When the cost of a championship is a man's life

The jazz opera "Champion" tells the tragic story of Emilie Griffith's life and career. Ryan Speedo Green, 37, plays a young version of the five-time boxing champion who landed a deadly flurry of punches on his opponent. Mel D Cole for ESPN

THE EXACT NUMBER of punches that Emile Griffith landed on March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, in the flurry that killed Benny "Kid" Paret, is in dispute. According to which expert you ask, it was anywhere between 17 and 29 clean shots, mostly uppercuts with a few hooks thrown in, coming in a span of five to 20 seconds. Watching the tape doesn't settle anything; the punches are too fast, Griffith's hand speed is a signature of his style. Not in dispute: Those punches to the defenseless head of Paret put him into a coma that lasted 10 days, and he never woke up.

Right before the fatal flurry began, with about two minutes left in the 12th round of what had been an exhausting title bout, the television announcer said: "This is probably the tamest round of the entire fight." The words sound like an ominous threat when you know what comes next: Griffith catches Paret with a right cross that sends him into the corner; Paret's defense never recovers; Griffith, sensing his opportunity, unleashes; the referee, Ruby Goldstein, allows it.

Everyone involved would come to regret what happened, the trainer who urged Griffith to swing until the referee stopped him, the official who stepped in too late, but most of all, Griffith. A man's life shouldn't be the cost of a championship. But it was more than his ambition that drove Griffith in that moment, though it would take a future of love, loss and forgiveness for him to admit it. Griffith was angry and fearful -- at Paret, at the world.

WHEN RYAN SPEEDO GREEN begins the aria, "What Makes a Man a Man," the rehearsal room in the cellar of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City goes quiet. Up until this point, the large room -- full of cast members and a jazz band -- had been alive with activity; these are the last weeks of preparation for the Met's staging of "Champion," the jazz opera based on the life of Emile Griffith, which opens April 10. "What Makes a Man a Man" is the production's signature song, demanding both a technical and emotional register from the 37-year-old Green that few singers in the world can accomplish. If he can sell this song, he can sell this story.

Green, a bass-baritone who has one of the more unconventional origin stories in the world of opera, stars as the younger version of Griffith. The story is told as flashbacks in the mind of the older Griffith (played by Eric Owens), who has pugilistic dementia. The first act traces Griffith's early life -- immigrating to New York City from the U.S. Virgin Islands, his dreams of becoming a singing baseball player, his job as a women's hatmaker and the push from his manager, Howie Albert, to become a boxer. The part of his story that precedes Green's aria, the part that gave Griffith his anger and inspired composer Terence Blanchard to write this opera, is where Benny Paret taunts Griffith, in Spanish, with an anti-gay slur at the weigh-in of their third fight.

From the time Griffith made waves in the boxing world in the late 1950s, rumors spread about his sexuality but no one spoke about it in his presence. He lived a dual life: one as a celebrated champion boxer, the other as a frequenter of gay nightclubs -- he didn't invite anyone from one into the other. Paret, looking for a psychological edge going into their third fight after two hotly contested championship confrontations, spoke to the unspoken -- and in the crudest fashion. Not only did Paret repeat an anti-gay slur in Spanish, he also mimed a sex act as a threat of what he would do to Griffith and his "husband" -- at a time when gay men were routinely arrested and jailed under sodomy laws.

The real-life Griffith was furious; he turned to his manager and let him know he would start the fight right then and there. Albert advised him to save it for the ring. In the opera, Griffith tries to tell his manager that the rumors are true. Albert (played by Paul Groves) doesn't want to hear it; what Griffith is saying can't be true because there is no boxer who is "less than a man."

Green, as Griffith, is distraught. He's left alone on stage, seated in a folding chair, wearing a rust-colored pair of boxing shorts with the initials E-G patched on the left leg, shirtless with a dark robe draped over his 6-foot-4-inch frame. He bellows, his bass-baritone mining what's held deep in Griffith's gut. In the cellar of the Met, here, now, Green's voice is the only thing in the room moving. And as he stands and sings "What makes this man who calls himself Emile?" -- everyone in the room is defenseless. Green has found something in this song, and in this space, and in this moment, and in this character and in himself, that is raw and unrelenting.

There is no other sound in this cellar room. The space has transformed.

Someone calls out for a 30-minute break.

ON ONE of the few snow days to hit New York City this year, Green joins me for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant on the Upper West Side. He's coming straight from rehearsal, vibrating with excitement, because he has something he wants to share. In addition to the standard cold weather gear, Green sports a neck warmer to keep his vocal cords protected. It's one of a number of things he does to care for his voice -- out of his backpack, he shows me the multitude of teas he carries, along with two separate canteens, one for hot water, the other for cold. On a working day like this, he tells me, he can drink up to five and a half liters of water.

But that's not what he really wants to show me. As we wait to place our orders, he wants to share a video of a commercial he just shot, promoting "Champion." In the opera, the Griffith character sings a line that the real-life Griffith said toward the end of his life, when he was speaking more openly about his sexuality. It was captured in Ron Ross' 2008 biography of the boxer, "Nine ... Ten ... and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith."

"I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin."

The line underscores one of the tragedies of Griffith's life, that living out loud as a man who loved men was seen as a more grievous affront than taking a man's life. In the opera, it's the older Griffith who sings this, but for the commercial, Green, as the lead, gets his chance.

"It's one of the most important lines in the opera," he says, "and I got to sing my version of it."

In between bites, he's all smiles. Then he starts bouncing, showing off his boxing moves, weaving in and out of punches. The audience is slim since we arrived right as the restaurant opened, but anyone who glances this way would know they were looking at a performer even if they couldn't hear a word; his excitement is that infectious -- and he has much to be excited about.

Last year, Green had the most successful year of his career, singing in five roles in four months. COVID travel protocols had prevented some international singers from performing at the Met, which left roles for Green to fill, among them parts in "Boris Godunov," and "La Bohème." Then Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, approached Green about starring in "Champion," the second work the house commissioned from Blanchard, who had made history as the first Black composer to stage an opera at the Met with "Fire Shut Up in My Bones."

It wasn't an automatic yes. "I told him, I had looked at the score and I thought it was a little bit too high, composed too high," Green says. "And he was like, 'Well, Speedo, that's the beauty of having an Olympic composer, you can change things.'" Green met with Blanchard, who agreed he could change the part to match Green's vocal range, and there it was: his first leading role.

This is the culmination of a journey that started in Hampton Roads -- the 757 Virginia area code that has produced such luminaries as Pharrell, Missy Elliott, Michael Vick and Allen Iverson. "For me to be able to perform at arguably the greatest opera house in the world, even in the smallest role, I thought, to me, I made it," Green says. "My entire life, my entire career has been about breaking people's preconception of who could sing opera and what an opera singer is."

As a kid, Green was angry and violent. In Daniel Bergner's 2016 biography of Green, "Sing for Your Life," his elementary school principal says: "He was one of the 10 or so most troubled children I've had in my 42-year career." After an incident in which Green, living in a trailer park at age 12, threatened his mother and brother, he was cuffed, shackled and shipped off to a juvenile detention facility. There he would be sent to solitary confinement for his altercations with staff and other detainees; he would spend so much time screaming he would lose his voice.

Before our dinner, Green's manager had emailed me that he would prefer not to go over this part of his story; he's told it many times before. I don't push Green on it now. I come from Hampton Roads, too. I know that this narrative -- troubled Black youth makes good -- appeals to people who would otherwise ignore those troubled Black youth. More than that, it's not who Green is any longer.

"You know, it's hard to imagine that the person was me," he told NPR's "Fresh Air" in 2016. "And honestly, it's sometimes scary to know that person is inside of me. But, you know, I try to use those experiences to add to the depth of my characters in the performances I have. You know, my past is my past. And it doesn't define me. It only gives me fuel for my future."

When he was in high school, Green's class took a trip to the Met where he saw a performance of "Carmen," the classic opera written by French composer Georges Bizet in 1875. This staging starred mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a Black woman, and in it, Green saw possibility; an ambition was born. He got into the Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, earned two music degrees, won the Met's National Council Auditions in 2011 and became a member of the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera (he still lives full time in Vienna with his wife and two kids). Opera opened up his world; it transformed him. Now he seeks to transform it.

Transformation is at the heart of his role in "Champion." At the time he got the part, Green was a little over 300 pounds and didn't look like a boxer; he hadn't watched much of the sport, either. And so he went to a local gym to find someone to train him. He found Joseph Witherspoon; he wasn't a professional boxer but had trained a few. Beginner's class began at 6 a.m., twice a week.

"I was like, '6 a.m. in the morning?'" Green says. "As an opera singer, our days don't start till 10:30, 11. I showed up to a 6 a.m. class, it was me and six women. And these are all finance lawyers, like these power women. And they came in there throwing freaking haymakers. And I was sitting there, 'Oh, s---. This is real.'"

He committed to the training, while his wife, a nutritionist, helped him with his diet (he's doing intermittent fasting, so our dinner was his big meal of the day). Green slimmed down to 240 pounds, and now he looks the part of a champion boxer: broad shoulders, huge biceps, barrel chest. He's considerably larger than Griffith was, who spent most of his career fighting at welterweight, vacillating between 140 and 150 pounds. The point isn't to be a facsimile of Griffith, but rather to connect to him as a character. There are already biographical elements in common: neither Green nor Griffith grew up with their fathers in the picture, and both spent some time in juvenile detention as kids. The trait that mostly unites them, though, is desperation.

Green needed to find a pathway out of those trailers in southeastern Virginia, while Griffith, the eldest of his mother's eight children, put aside his dreams of becoming a singing baseball player and hatmaker for the money he could make in boxing -- money that took care of his entire family, and got Griffith his first bedroom all to himself. "That opportunity was once in a lifetime," Green says of Griffith. "He may not have wanted to, maybe it wasn't what he envisioned his life would be -- and it was gifted. And for me, I think my past prepared me for my potential future. Coming from nothing, anything that wasn't nothing was better."

The entire production of "Champion" is seeking to make a deeper kind of connection. This is the first time in the Met's history it is staging an opera with sports as the main theme. But while the parallels between boxing and opera may not be immediately obvious, they are there.

"You basically are singing in a 4,000 plus house with a 90, 100 piece orchestra by yourself," Green says of the physical demands of singing opera, which is performed without microphones, "and it's something that you can't just do naturally. You have to train for years and years. You have to have a talent already and then hone that talent to warrior-like status."

The same is true for professional sports, but boxing more intensely. There are six basic punches that every fighter must master -- jab, cross, lead hook, rear hook, lead uppercut, rear uppercut. Like with music, with its 12 basic notes, what sets you apart is how you deploy them, your own personal flavor, a distinct strategy and energy. Then it's on to the stage, in front of thousands, to see if you've got what it takes to be considered among the best.

"There are lots of people who've sung major roles at the Met -- many, many for many, many years," Green says. "But nobody's done this. And that's the starting of my professional lead role, title character career. My first lead role of my life is going to be here. In New York City. Where the lights are the brightest."

As Green digs into his two entrees, I look around at the restaurant, which is beginning to fill up. Green and I are among the few black dots in a sea of white patrons, not unlike his place in opera. There are some things, of course, that can't be changed, but for Green, for the creators behind "Champion," they are driven to at least try, to change who sees themselves in this world.

OPERA IS NOT an art form that lends itself to easy entry. There's the cost, of course (tickets for "Champion" start at $49.50), and the physical space, too, can be intimidating. The rows and rows of balconies, stretching up to the ceiling where you are greeted with the view of a massive chandelier, all nestled in a cavernous room seating close to 4,000, before counting the dozens of highly trained musicians tucked into the orchestra pit, which sits at the foot of the stage that feels both constricted and limitless with potential.

Who does this space belong to? Upstairs on the main stage, they are staging a dress rehearsal for the comic opera "Der Rosenkavalier." The rehearsal is open to the public for a reduced price, in the hopes of diversifying the audience. The normal crowd is older and whiter, Dan Wakin, the Met's senior director of communications, tells me. I'm a part of the potential audience the Met would like to attract -- younger, non-white, opera-curious but inexperienced. "Der Rosenkavalier," written in 1911 by Richard Strauss, is aesthetically everything a non-opera goer might imagine an opera to be: 19th-century wardrobe, elaborate set design, lots of white people singing in a way that, for an untrained ear, is unintelligible, a story that feels hard to follow, even with the translation monitors in front of you. There's beauty here, too, but it feels inaccessible.

The vibe at the "Champion" rehearsal downstairs is altogether different. Start here, with the obvious: The entire cast is Black, save for the non-Black roles in the opera and two or three dancers/extras. But beyond that, it's in the approach. After the opening scene that features the older Griffith in bed and talking to his caretaker, a cadre of dancers enter, with a wide-smiling Green swinging a baseball bat, and the stage is transformed into a New Orleans second line, or a West African dance class, or carnival. It's a melange of diasporic rhythms -- calypso, bebop, ragtime, afrobeat -- and Camille A. Brown's choreography is a feast of kinetic energy, fluid and expressive limbs, rolling necks, pulsing torsos and swift footwork.

"This is action-packed," Green tells me. "This is nonstop."

It's propulsive in a way that "Der Rosenkavalier" upstairs can't match. That's by design, the vision of Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter and film score composer Blanchard. In 2010, he was approached by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to write an opera that would bring in a wider audience, an opera that felt different.

"I thought they were crazy," Blanchard says. "I'm like, 'Who doing what?'"

Blanchard may have found the request confounding, but the fact that his dad had loved opera when he was growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s and '60s opened his mind to the possibility. Initially, the opera house was interested in a story about Hurricane Katrina -- Blanchard had scored "When the Levees Broke," Spike Lee's documentary about the Gulf Coast tragedy -- but he felt that only five years after it had happened was too soon. Enter Michael Bentt, one-time WBO heavyweight champion, who also had the role of Sonny Liston opposite Will Smith's Muhammad Ali in the 2001 biopic "Ali." He was a friend of Blanchard's, and he shared with him the story of Griffith. Curiosity stoked, Blanchard read "Nine ... Ten ... and Out!" and when he read that quote from Griffith about unforgivable sin, he knew he had the story he wanted to tell.

"I was just intrigued by the whole notion of an opera that had boxing as a backdrop," he says, "I try not to let the history of opera define what the future of opera could be. One of the guys at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis told me, 'I feel like we've never really defined what American opera is. Maybe jazz should be a major component of that.'"

At a rehearsal in the cellar of the Met, I saw it for myself. It's not just some gimmick; jazz provides the essential emotional language of "Champion." There's a scene just past the halfway point of the first act where the younger Griffith wanders into a bar called Hagen's Hole. What he finds sees -- what the real-life Griffith saw when he began frequenting gay bars as a young man in New York City, and then throughout his life -- is a bevy of bodies in motion, grinding in ecstasy, men on men, women on women (this is not a full dress rehearsal, so I'm not getting a look at the costumes, but when it's performed there will be drag queens in full glam, as drag performers were a big part of Griffith's circle). It's sexy and enticing; it has the vibe of a backwoods juke joint, brought home by the sound of the slinking drums and lithe piano. Jazz may be the music of the respectable now, but it was once outlaw music, and here it underscores the life Griffith was forced into.

"You're going to hear notes and words and qualities and style that you may have recognized," Green says, "and you'll be like, 'S---. If that's opera, then what else might I enjoy?'"

It's about making space. It's about answering the question: Who belongs here?

And the answer is simply: Whoever wants to come.

WATCH THE TAPE of the Paret fight again, and it's impossible to miss: ABC's "Fight of the Week" is being brought to you by Muriel Cigars. Many of the people in attendance were smoking those very cigars; it's something nearly every remembrance of the evening makes notes of. "This was the first big prize fight I had ever seen in person," author Jonathan Coleman wrote for The New Yorker in 2013, "and I loved everything about it: the smell of cigar smoke, the palpable tension surrounding a big event, and the growing buzz of the crowd in anticipation of what was to come, as one fight after another on the undercard concluded, all leading to the main event."

It's just cigar smoke, but it signals how profoundly different that time was. Think also about the fight being broadcast on network television; by the 1970s, neither boxing nor tobacco products would be seen on airwaves in the same way. Lung cancer research turned the tide against the tobacco industry, while deaths like Paret's put a spotlight on the brutal nature of boxing. Public appetite began to wane, and while neither boxing nor smoking disappeared, they were driven to the margins.

The world spins forward; the world evolves. Except when it doesn't.

"It's the injustice in those stories," Blanchard says when I ask him what drove him to create this opera of Griffith's life. "I tell people with Emile Griffith's story -- I thought about when I won my first Grammy, bro, I celebrated with my wife without thinking about it. Gave her a hug and a kiss and then went up on the stage. And here it is: Emile Griffith became welterweight champion and couldn't celebrate it openly with somebody that he loved."

GO BACK TO that tape. Maybe the most difficult part to watch is the post-fight interview. The announcers are excited to introduce a new technology that allows them to watch a slow-motion video playback ringside. "That's beautiful camera work, isn't it?" the announcer asks, and someone off-camera replies, "Terrific!" And then Griffith is asked to review the flurry that has just sent Paret out of the ring on a stretcher. "I hope Paret is feeling very good, which they won't tell me how he feels," he says. He doesn't know yet that Paret will die. He doesn't know yet that he has killed him.

He will go on to fight again, for 15 more years, and he'll lose and win the championship a few times over, and he'll go on to work at the famous Gleason's Gym for a while (and Bentt, as an amateur, will train in his vicinity). He'll keep hanging out with the drag performers whom he loves, and he'll love women and men alike, and he'll get jumped because of it. In 1992, Griffith will be attacked by a group of teenagers while leaving a gay bar in Times Square, beaten so severely, his kidneys so damaged, he'll nearly die and need to spend months recovering in a hospital. Even with his recovery, his health will begin a steep decline, struck by dementia that will worsen and worsen. He'll die in 2013 at age 75.

As his life unfolds, Griffith will carry an immense guilt. He will have nightmares. He will remember he was angry, but that he didn't want to kill anyone. He will remember he wasn't just angry, he was hurt -- he and Paret had been friends. It wasn't just the slur, it was the betrayal.

Still, he didn't mean to kill him. It's just the world they were in.

Watch the tape again, and it's impossible to miss: It's the world we are in now.

THE FIRST ACT of "Champion" ends with the fight, and a week before the show officially opens, I've come to the first full dress rehearsal to watch it unfold. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director at the Met, presides over the proceedings. He is tasked with getting everyone and everything synced -- performers on stage, the orchestra, the jazz band. "I see myself as a bridge," he tells me, connecting the old world opera to this audacious and experimental new sound. They need to stay nimble, open to improvising on the fly. The rhythm is everything.

As soon as Green finishes with "What Makes a Man a Man," the ring appears. Green jumps through the ropes and is soon standing toe-to-toe, chest-to-chest with Paret. The action begins, with a cadre of onlookers, including a handful of drag queens sitting on Griffith's side -- an artistic liberty. The rounds whiz by, accompanied by an epic score, with Paret and Griffith throwing a big punch to indicate the winner of each round, until the sixth when Griffith goes down. In his corner, Albert admonishes Griffith -- he needs to be a killer -- and the fighting resumes. Punches are traded again, until we reach the fateful 12th round, where Griffith's barrage is dramatized, a right cross leveling Paret. Griffith recedes to the center, ecstatic with his win, as the referee calls for a medic. Griffith raises his arms in victory.

Up above, on the bedroom set from the opening, stands the older Griffith. He has watched the spectacle unfold, playing back in his dementia-addled mind. As the younger version of himself stands smiling and victorious, Owens' voice booms down.

"Something good turned into something bad, so fast."

The reality of Paret's condition creeps over the younger Griffith's face, the face of Green. His arms lower slowly and steadily, as the "what ifs" seem to be transmitted between the two Griffiths on stage: What if Paret had never taunted Griffith, what if Griffith had backed out of the fight, what if the referee had stepped in earlier?

Green's face falls. His arms, too. The stage goes black. The room applauds.

But there's something in the timing that isn't working. Nézet-Séguin wants to run the second half of the fight again, to get the orchestra in line with the final blow, where Green's long right arm is outstretched for several beats, slowed down so we can see muscles flex and his face recognize that something has changed, though he doesn't know the extent of the transformation.

"Maestro, look for the uppercuts," Green says from the stage.

He and Nézet-Séguin share a laugh at the fact of having to say this phrase in preparation for an opera, but it's an important note: The uppercuts are the cue that the end is near.