He died at an extended care facility in Hempstead, N.Y, the International Boxing Hall of Fame said.
Griffith struggled with pugilistic dementia and required full-time care late in life. He was the first boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands to become world champion and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Emile was a gifted athlete and truly a great boxer,” Hall of Fame director Ed Brophy said. “Outside the ring he was as great a gentleman as he was a fighter. He always had time for boxing fans when visiting the hall on an annual basis and was one of the most popular boxers to return year after year.”
Griffith often attended fights in New York, especially at Madison Square Garden, where he headlined 23 times. He was also a frequent visitor to the many boxing clubs around New York City. He would slowly rise from his seat, often with assistance, and smile while waving when he was acknowledged.
The outpouring of love that he received late in life stood in stark contrast to the way he was received after March 24, 1962, when he fought Bennie “The Kid” Paret before a national TV audience at the Garden. Griffith knocked out his bitter rival in the 12th round to regain the welterweight title. Paret went into a coma and died from his injuries 10 days later.
Sports Illustrated reported in 2005 that Griffith might have been fueled by an anti-gay slur directed at him by Paret during the weigh-in. Over the years, Griffith described himself at various times as straight, gay and bisexual.
“People spit at me in the street. We stayed in a hotel. Every time there was a knock on the door, I would run into the next room. I was so scared,” Griffith told The Associated Press in 1993, recalling the days after Paret’s death.
The outcome left a cloud over the sport for many years. NBC stopped airing boxing broadcasts, and then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created a commission to investigate the bout and the sport. The referee that night, Ruby Goldstein, never worked another fight.
The fight became the basis for the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. One of the final scenes shows Griffith embracing Paret’s son.
“I was never the same fighter after that. After that fight, I did enough to win. I would use my jab all the time. I never wanted to hurt the other guy,” Griffith said. “I would have quit, but I didn’t know how to do anything else but fight.”
And fight he could.
Under the eye of Hall of Fame trainer Gil Clancy, Griffith blossomed into a New York Golden Gloves champion and eventually turned pro. He easily defeated the likes of Florentino Fernandez and Luis Rodriguez during an era when it was common to fight every couple of weeks, quickly earning a welterweight title shot against Paret in 1961.
Griffith won the championship with a 13th-round knockout at the Garden before losing the belt to Paret in a rematch five months later.
After winning back the title during his controversial third fight with Paret – many believe Paret never should have been allowed in the ring after a brutal loss to Gene Fullmer three months earlier – Griffith eventually move up to middleweight. He lost two bouts against the great middleweight Carlos Monzon. Griffith retired in 1977 after losing his last three fights, his record standing at 85-24-2 with 23 knockouts.
Griffith would go on to train several champions, including Wilfred Benitez and Juan Laporte, among the most popular boxers in Puerto Rican history.
His humor and generosity buoyed those close to him as his health deteriorated in later years. He would still make the pilgrimage to Canastota, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, regaling fans young and old with tales, even though the details often became hazy, the result of the many blows he sustained during his career.
There was no immediate word on survivors or funeral arrangements.