Clancy steps between them. "Save it for tonight," he begs Emile.
It's tonight. The 12th round. The whole country's watching. It's fight night on TV. The smoke of 7,600 men in sport coats and ties, sucking in and exhaling their Chesterfields and Camels and Lucky Strikes and White Owls, descends over the ring at the old Madison Square Garden. That blue nicotine fog, as Pete Hamill, a writer puffing for the New York Post at the time, calls it.
In the center of the smoke crouch two black immigrants from the islands. They've played basketball together in the neighborhood they share in the shadows of the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Paret, 25, the sugarcane cutter from Cuba who carries his two-year-old son, Benny Jr., everywhere on his shoulders, fighting in what he has decided will be his last prizefight ... never dreaming how right he'll be. Griffith, 24, a Virgin Islander who never wished to be a fighter, who just happened to ask if he could take off his shirt on a sweaty summer day as a teenager working in a hat factory on West 39th Street owned by a former amateur boxer named Howie Albert. Albert had never seen anything like it: a 26-inch waist fanning out to 44-inch shoulders, all rippling with muscle. "Shoulders," says boxing writer Bert Sugar, "that you could serve dinner for six on."
The young man didn't have the lust for hurting people--would've been happy hauling boxes of bonnets to Macy's and Gimbel's all his life--but his body was a destiny that had to be fulfilled. Albert took him to Clancy, a trainer with a growing reputation at a gym on 28th Street. Two months after he laced up the 11th-grade dropout, the kid was a finalist in the New York Golden Gloves. A year later he was the national Gloves champ.
Boxing solved things. It gave Emile a release for something that just didn't fit with the ear-to-ear smile he always showed the world: a monstrous rage that he felt whenever his family was insulted or his manhood was challenged. Boxing gave him--in his co-managers, Clancy and Albert--two of what he'd never really had one of: father figures. It gave him money for the first time and enabled him, after each pro fight, to fly one more of his seven siblings up from the Caribbean to New York City and attempt to re-create something that exploded in his childhood in St. Thomas, back when his absentee father cleared out for good and headed to America, when his mother left to take a cooking job for the governor in Puerto Rico, when his brothers and sisters were scattered like shrapnel, landing in the homes of their mother's relatives and friends.
Emile landed hardest: on his knees, on the bricks at Aunt Blanche's house, holding cinder blocks overhead as long as he could, knowing that when his arms dropped, her switch would rake his back. That was his punishment for dawdling in his daily task of hauling water in a steel drum up the hill to her house. He loathed living there so much that he begged to enter Mandal, St. Thomas's home for wayward and orphaned boys, and finally was accepted. Somehow, as the oldest child in the family, he felt responsible to gather all its splintered pieces one day and glue them back together.
He's 23 now, living with Mama and all her brood in the five-bedroom house he's just bought in Queens Village. A champ but still a child, leaping into the referee's arms to hug him the first time he takes the title from Paret and then, when the astonished ref fumbles him onto the canvas, doing a backward somersault. Running up $100 candy bills in the gift shop at the Concord Hotel, where he trains in the Catskills, doling out gum and grins to everyone, falling asleep with a wad of Bazooka in his mouth that Albert has to scoop out.
So sweet--maybe too sweet, the men in the city's boxing gyms have begun to whisper. They've started adding things up: that high-pitched singsong voice ... those Sunday mornings singing tenor at St. James Missionary Church ... those pants as tight as tape on his broomstick legs ... those young Latino males who seem to appear wherever he does ... that teenager he always lets use his car and calls his "son." But what's this all add up to? It can't be that, not in 1962 or even 2002: a prizefighter, a champion, a limp wrist with a knockout punch? It's the ultimate contradiction, the perfect smoke, so dense that Emile himself can't see through it. "It was irreconcilable ... to be homosexual and a world champion," says Sugar. "As long as he was beating the s--- out of people, it gave lie to the slander. You couldn't confirm it, you couldn't deny it, you just had to put it ... over there."
"Besides," says Bob Jackson, a New York City trainer who was just getting started at the time, "we're like the police, the blue wall. There's a code. We might talk among ourselves about it, but nobody would talk in public about something like that." Nobody ... except a desperate man.