Wednesday, 24 July 2013


My obit of the boxer Emile Griffith is online at the Guardian now (you can link to it here) and you ought to find it in the paper paper soon. For anyone my age, the fight when Griffith killed Benny 'Kid' Paret remains a vivid memory, but as I tried to explain in a few lines cut for space from the obit, the story went beyond that.

Here's the way I wrote the story of the weigh-in: 

Another story lurked in the shadows. At the weigh-in, Paret taunted Griffith, calling him 'maricon', Spanish slang for 'faggot'. Gilbert Rogin described the incident, without specifying the insult, in the following week's Sports Illustrated, in language so coded it still could pass many innocents by, including this 11 year old boy. 'It is the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom and is particularly galling to Griffith, who has a piping voice, wears extravagantly tight clothes, has designed women's hats and is, ordinarily, a charming, affectionate kid.'

The Guardian defined 'maricon' as 'sissy or queer' but I'm afraid that doesn't convey the contempt laden in the Spanish phrase, which in the macho context of the boxing world was huge. But I quoted from Rogin's article because, at age 11, I knew nothing of the slur--it hadn't been reported except in euphemism, in the daily press, and even if dad was already subscribing to SI, I would not have recognised the undercurrent of innuendo which Rogin quite skillfully built.  

When writing the obit I went back and watched much of the fight, including the fatal round 12. I don't see the kind of vicious assault Rogin described in his article, and which the legend of the fight attributes to Griffith. Paret (pronounced Par-ET) was a boxer who could take a punch, and was always in with a puncher's chance. Griffith appears to hurt him a couple of times earlier in the round, and to me, it's just a case of a boxer trying to put his opponent down to the floor. Paret is held up by the ropes, and Ruby Goldstein is definitely slow to pull Griffith away. I'd forgotten that Goldstein was also the ref when Ingemar Johannson dropped Floyd Patterson seven times in one round.

Gary Smith's 2005 Sports Illustrated article, which coincided with the release of the documentary film Ring Of Fire, is excellent in describing many of Griffith's self-contradictions. It's especially interesting on the relationship between Griffith and his employer, Jack Miller, at the bar in Jersey City where Emile worked...and in Griffith's need for a mommy figure. My friend Michael Goldfarb asked if I remembered Griffith's mother at the Paret fight, and I had to say I didn't, but in another small bit edited out of the piece I did  mention Griffith set up his mother and seven siblings in a house in Queens.

Finally, I mention the moving scene in Ring Of Fire between Griffith and Paret's son. What I do remember is that before the fight, all the papers ran pictures of Paret with his son, who was two, on his shoulders. Apparently he took him everywhere. And apparently, he'd decided to quit boxing, at 25, after that fight, although that may just be the legend being built up.

When I think of that fight, I see the darkness of the old Madison Square Garden, the haze of smoke that gathered over the ring and seemed to descend upon it, and I see the raw violence reflected in the faces of the men at ringside, men whose look doesn't seem to exist any more. They are something out of a George Bellows painting at the dawn of the digital age. I hear Don Dunphy's voice denying anything serious could be wrong, keeping the show going, and I realise that is also what I do for a living, though not with boxing. But I've worked in boxing, made my accomodation with that world, and I wonder if I could do the same now. Griffith seemed trapped within that vicious macho world of boxing, probably, but not definitely, moreso than he would have been in many trades during those times. That he killed a man who insulted him in ways that couldn't even be stated outright in those days seems a sad irony today.


dlwilson26 said...

I saw the Griffith Paret fight on TV in 1962 as a 14 year old. It still haunts me till today. Emile Griffith was a superb boxer.

Houston said...

This is fantastic!