Gloves Off

Photo: Robert Maxwell/USA Networks; Illustration by Matt Owens

So accustomed have we become to a circus act at the weigh-in of human meat before an important prizefight—the trumped-up tantrum, the choreographed hysteria, the King Kong wig-out, chest-thump, and bug-stomp—that what passed between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret at the afternoon photo op before their welterweight-championship bout at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962, seems almost trivial. So what if Benny whispered “maricón” into Emile’s ear and pinched his buttocks? At least he didn’t bite off an ear. (Or dis a mother. And, boy, did Emile have a mother, screaming at ringside.) Was that any excuse for Emile, an upwardly mobile young man from the U.S. Virgin Islands, to lunge at Benny, an upwardly mobile young man from Cuba, hours before the bell rang? Or, later that night on national television, to beat him to death?

In the New York Times the day after the fight, sportswriter Howard Tuckner had wanted to explain to readers that maricón in Spanish means “homosexual.” But this had been too much for the Times’ copydesk, which changed “homosexual” to “unman.” (Insert sarcasm, or disbelief, or dismay, ad nauseam and beat vigorously.) In fact, there had been and always would be rumors about Griffith’s sexual preferences, although Ring of Fire has decided neither to confirm nor deny them. What the Dan Klores–Ron Berger documentary does do is to quote the grizzled New York newspaper likes of Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, and Jack Newfield on class war and macho sports; social historians Neal Gabler and Charles Kaiser on homophobia, mass media, and mainstream culture; such inside-boxing types as José Torres and Gil Clancy on the protocols of blood, sweat, and cash; and referee Ruby Goldstein’s son, Benny Paret’s widow, and Norman Mailer reading his own rhapsodic prose on that murderous twelfth round.

I’m sorry Klores didn’t trust us enough to do all this with a lot less James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Tito Rodriguez, Jimmy Cliff, and the Temptations on an obtrusive soundtrack, but if Ring doesn’t break our hearts, at least it bends them out of shape. Griffith was never cut out to hurt anybody. He was so fast-stepping because he’d rather not get hit himself. Paret, who still had headaches from a brutal beating Gene Fullmer gave him in his previous fight four months earlier, shouldn’t have been in the ring at all, but his manager was looking to squeeze out one last payday from his fading fighter. Referee Goldstein, reluctant to stop a closely contested championship fight, had recently been celebrated on Ed Sullivan’s TV show for stepping in to save a beaten boxer from permanent damage. Griffith went on to win, lose, and win again but never with the same élan. And while he briefly married, his longest relationship appears to have been with a boy he met when he was a prison guard and adopted as his son. He was also hospitalized for a month after a savage late-night attack outside a gay bar in 1996. On the other hand, any question about gay warriors ought to have been answered by Alexander the Great.

Paret never came out of his coma, and just because so many pols did so much subsequent grandstanding about abolishing boxing doesn’t mean they weren’t also right. Breslin reports his own doctor’s saying, “The brain is not made to get hit.” But like the rest of these wonderful, gravelly voices from a passionate past, even Jimmy seems nostalgic for some bygone John Ford Western in which political science was a clenched fist—when violence and virility, economic opportunity and social justice, were one big testosterone-fantasy package. You’d think that recent history and such counterexamples as Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Dr. King might have taught us that it is possible to be a brave heart and a hero of conscience without being a blowhard and a sperm whale.

Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story
Directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger.
USA Network. Premieres Wednesday, April 20, 9 P.M.

Gloves Off