Tuesday 17 September 2019

Griffiths' gripping story goes beyond confines of the ring

A Man's World
A Man's World

Book review - Dean Goodison

Love or loathe the sport, there's something about boxing that just makes the ink bounce off the paper. Maybe it's because the sport can produce so much drama, bordering on the unbelievable, that it reads like fiction.

Or maybe it's growing up in an era when prize fighters were some of the most recognisable faces in sport. Those grainy pictures of flailing arms, before high definition was even a thing, romanticised a bloody, dangerous occupation.

And that's what is often forgotten. Only in recent decades have the highest earners been able to fight a few rounds in a championship bout and be made for life. It wasn't always that way. Some guys had extended families to keep afloat and boxing was their only way of achieving that.

One of those men was Emile Griffith, the subject of 'A Man's World' by Donald McRae. Griffith was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1938, where he stayed until approaching his teenage years, when he joined his mother in New York.

He started working in a hat factory where his manager, stunned by his incredible physique, his wide shoulders and tiny waist, encouraged a reluctant charge to enter the ring and try out boxing.

Just two years later the natural boxer was in the professional ring for the first time, under the guidance of Irish-American Gil Clancy. He would go on to win the world title on five separate occasions at a time when there was just one champion in each of the eight weight divisions.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg with the Griffith story. As well as keeping schtum about his sexuality, a secret that would follow him for years, something happened in this third world title bout with Benny Paret that changed Griffith forever.

The fall-out from the Paret bout not only changed the way Griffith boxed in the ring, but it would help develop an unlikely lifelong friendship with Willie Towell, a South African boxer who faced the same anguish as the book's subject.

Indeed, the story of the night of March 24, 1962 has, in recent years, been made into a documentary called 'The Ring of Fire - The Emile Griffith Story'. However, it's advised to read the book before heading to Youtube for the short version.

There are almost always some negatives but with this book they are just a few, some might say nit-picky, question marks. The biggest disappointment is the lack of depth to the story of Griffith's life after boxing. McRae touches on some of the important stuff but another 50 pages or so would have been a welcome addition.

There's also one strange 'blunder' in an otherwise pristinely edited book. In the final chapter, Emile & Orlando, a pair of sentences are repeated back-to-back, verbatim. They are so out of place with the rest of the publication that, had it not made zero sense to repeat them, the reader would be left wondering was it intentional.

They certainly aren't big criticisms and overall McRae has done a stunning job with this book. It's dark and deep but it's so well written, so well researched and laid out that you can't not get drawn into Emile's story.

McRae has built an army of readers after previous titles 'Dark Trade' and 'In Black & White', so those fans could hardly leave this book on the stands without picking it up and drifting towards the till.

But this is a book that goes beyond fans of boxing alone. There's a drama to the story that you simply don't get with most modern sports publications, especially this side of the Atlantic. If you are a reader of stories pick this up, as it's unlikely you'll regret it.

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