Boxing has always had its two sides. On the one hand it’s known for the technical skill required to master the sport (boxing is often called the sweet science) and on the other for its brutality, where men and sometimes women hope to pound each other into submission. In the case of Emile Griffith, he didn’t just pound Benny Paret onto the canvas he killed him. Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (2005) is a boxing Documentary that chronicles the tragedy of the death of Bernardo “The Kid” Paret of Santa Clara, Cuba. Paret was a Cuban welterweight boxer who won the world welterweight title twice in the early 1960s. At the time of Parets’ death Emile just 25 years old and Paret, 25 y.o. Emile and Benny, both of African descent.
What makes the Emile Griffith story so provocative is the exactly why I am deeply interested in bringing this story and documentary to my readers. The Emile Griffith story is the perfect example how sports, politics, culture and tragedy intersect.
Paret won the welterweight title for the first time in 1960 by defeating Luis Federico Thompson. In his first defense of the title, Emile Griffith, an up and coming prospect, knocked Paret out in the thirteenth round on April 1, 1961. This first fight led to a rematch where Paret defeated Griffith and reclaimed the title. A third rematch fight was then scheduled for March 24, 1962 at Madison Square Garden and televised live.
While much of the pre fight events are unknown Paret seems to have developed some animosity toward Griffith. Why and over what to this day remains a mystery. What we do know is that Paret learned of Griffiths’ proclivity to frequent homosexual bars and he repeatedly taunted Griffith a familiar and derogatory Latin phrase of “maricon.” Paret is alleged to have repeatedly used the term even in the presence of Griffith. Eyewitnesses recall that Paret made at least one derogatory slur during the pre-fight weigh in. At one point Griffith became so irate he vehemently repeated that he was “nobodies maricon.”
At the sound of the bell the fight took its usual twists and turns and even saw Paret knock Griffith to the canvass in the sixth round. The fight was fairly anti-climatic until the 12th round. Within seconds of the 12ths opening Griffith began to unleash a blistering barrage of punches that soon bludgeoned Paret, who had retreated to the ropes in despair. It was as if a sleeping monster had been unleashed within Griffith or better still “nobodies maricon” had been awakened. Over the years countless writers and pundits have noted the number of clean head shattering solid punches that landed on Paret’s head amounted to somewhere between 17 to 25 in 5 seconds. It was as violent of a beating ever witnessed in professional boxing. In short it was a beat down. Paret’s listless body slowly slumped to the canvass and never regained consciousness. Paret remained in a coma and died on April 3, 1962. All one can think is whether Griffith’s barrage was payback for Paret’s incessant verbal abuse? Outside the boxing arena this might have been a crime. Was it masterful pugilistic bludgeoning by a talented and hungry fighter yearning to vindicate his manhood? Or simply one gifted fighter out boxing another? You be the judge.
Ring of Fire handles the sensitive subject of Griffith’s homosexuality with care and respect. Boxing has always been seen as and still remains a man’s man’s sport. There is a reason why we all say, “may the best man win.” Our urge to recognize and reward masculinity is probably nowhere else more evident than in the sweet science. Even in women’s boxing we desire our female champions, never to look like men but to dominate like men. Emile Griffith was as ever a talented boxer ever to come out of New York but he was also homosexual who designed hats. A hat making “maricon” defies our notion and expectation of manhood and the price we all paid for our prejudices was the death of Paret. He paid for our sins.
The story of Emile Griffith makes ruin of the fine line between homosexuality, eroticism, homophobia, racism and quite frankly what life can be like when people within society don’t quite know how to deal with human beings who don’t feel, act or love the way we want them to do. In the 1960’s it was still quite unacceptable to be a homosexual and in particular a homosexual boxing champion of the world. Emile Griffith was haunted all of his last days by what transpired before and after he destroyed Paret. Griffith died on July 23, 2013 from complications from dementia.