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 machisímo, 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?"
A lot of nothing
It ended last Friday night in Las Vegas' convention center. Until the final rounds, however, when he was all tuckered out, Dupas fought at the top of his unique abilities. Quick and flashing as a shadow, he darted in and out, switching often to a left-handed stance, feinting with head and shoulders like Bob Cousy hipping in for a lay-up. He ducked and slipped punches, too, catching them with his gloves and forearms, butting and holding—all the stunts and wise-guy moves he has amassed over the years. But alas, these were mostly defensive gestures. He gave Griffith, as they say, "a lot of nothing." For a time, Emile appeared bemused and frustrated, hesitating to throw a punch because the target was no longer there. But Griffith never really lost his composure. As he has said: "Never try to knock an old pro's head off." And Griffith did not. Although he has had only 32 fights, he possesses a veteran's cunning; he knows about the elbow in the face and the butting, and he has had his foot stepped on so he couldn't get away.
All told, Griffith got in the heavier blows and the more frequent, and made a smart fight of it. When Dupas tired, sapped by his own razzle-dazzle and the accumulative damage of Griffith's right, Emile showed his power. In the 15th round Griffith landed a hard right which collapsed Dupas back into the ropes. Griffith followed with a succession of rights and an occasional left, banging the fading Dupas about the ring. Although Ralph was literally hanging on, Emile could not put him down. Once he had his man in that dark familiar corner, but his attack hung fire. Referee Frankie Van got between them and the chance was gone. It was, despite all Dupas did, an easy win.
Although his voice sounded clear and steady, Griffith was in the grip of a complicated emotion after the fight. His right hand trembled independently. He tried to quiet it with his left, but the hand vibrated in his grasp and he looked fearfully at it. Once he struck it violently against the rubbing table and, overwhelmed with the mystery, ran bewildered into the lavatory.
"There were times tonight," he said later, "that I had a little doubt about myself. But then Gil [Gil Clancy, Griffith's co-manager] would scold me and I'd wake up. But there were times when I was wondering." He winced and passionately seized his fretful hand. "I'm very nervous," he said with wonder and apology. Later still, when all but his managers, his doctor, his elderly second, his assistant trainer and one visitor had left the dressing room, he doubled up from the tension. They laid him out on the dressing table and one held his fluttering hand. Then Clancy began to patch two eye cuts. "Hey, Doc," he said. "I don't know how to sew up this kind of cut. Give me that needle with the hook in it. I've got to learn sometime." Emile cried out in feigned terror and then laughed for the first time, unburdened.
He summoned the visitor to bend an ear down to his mouth. "When I got such a reception from the crowd when I came in the ring," Griffith said (and it had been a great, resonant welcome), "I felt like crying, but I wouldn't let myself. I just felt like letting all the water come out. Yes, I thought about Benny, Benny, in sudden spots in there. In the 15th when I had Dupas in the corner I stopped and looked at him again and I stepped away. But instinct took over most of the time. This fight did a lot for me. The next fight will do a lot more. Time, they tell me, is a great healer. The more fights I have, I pray and I hope that I will forget."
"O.K., Griffith," Clancy said, "on your feet. Let's go out and get drunk."
"Now," said Emile in his high, peremptory voice, "will you all keep quiet a moment?" He went, in his underwear and the rubber sandals they call go-aheads, to a corner of the dressing room and, putting his forehead against the peach seat of a folding chair, knelt, praying, for a long time.
"All right, you can all start screaming again," he said, getting up.
"Now you can play the dice tables," said Co-manager Albert.
"Like mad, "Emile Griffith said. "Like mad."