The Death of Emile Griffith and the Life of Liz Carmouche

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

In 1962, 25-year-old Benny Paret was the welterweight champion of the world, with 11 knockouts to his name. He was also a man with a reputation for finding an opponent’s weaknesses in and out of the ring and exploiting them, so when Emile Griffith challenged him for his belt in 1962, Paret saw his opening. At the weigh-in, the Cuban Paret taunted Griffith with the Spanish epithet “maricón.” If he were American, he would’ve said, “faggot”—a not-so-subtle reference to the rumors swirling in the fight world about Griffith’s sexual orientation. Griffith would later tell reporters he wanted to attack Paret on the spot and had to be held back by his manager.

The next night at Madison Square Garden, in front of a crowd of 7500 and who knows how many watching at home, Griffith got his chance, and at the beginning of the 12th round he unleashed a fury of punches, landing 17 to Paret’s face in five seconds. The referee jumped in and stopped the fight, but it was too late. Paret slumped to the canvas. He would die 10 days later in a Manhattan hospital.

Over the remaining 15 years of his career, Griffith would hold the welterweight title three times, be crowned middleweight champ twice, and become one of the first men to hold the junior middleweight belt. But it was that night in the Garden people always returned to. That night and the rumors about Griffith’s sexuality that had fueled it, rumors that persisted for years, chasing him even in the decades after his retirement. It would be another 30 years before Griffith came clean.

“I will dance with anybody,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2005. “I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both.”

That quote appeared again in this Wednesday’s New York Times, the day after Griffith passed away at the age of 75 from kidney problems and complications from dementia, complications accelerated by a 1992 beating he took when he was jumped by unidentified assailants on the way out of a Times Square gay bar.

Since 1992 (not to mention 1962), of course, there’s been monumental (if maddeningly incremental) progress made in the realm of gay rights, from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to the Supreme Court’s recent DOMA ruling. And more and more, both in the culture at large and in the world of combat sports, homosexuals are making strides toward acceptance. In fact, since the UFC booked the first-ever professional MMA fight between two openly gay fighters, the one between Liz Carmouche and Jessica Andrade this Saturday at UFC on Fox 8, much of the pre-match coverage has treated the fighters’ sexual orientations as a selling point, almost as important as their in-ring achievements. That the fight is taking place only days after the death of Emile Griffith only makes the boxer’s tragic life more poignant.

Where Griffith had to hide who he was throughout his career, Carmouche’s profile has benefited from her being a woman who routinely breaks through barriers--first as one half of the first woman’s fight in UFC history, her title fight against Ronda Rousey, now with Saturday’s fight against Andrade.

“If anything, there was controversy about women fighting in the UFC more than about there being a lesbian in the UFC,” Carmouche says. “[Before the Rousey fight] I did get asked a lot about my sexuality in interviews with both the LGBT media and the mainstream media like Larry King and ESPN. Part of getting people interested in the event is letting the fans know about who you are, your background, your life, so they have a rooting interest in the fight.

“But the whole reason I did any interviews at all was because I was the number one contender to the UFC title, not the fact I am gay. I was gay the day I started training to be a fighter, and Larry King wasn’t calling me back then.”

Still, Carmouche--who, during her five years in the Marines, was terrified that her sexual orientation would lead to a dishonorable discharge--can’t imagine people in Griffith’s era even dreaming of a time when two out athletes could make it to the top of the fight game, let alone have sports writers use words like “historic” to describe their upcoming bout.

“I think it is very encouraging that two of the best fighters in the division are comfortable being out,” Carmouche says. “I think the more people in sports and on TV who are out, the more we break down stereotypes about what gay people are supposed to be like. So, yeah, this fight is a little piece of history, another sign that, while we’ve got a way to go yet, things are on the right track.”

There’s one more thing Carmouche will probably have in common with Griffith: When her career is behind her and writers come to profile her twilight years, she’ll almost certainly get questions about the people she loved. Still, she’s seen a shift in cultural perspective, from begrudging tolerance to simple acceptance. 

“Early on in my career, my management spoke with a potential sponsor who said, ‘We know she’s gay, and that’s cool. But does she have to be so open about it?’ But other than that, I’ve never had a bad experience in MMA,” she says.

“This is a total 180 from my experience in the Marines. This is where I belong.”

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