Boxing, humanity and test of time
In sports, there’s the historical record: wins and losses, champions and MVPs, records and rosters. Then there’s what happened in the ring March 24, 1962, between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith, who died in his sleep Tuesday at age 75.
It was the third championship fight between Griffith, from the US Virgin Islands, and Benny “The Kid” Paret, a Cuban. Griffith took the first, Paret took the second, and it is Paret who, March 24, 1962, is the welterweight champion.
During the weigh-in, Paret, as he did before the second fight, approaches Griffith, a flamboyant, impeccably dressed, high-voiced fighter, and calls him a maricón, Spanish for “faggot.”
A month later, writing for Sports Illustrated, Gilbert Rogin calls maricón “the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom,” and he mentions how Paret also patted Griffith on the backside.
Gary Smith, writing for SI 43 years later, has it that Paret added to the slur, “I'm going to get you and your husband."
Norman Mailer quotes Paret saying earlier that day, “I hate that kind of guy. A fighter’s got to look and talk and act like a man.”
In the long, failed, ongoing tradition of figuring out what it means to look like, much less be, a “man,” it’s impossible to characterize what happens next. After controlling the first five rounds, Griffith is knocked down by Paret in the sixth. In the 10th, Griffith fully recovers and puts Paret on the ropes, where he hits him 30 times, which Paret endures.
Then, in the 12th, Griffith works Paret into a corner.
“Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope,” Mailer writes. “Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a boxed rat. He hit him 18 right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.”
Mailer is the legend, the bloviating Great Man of American letters, but Rogin’s description is better:
“He began belaboring the suffering Paret with right uppercuts, one after another, an unrelenting fusillade, Emile's hand banging against Benny's jaw as remorselessly as the clapper of a great, dark bell. Paret sagged back against the middle turnbuckle. Griffith's punches drove his head out between the top and middle strands. Benny was helpless, bleeding from his nose and a cut on his right cheek; his puffed eyes were closed. Still Griffith punched him, with mounting and maniacal rage, as though determined, literally, to wipe out both Paret and the memory of his taunt. There were, in all, about 15 uppercuts, followed by several hooks. Then Referee Goldstein was tugging at Griffith from behind, pulling him off. As Emile, berserk, struggling passionately in Goldstein's embrace, was dragged away, Paret, now obviously senseless, crumpled slowly and collapsed. The doctors fluttered into the ring and crouched about him like ravens.”
Griffith had killed Paret with his punches. It took Paret 10 days in a coma to die, but he died.
After describing the fight, Rogin’s piece focuses on Griffith as he was known beforehand: thought of as a man-child and an innocent, beloved by children, nicknamed the Pied Piper, he had been slowly bringing his family over from the US Virgin Islands, where he grew up, as he made his money boxing.
He was also gay, or bisexual, depending on who you ask and what you read — he himself said different things later on his life, when he began to discuss the subject — but aside from the rumors and slurs, we didn’t know this yet, even though he was the type of man who “would go through the front door” of the New York gay bars he frequented.
Of course, he couldn’t be this Pied Piper person anymore, not totally: He’d just killed a man with his fists.
Boxing isn’t like other sports, in that no other sports can possibly be like it. This isn’t a good or bad thing: It just is, in much the same way that Mailer, contending with those who said the fight would be the end of boxing, said that boxing just is.
But for an example, boxing provides the perfect forum for a man like Mailer, obsessed to the point of vulgarity and misogyny with the idea of what it means to be a man, could go from the Griffith fight into a long and barely coherent discussion of the Establishment and boxing’s place within it.
Boxing, simply, pits two humans against each other — two humans, not men — in an approximation of whatever the first competition in pre-history must’ve been like: Try and knock the other guy down. Of course, boxing has rules, regulations, but sometimes it resembles what that first fight must’ve been like all too closely.
And this frame of sport, what we clothe ourselves with whenever we’re watching sports, can sometimes allow us to forget that the Griffith-Paret fight wasn’t just an insane event that ended with one competitor dead: It was also the end of an actual life and the beginning of a new act in another.
Griffith could not be the same person after that fight. They say he could never bring himself to fully lay in to another boxer again after his “rage,” as both Mailer and Rogin called it, ended Paret’s life.
But I never met Paret, so for me to describe the rest of that life would be a disservice when you could watch the biography, "Ring of Fire," that Dan Klores made, or read Klores’ piece in The New York Times in 2012, or read Smith’s piece, all more than worth the time you’d spend.
The one thing I would point to in Griffith’s life following the fight is this: In 1992, five teenagers jumped and beat the six-time world champion nearly to death after he left a gay bar near the Port Authority, worsening an already fight-addled brain.
We can consider what the Griffith-Paret fight means, or meant, to the sports world at large, or American culture, even though, before he died this week, you might be hard-pressed to find many people on the street, particularly those who weren’t alive at the time of the fight, who knew Griffith’s name, much less Paret’s.
And if they knew Paret’s, it might only be as a footnote: He’s not the only man who has essentially died in a boxing ring. (If you’re curious about that, this study would be a good place to start.) What the fight says most about, however, beyond the lives of the two guys who participated and the others who knew each man, is history itself.
We look back on this fight now with a pair of gay male athletes in major American professional team sports, Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers, as well as a gay boxer, Orlando Cruz; a gay woman who was a No. 1 overall pick in professional basketball, Brittney Griner; and a number of men and women who came out after their careers were over.
We realize now, in a way that we have not at any previous time in American history, how essential and important the discussion, and celebration, is of gay men and women in professional and amateur sports, because not only should they be made to feel like actual human beings: they’re showing young gay men and women that they have a place in sports.
It is the most important thing in sports, not alone in that designation but because nothing can be more important than this. Setting Griffith’s place in three histories — that of sport, that of gay rights, and that of America and the immigrant narrative — isn’t for us to do. To the point that it has happened, it has happened.
Considering any of this with a feeling of futility, or wonder, or anything in between, makes it more about us than them. History is the knot that’ll never come untied, and these two played their own nuanced roles inside it, with the span of emotions that’ll affect anyone within their lives. For that, we can only remember.