When Welsh rugby hero Gareth Thomas "came out" last week, many could not believe this was happening in something as macho as rugby. Yet if there is one sport even more macho, it is boxing – surely the last place you would expect to attract gay men other than as spectators.
Surprisingly the noble art has had – and may well still have – its share of gay boxers. Indeed, it has its own Gareth Thomas in the form of a renowned former world champion who was one of the most ferocious combatants the ring has ever seen.
Emile Griffith, born in the US Virgin Islands, was a six-time world champion at welterweight and middleweight in the Sixties, now installed in boxing's Hall of Fame. There was always speculation about his sexuality – he talked with a lisp, had an effeminate gait and had worked as a milliner designing women's hats. We certainly raised our eyebrows when Griffith fought at Wembley against Brian Curvis. When we went to his dressing room afterwards he was passionately kissing one of his cornermen. But those were the days when no one asked questions and to admit to being gay, especially in an environment like boxing, would have been professional suicide.
Griffith, now 71, has finally declared the homosexuality that was an unspoken backdrop to his career. Unspoken, that is, except, tragically, for the man from whom he first won the welterweight crown, the Cuban Benny "Kid" Paret. They fought three times and, on the third occasion, at Madison Square Garden, Paret taunted him with the word "maricon" – Spanish slang for faggot. An outraged Griffith had to be restrained at the weigh-in and in the 12th round he battered Paret unconscious. While the Cuban was propped up against the ropes, Griffith struck him repeatedly for several seconds before referee Ruby Goldstein hauled him off. Paret never regained consciousness, and died 10 days later. In a recently published biography Griffith says: "I keep thinking how strange it is... I kill a man and most people forgive me. However I love a man and many say this is unforgivable and this makes me an evil person. So, even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison most of my life.
"Maricon" was also used by another boxer, Argentine heavyweight Oscar Bonavena – against none other than Muhammad Ali. It transpired that Ali had put him up to it to boost ticket sales. Yet early in Ali's career (as indeed in Mike Tyson's) there was speculation that he, too, was gay because he was rarely seen with women. This notion he later scuppered rather emphatically with his philandering – as did the lisping Iron Mike.
If you google gay boxers, you find a number of American club fighters who claim to be gay. Here in Britain, one who has gone public is the white collar boxer Charles Jones. Forget The Dark Destroyer or the Hitman, here's the Pink Pounder. "I'm not a gay man who happens to box," said the then 43-year-old London architect whose bout with Igor the Pianist at London's Real Fight Club was the subject of a 2003 ITV documentary. "I'm a boxer who happens to be gay and doesn't give a toss who knows it."
One gay boxer who did give a toss was Ronnie Kray, one of the notorious twins who terrorised London's East End in the sixties. He had six pro bouts at lightweight in 1961, winning four. Brother Reggie won all six of his before they retired to employ their violent ways in more frightening directions. Most of east London knew that Ronnie was "queer" but only one man said it to his face. George Cornell called him "a fat poof" before Ronnie shot him dead in the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel.
When Mickey Duff, their erstwhile promoter, banned them from his shows, his wife received a present from the twins: two dead rats in a box.
Innuendo has enshrouded a number of other British fighters, most famously Lennox Lewis. Following gossip that he was having an "affair" with am England footballer, Colin Hart, of The Sun, bravely asked Lewis before his first fight with Evander Holyfield whether he had heard what was being whispered. "You mean the one about me being gay?" responded Lewis, thankfully with a laugh. "Let's put this silly rumour to death once and for all. I'm certainly not gay. I love and adore women. I date girls, not boys." The Miami-based former world heavyweight champion is now happily married and became a father for the third time recently.
By its nature, boxing attracts its share of gay followers, many from showbusiness. I still dine out on an encounter during the weigh-in before the first Ali-Frazier fight in New York in 1971. John Condon, the laconic PR for Madison Square Garden, asked some of us if we would like to meet Burt Lancaster, who was watching the fighters strip for the weigh-in. Burt Lancaster? Macho star of Trapeze, the man who snogged Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here to Eternity. You bet! With Colin Hart and the late Reg Gutteridge, the Cockney commentator then with the London Evening News, we walked across with Condon. "Hey Burt," he called. "I want you to meet some Limey friends." Lancaster turned, his lips red with lipstick, cheeks rouged and eyebrows pencilled. "Hi fellas," he simpered. "Don't you just love their muscles?"
"Fuck me," exclaimed Gutteridge. "He's a bleedin' iron."
Lancaster, father of five, was later to be arrested in Hollywood dressed as a woman.
Funny old game, fighting.