small way, that I can make a new generation aware of what he stood for. He was a special fighter and, more importantly, a special man.
“A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith” was published by Simon & Schuster on Sept. 10, 2015. It is available from Amazon and all good book stores.
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Gray_Boxing