Reinhard Kleist’s Knock Out! The Truse Story of Emile Griffith is one of those amazing stories, which if you read it as a work of fiction you would say it was too outlandish and not at all realistic. But that’s what makes this story of a bisexual black boxer in the 1960s (who was not only world champion at multiple weights, but also a renowned hat maker and ladies tailor) even more fascinating.
Kleist builds the story from a moment when an older Griffith suffers a homophobic attack and is left for dead. This dark moment sees him reflect on his journey to success but also the pitfalls along the way. In particular his fight with Cuban Benny Paret, which ended up with his opponent dying 10 days after the fight. Kleist manages to brilliantly capture the brutality of the sport and the demons that are associated with it, as Griffith is haunted by the ghostly presence of his former opponent. It also allows him to look into the equally potent demons of racism and homophobia in the 1960s (Paret called him a homophobic slur prior to the fight), many of which are still prevalent today.
With this potent subject matter and Kleist’s brush stroked black and white artwork it reminded us a lot of the wonderful March books by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (A perennial comparison and a lofty high watermark!). Just as Powell does in March Kleist uses strong light and shadow to make the most of the scenes, while the brutality of the sport is showcased in every inky blood splatter or mangled face (Emile after his attack reminded us some of the more horrific scenes in a crime book like Sin City or a horror like Sink rather than a boxing biography) as well as some sophisticated use of lettering to help frame the pages.
This is a truly engrossing read, Kleist manages to get the balance of entertaining story and factual biography just right, picking the right moments to tell a very engaging story without getting bogged down in politics or sporting minutiae to the detriment of the tale. There are so many hot button issues in this book (race, sexuality, violence in sport) and he covers all of them with equal weight. While this means the story does feel a bit lightweight in terms of it’s politics and message, and may not have enough boxing for sports fans, at the same time it just allows the life and personality of Griffith time to shine and so does not need grandstanding or obvious virtue signalling to get it’s message across.
As such this is a fascinating look at a forgotten cultural pioneer of the 20th century. If you are after a book with the gravitas of March and the knock out punch of When We Were Kings then this is the book for you.