`Ring' paints powerful portrait of reconciliation

TV Preview

April 20, 2005|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

It is not the most remembered contest in boxing, let alone American sports.

But if you were a teen in New York City in the early 1960s, where Friday night fights were as big as Monday Night Football is today, you'd probably remember the historic March 24, 1962, world championship bout between Emile Griffith and Benny "The Kid" Paret.

The televised match at Madison Square Garden would decide once and for all a rivalry between the two welterweights, who split two earlier bouts. In the 12th round, Griffith let loose with a barrage of head shots and Paret slumped against the ropes, lapsing into a coma. Ten days later, he died.

In the wake of the shocking death, religious figures and politicians called for everything from an investigation to a ban on boxing. Networks pulled boxing off the air for a decade.

Still, the full story had not been told until Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (tonight at 9 on USA).

Ron Berger, who was growing up in Brooklyn at the time of the fight, made Ring of Fire with his boyhood friend Dan Klores. "It was a defining sports moment for a 13-year-old," Berger recalled in an interview.

More than that, it was compelling on many levels.

Griffith might have been reacting to Paret's calling him gay at the weigh-in. Did Griffith's managers yell "Kill him!" as some thought they heard? What about the referee, who had a reputation for ending fights before they got dangerous? Was Paret hurt in his previous fight?

Ultimately, the film is a surprisingly powerful portrait of reconciliation, when the now-67-year-old Griffith meets Paret's 42-year-old son.

Indeed, what makes Ring of Fire so vivid is that so many of its major figures are still around. Chief among them is Griffith himself, soft-spoken, thoughtful and still full of sadness and remorse for something that's mostly been forgotten. He had come to New York as a boy with his family from St. Thomas and was employed in a hat factory before he reluctantly agreed to become a boxer.

His sexual orientation may have been an issue, but the filmmakers very gingerly leave the question open, talking to both the woman he briefly married in the Virgin Islands and the young Hispanic roommate whom he met when he was a prison guard and later adopted. It also reports that in 1992, Griffith was savagely beaten outside a gay bar in New York.

Griffith denies he is gay.

"It's a compelling story about an interesting character in history and in sports history," Berger says. "If we did our job well, it will resonate with a large audience."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Ring of Fire

When: Tonight at 9

Where: USA Network

In brief: A powerful portrait of reconciliation.

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