June 14, 2005 There may have been somebody happier than Emile Griffith at the Cyril E. King Airport at noon Tuesday, but you couldn't tell it by looking.
The five-time world champion came home to St. Thomas to be part of the V. I. Amateur Boxing Federation 21st Boxing Championships starting Saturday.
But, to hear the champ tell it, he came home to be with family and friends. Asked if he was going to fight, he just laughed. "Who would fight with me?" he said. "I'm just happy to be here."
Griffith was quickly surrounded by media, friends and family after stepping into the terminal with his adopted son, Luis Rodrigo. In fact, one friend he didn't know he had was the first to greet him.
Eileen Schneider was waiting patiently for the fighter to arrive. "No, I'm not a relative," she said. "I am here to see if he remembers me, and to welcome him home." Schneider, the sister of former Gov. Roy Schneider said, "I knew him as a young boy. We lived on the same street."
Griffith, in fact, did not remember her, but that didn't prevent him from giving her a big hug.
He was simply happy to be on his home soil, and it showed. His daughter, Christine Griffith, greeted her father right after Schneider. "Daddy!" She ran toward him with open arms, tears streaming down her face. Christine said, "I just saw him two months ago, but it's still very emotional. When he is in New York, he is always so busy with that movie and all. But here we have a little bit of time for ourselves."
Griffith, now 67, regained national prominence this year with the release of a documentary on his life, "Ring of Fire: the Emile Griffith Story," which won acclaim at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It was seen here when the USA network aired it in April.
"You should have seen the movie premier in New York," Christine Griffith said, "Everybody was there. It was so exciting."
Dressed in jeans, a cotton shirt and a baseball cap, Griffith is soft spoken, patient and modest in fending off some reporters' questions. Looking over at his daughter, he said, "Come here, little girl," pulling her close to him. "Every time I come down here, I make more friends," he said. "I can't help it it's in my blood. And I get to see all my old buddies, too."
About then, an "old buddy," Julian Jackson arrived, and the two did an obligatory little sparring dance before winding up in a bear hug. Jackson is the territory's other famous boxing personality a three-time world champion and will appear along with Griffith at the championships.
Reporters asked Griffith about his opinions on today's boxers, and who would be the next world champ, but Griffith was having none of that. "We will just have to wait and see," he said with a smile.
Griffith waited a long time after his boxing career for widespread recognition. He lived a solitary life until he adopted Rodrigo, whom he met at when he worked as a corrections officer at a New Jersey institution.
In an interview with the Source earlier this year, Griffith's brother Frankie said, "Emile met this 16-year-old kid, Luis Rodrigo, whose father had died. The kid loved Emile and wanted to be his son. After he got out of the institution, Emile adopted him." (See "Documentary Sheds New Light on Emile Griffith.")
Griffith did not discuss his background or his celebrity Tuesday, as Rodrigo stood at his side. Griffith's priorities were concentrated on being among friends.
"It's great to see him so happy," Rodrigo said. "When my father was hurt, it was tragic. It took him months to get well. This is wonderful here." Griffith was badly beaten by a gang outside of a bar in New York City and was hospitalized for two months.
"Ring of Fire" is currently putting Griffith in the limelight. Directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger, the film was acclaimed at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary details the 1962 fight in which Griffith beat Benny "Kid" Paret into a coma before a live audience on national television. Paret died 10 days later.
The documentary is a story of violence and redemption. The Paret bout had a lasting impact on not only the sport, but also on the media and politics of the day. The television industry imposed at 10-year moratorium on broadcasting fights.
Griffith met Paret's grown son, Benny Paret Jr. — who was 3 when his father died — last year in New York City's Central Park. In what one reviewer called "the part of the film you will remember," the man told Griffith he had forgiven him. Griffith said he may move back to St. Thomas. "Me and my boy Luis are thinking about it," he said. Asked what he would think about living in the Virgin Islands, Rodrigo, who was adopted by Griffith 26 years ago, said, "I would love it I'm an island boy. I was born in Puerto Rico, though I grew up in New York."
Schneider, as she was leaving the airport, had a final word for Griffith. Looking over at him talking with the reporters, she said, "I am so glad I came. Look at him, the way he moves his hands, just like he used to when he was a little boy."
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