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Get used to the smoke. Let it fill your lungs and sting your eyes. There's no getting rid of it, not in a story about Emile Griffith, not in the one American arena where the smoke just doesn't seem to dissipate. A policeman or a judge or a lawyer can openly be something other than heterosexual. A doctor or teacher or carpenter can be, along with, of course, an actor or a musician or a writer. Even executives on Wall Street now can. But a male athlete in a major sport?
Not one has ever emerged, not while he was still playing. Odd--isn't it?--because what sports does best is break down barriers and bring people of all colors and creeds together. Odd that no bat or ball or fist or foot could smash through this wall.
On April 20 a striking documentary about Emile Griffith--Ring of Fire, directed and produced by Dan Klores with Ron Berger and being promoted on buses all over New York City--will premiere on USA Network at 9 p.m. ET. Later in the year a biography of Griffith by Ron Ross, also addressing the issue of the fighter's sexuality, is expected to appear, and the rights to produce a feature film on the big screen have been sold. You'd think, under all those klieg lights and reading lamps, that the smoke's about to clear. But this is Emile Griffith. This is sports. And this is us. So the smoke may only grow thicker.
But I should have clothes on! Sorry, Champ. You're naked again, except for underwear and socks. You're approaching a weigh-in scale in front of a couple of dozen people, mostly writers and photographers. It'll be 15 years before you retire with more championship rounds under your belt than anyone in boxing history: 51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson, 69 more than Muhammad Ali. It's 1962, when a handful of writers--Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal--are virtually the only people known to be gay in all of America; even Liberace files a lawsuit against those implying he's a homosexual, for fear of what he'll lose.
"Easy, Emile," whispers his trainer, Gil Clancy.
But how can Emile be easy? The last time he and Benny (Kid) Paret--his opponent tonight at Madison Square Garden--met at the weigh-in scales, before their fight six months earlier, Benny did the unthinkable. Swished his limp wrist and hissed that word, maricón. Thank God the reporters pretended it didn't happen. Thank God it was 1961.
Then Paret nailed the insult to the wall of Griffith's heart, winning a controversial decision that night and taking back the world welterweight crown that Emile had snatched from him nearly a half year before. Now it's their third fight, the clincher. The fear of what Benny might do at the weigh-in climbs up Emile's throat. "If he says anything to me before the fight, I'll knock him out," he mutters to Clancy.
Emile steps on the scales. "Watch out," hisses Clancy. Too late: Benny's already slipped behind him, wriggling his body, thrusting his pelvis, grabbing Emile's ass. "Hey, maricón," Paret coos, "I'm going to get you and your husband."
Emile blinks, in his underwear, at a room full of boxing aficionados, reporters and photographers. If he doesn't respond, that means he's afraid, means he's weak ... means he may be just what Paret says he is.