Several days before he defeated Ralph Dupas and his own internal torment, Emile Griffith, milliner and welterweight champion of the world, sat in a hotel room in Las Vegas beneath a Bernard Buffet print of the tranquil Seine and flipped through a magazine. Suddenly he gave a sharp, anguished cry and shut the magazine as though slamming a door. Emile had chanced upon a photograph of himself beating Benny Paret. It showed Paret's face, puffed and twisted, in the last moments of their fight in March. Paret never recovered from the beating nor has Griffith. "I didn't know his picture was in there," Emile said, agitated. "Every paper I pick up I read about it and my heart goes into my toes. Benny, Benny, Benny!"
Since that remorseful March night, Paret has returned often, a mute, implacable and accusatory ghost, sometimes standing in dreams at the foot of Emile's bed, sometimes appearing unsuccessfully disguised as a sparring partner. When this last has happened, Emile has stayed his hand, turned away and despaired of being able to fight again.
As if Griffith, who at 23 is a whimsical boy, wasn't freighted with enough tragedy, several weeks after Paret's death the young wife of Howard Albert, his co-manager, died. Emile learned of her death while visiting the Virgin Islands, where he was born, and rushed back to New York. "That night," he recalls, "for the first time in a long time, I drank—Manischewitz wine. I got so drunk, so high, man. I went to a bar and said, 'May I have some Manischewitz wine, please?' Two sips and I was drunk again. I don't know how I got home. Howard told me that I'm the only thing he have left now. It's terrible for Howard."
Griffith is further burdened by the cheap, irrelevant slurs directed at his nature, remarks which, when repeated by Paret before the fatal fight, contributed to what Emile now calls accurately but euphemistically, "The Accident." Paret felt that Griffith did not behave like a fighter, that he had too little machis�mo, or manhood. "I'm no angel," Emile says, "but I try to act like a fighter in and out of the ring. I know how the old champions acted in the ring because I've seen them in the movies. Out of the ring, I don't know how they acted. They say Griffith don't act like a champ. How do a champ act? They say Griffith don't dress like a champ. How do a champ dress?"
Of course, there were a few carefree moments in the days before the Dupas fight. Every afternoon Griffith would phone his mother, a robust woman he calls " Chubby Checker." One day he learned that she had lost several gold teeth. "Who will laugh, Mommy?" he gleefully consoled her. "Now, I myself will flip if I see you without teeth in. Mommy, now look up the dentist in the Yellow Pages." A young friend got on the phone. "I know Mommy don't have any teeth," Emile told him. "When Chubby Checker laugh her head goes back and it all shines in there. I'm going to make a charm of her gold teeth and wear it around my neck."
But no matter how many doors he closed, Emile could not shut out the ghost of Benny, or the memory of his own small, deliberate hands. "I know," he said, "I have to fight two persons in the ring that night, Dupas and myself." At times he sought consolation in Dupas' reaction to fighting him. "How does this guy feel?" he asked out loud.
Dupas, for his own part, said he was concerned. "I'm a very sensitive kid, too," he added. "People ask me, are you scared of Griffith? I'm not a coward, I tell them, I'm valiant. 'Cowards the many times before their death, a valiant tastes of death but once. Of all the wonders that I have heard, it seems most strange. Fear and death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.' Julius Caesar."
Dupas, a friendly, swarthy fellow from New Orleans, was the first-ranked challenger. He had had 113 fights since he turned professional at 14 and, though he lost only 15 of these, he never gained the favor of the crowd because of his hit-and-run tactics. It was Ralph's contention, however, that he was now a changed man, that he could present a fresh image that would enable him to lick Griffith and be adored. "I am," he said, "a completely new person. It may be esoteric, but I feel so much stronger. I've punched the sandbag with brogan shoes on, chopped trees, rowed a heavy skiff. Of course, I'll move the same way, and Griffith—what a beautiful body to hit—will be so confused he'll throw his arm out of joint. I could always stand and punch if I wanted to. But I started boxing when I was 14. Ralph, I told myself, when you reach your mid-'20s you can go in and punch. Don't do it now.
"I've preserved myself all these years for this moment. I said to myself, Ralph, keep running until you mature. Do you think I'd still be fighting if I went and fought like they wanted me to? No, I wouldn't. Here I am fighting for the title and the guys I fought, they're down. There's no fighter like me today. I'm one from the old school and I'm only 26."
"I feel now like I'm in a dream world," he said the day before the fight, eating matzo-ball soup with one hand and wringing his rosary with the other. "I say to myself, Ralph, when is it going to end?"