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THE SHADOW BOXER
GARY SMITH
April 18, 2005
Emile Griffith beat Benny (Kid) Paret to death in the ring after Paret called him queer. That was 43 years ago. He's still struggling to come to grips with it. So are we.
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April 18, 2005

The Shadow Boxer

Emile Griffith beat Benny (Kid) Paret to death in the ring after Paret called him queer. That was 43 years ago. He's still struggling to come to grips with it. So are we.

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But now Howie can't win. He needs the feathers and velours even more, to warm and fuzzy up a man marked as a murderer. "I have a date with a killer, Emile Griffith," declares Brian Curvis just before their '64 match in London. Curvis's terrified wife, Barbara, says she's not coming to the fight, no way. But the killer's lost all killer instinct. Clancy has to smack him between rounds to get his blood up. His boxer's a craftsman now, fond of clinching, targeting belly and spleen rather than jaw and temple, staying away from cuts when he opens them, staying busy enough with his hands to keep opponents crouched behind theirs ... but never again exploding. He decisions Mr. Curvis in 15 rounds. He presents Mrs. Curvis with a hat.

It all keeps growing smokier, one complication wreathed around the next. The event that exposes the question about Emile's sexuality--Paret's death--provides him with the perfect cover: How can a fighter whose fists killed a man not be a man? Oh, but, at what cost. Because now two things can come whistling out of the dark to ambush Emile.

Safest thing to do? Keep everyone smiling. When he gets knocked out in the first round by Hurricane Carter in '63, the press surrounds him in the locker room, everyone lost for words. Who knows where such a deadly silence might turn? "Merry Christmas!" he suddenly shouts, cracking up everyone. He'll never be without a pet phrase, a red herring to yelp, the rest of his life.

Safest thing to do? Keep running. More and more at night, he slips away alone, ends up in the gay bars near the Port Authority on Eighth Avenue or down in Greenwich Village, throwing down seven-and-sevens. He doesn't disguise himself or change his name. Hell, sometimes he doesn't even change after fighting in a Garden main event, showing up at bars wearing his boxing trunks and shoes, no shirt ... and a mink coat. He's a child, not a plotter, not a calculating man. It's illegal in New York for two men to be on a dance floor without a woman present, so when the lights flash on, that's a warning to break the clinch, push your partner away because the cops are raiding the joint again. The men in Trix and The Anvil marvel: A boxer ... here? A world champ? But they protect him, just as the boxing world does.

Kathy Hogan, owner of several of Emile's haunts, learns to smell a bender coming. She empties Emile's pockets, sometimes 15 or 20 grand, takes the jewelry and the poodle and the mink so he doesn't lose them all. Four or five days later, when the wad of 100s that she let him keep is gone, he returns, groaning, "Mommy's gonna kill me! I think I got robbed," and she puts him in a cab with his cash and baubles and pooch and tells the cabbie not to dare stop anywhere--but Mommy's.

But he never lets his nightlife affect his training. He's still ready at the crack of dawn to run his five miles through the Catskills. Still brilliant enough as a boxer to win the world welterweight championship back from Luis Rodriguez, to jump in weight and take the world middleweight title from Dick Tiger, to retain it twice against Joey Archer, to lose it to Nino Benvenuti in 15 rounds and then win it back. Even with hell's engine house padlocked.

******

It's 1967. Mike Wallace concludes his groundbreaking 60 Minutes segment entitled "The Homosexuals" with these words: "The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he's a criminal; shunned by employers, rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter, with a man. At the center of his life, he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider."

Emile flies to St. Thomas a few years later. He enters a bar named Bamboshay. He sees a 24-year-old knockout on the dance floor, a former member of a world-touring dance troupe named Prince Rupert and the Slave Girls. She's wearing blue hot pants. Emile's wearing brown hot pants. But, hey, it's 1971. Might just be disco fever. Emile and Mercedes (Sadie) Donastorg begin to do the bump at 11 p.m. They don't stop until 4 a.m. Dropping her off at her mother's house, he says, "Sadie, marry me."

She says, "What? Are you crazy? You don't even know me."

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