Knock Out! – The True Story of Emile Griffith

By Reinhard Kleist, translated by Michael Waaler (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-91059-386-8 (TPB)

Fairness and Justice are human constructs that afford many opportunities to prove that the universe works on other principles. Ritualized combat – like boxing – seeks to even out the most egregious imbalances between contestants to provide a balanced and equitable battle, but no amount of rule-making and legislation can shield participants from society, the environment they live in or the genetic heritage that shaped them.

Multi-award-winning German illustrator, designer, author, cartoonist and comics maker Reinhard Kleist (Berlinoir; Steeplechase; Das Grauen im Gemäuer) has been working in the industry since 1994: setting up a cooperative studio/atelier and beginning his professional career with graphic biography Lovecraft, and supernal dramas Minna, Das Festmahl, and Abenteuer eines Weichenstellers while still a student in Münster.

He has constantly explored and gratified his fascination with notable individuals who have overcome stacked odds and inner darkness in stellar works such as Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness; Elvis – An Illustrated Biography; Castro; An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusaf Omar and Nick Cave: Mercy on Me.

Here his powerfully moody yet joyous exuberant monochrome stylings recount the amazing life of a born fighter who triumphs in the best storybook traditions, whilst never deviating from the inescapable chains of history or escaping the sordid realms of real life…

Even if they’ve heard of him, most boxing fans don’t talk about Emile Alphonse Griffith. Born in the US Virgin Islands in 1938, Emile was black, poorly educated and endured abuse at home before moving to America. In 1956, while working in a New York hat factory, his foreman – a former boxing coach – noticed his astounding physique and encouraged the affable easy-going kid to try boxing as a way to improve his financial woes.

Although Emile preferred ping-pong, singing and making hats (later, at the height of his fame, Emile designed hats for women and made upbeat pop records), he went along with his white mentor. Turning Pro in 1958, Emile was soon a Golden Gloves winner and World Champion in the Welterweight, Junior Middleweight and Middleweight categories.

At that time in America, the sporting barriers to black boxers were mostly gone, but Emile laboured under another “handicap” – he slept with men and didn’t particularly care who knew about it.

Just like showbiz and popular entertainer Liberace, Emile’s status was an “open secret” in the 1960s Boxing community, which maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, but that only went so far in the days before the game-changing Stonewall Riots (look it up if you have to – its important). The happy-go-lucky pugilist’s privileged status evaporated after the third of three fights with Cuban Benny Paret, whom Emile defeated to become World Champion, before losing the rematch.

In 1962, they met one final time. After Paret taunted Griffith with homosexual and racial slurs, the match was a savage and unrelenting bout that resulted in the death of Paret…

However, that’s simply the first act of this tale, which follows Griffith – who was allowed to continue boxing until 1977 – as he confounded critics and bigots, breaking down barriers and living a full and extremely varied life… as much as his troubled conscience would allow.

This is a supremely uplifting story of triumph and tragedy which shows just how meaningless such concepts are outside of fiction. It’s a happy-sad example of how life goes on in a personal and macroscopic manner until it just ends: and it successfully argues that all you can do is the best you can…

Available in paperback and digital editions and supported by a Preface from Kleist acknowledging his influences and debt to Griffith biographer Ron Ross; Jonathan W. Gray’s context-enlightening Foreword ‘The Sweet Science and Open Secrets’ and a socio-cultural appraisal of Emile and other gay black boxers by Tatjana Eggeling (European Ethnologist and expert on Homophobia in Sports) plus a superb gallery of sketches and working drawings by Kleist, this is an unqualified hit that resonates far beyond the square ring and the closeted environs of LGBTQIA+ literature. It’s a surefire winner for everyone.
© Text and illustrations 2019 CARLSEN Verlag GmbH, Hamburg, Germany. English translation © 2021 SelfMadeHero. All rights reserved.