Revisiting a fight with no winners

`Ring of Fire': A TV documentary focuses on Emile Griffith, a champ who was never the same after injuring Benny Paret so badly in 1962 that Paret died.

Boxing

April 20, 2005|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Boxing had just one champion per division when Emile Griffith won six titles across three weight classes. His career spanned nearly two decades. He retired in 1977 at 39 with the most championship rounds of any fighter in history.

"One of the greatest welterweights of all time," boxing historian Michael Katz called Griffith, who fought 112 times from 147 to 160 pounds - nearly three times more than Sugar Ray Leonard fought. Blessed with a 26-inch waist and a 44-inch chest, Griffith (85-24-2, 23 knockouts) had a granite chin and the wind and endurance of a marathon runner.

"This guy was a machine - incredibly strong, had good hand speed, was a marvelous in-fighter and you could hurt him and he could come back from it. In his prime, he'd have given hell to Sugar Ray Robinson," Katz said.

But Griffith's legacy has been overshadowed by a single tragic fight: His 12th-round knockout of Benny "Kid" Paret at Madison Square Garden in 1962. After being pinned on the ropes and absorbing 27 unanswered blows, the Cuban-born Paret lapsed into a coma and died 10 days later.

Paret's nationally televised tragedy, in the last fight of a welterweight title trilogy, is the subject of Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, which airs tonight at 9 on USA Network,

Directed by New York publicist Dan Klores, the 90-minute documentary explores the resulting call for the prohibition of boxing, a near decade-long television blackout of the sport and, ultimately, the effect of Paret's death on Griffth's legacy.

Griffith fought 80 more times but had lost much of his aggression, haunted by the images of Paret's death. Griffith's trainer, Gil Clancy, said he had to "instill killer instinct" in Griffith, who often carried opponents.

"Whenever I look in the mirror, I see [Paret]," an elderly Griffith said in the film. "I get chills thinking about it. I wake up in sweats."

But Griffith isn't the only one responsible for Paret's death. Those familiar with the fight also blame Paret's manager, Manuel Alfaro, and referee Ruby Goldstein.

Benny Paret Jr., 45, blames his father's death on the late Alfaro, accusing him of mismanaging the fighter's career.

"I'll say it now, and I'll say it at any other time or place," said Paret Jr. in an interview. "Manuel Alfaro is solely responsible for my father's death. My father should not have been in that ring that night."

Brutal schedule

Before facing Griffith the third time, Paret had been put by Alfaro in four brutal fights in 1961. Paret defeated Griffith over 15 rounds in September. But in his next fight, a 10th-round knockout loss to middleweight Gene Fullmer, Paret was floored three times in the last round.

"I never beat anybody worse in my life," Fullmer said in the film.

Paret then dropped 8 pounds to 146 1/2 to face Griffith two months later. He complained of headaches before the fight and expressed a reluctance to go through with it during a call to his wife, Lucy Paret.

"Manuel Alfaro said too much money had gone into the fight, but he was just looking after himself and the money that he could make," Paret Jr. said "But there's no price high enough for the death of a fighter.

"We all know that my father took a beating from Gene Fullmer. I've never seen a man take such a beating. But he's the epitome of macho man toughness. He kept getting up. When I saw it myself, I found myself mumbling, `Stay down, why are you getting up?'"

Griffith entered the fight with a chip on his shoulder stemming from Paret's calling him a "maricon" - a Spanish word meaning he was gay. Known to frequent gay bars, Griffith denies being a homosexual. He had to be restrained by Clancy at the pre-fight weigh-in after Paret grabbed Griffith's hips, gyrated behind him and yet again questioned his masculinity.

Breslin controversy

With Griffith trailing after 11 rounds, the film enters what has become a sore subject between two of those in it. An interview with former New York Daily News city columnist Jimmy Breslin makes it appear as if he's saying that Clancy told Griffith to "leave [Paret] on the floor" and to "kill the bum."

Clancy said he told Griffith to throw punches until the referee stepped in but denies he meant his fighter to cause Paret permanent damage.

Breslin also denies he heard Clancy say that.

"Talking about killing somebody - [Clancy] never said that," Breslin said.

Griffith, nevertheless, seized the opportunity. A shot to the temple sent Paret staggering to a neutral corner, where his left arm and head became tangled in the ropes. A hunched-over Paret vainly tried to protect himself, his head being banged about like a tether ball on a thin string.

A seemingly mesmerized Goldstein, the referee, looked on - a rare occurrence. Only months before Griffith-Paret III, Goldstein was honored alongside Sugar Ray Robinson on the Ed Sullivan Show for his reputation for ring safety and professionalism.

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