Thursday, November 3, 2011

The night America lost its manhood

Emile Griffith -vs.- Benny Kid Paret

Emile Griffith came to the main land from the US Virgin Islands. He was born in 1938. At age 11 he moved to New York City. When his employer Howard Albert observed him in the gym he encouraged Emile to take up boxing. Griffith wanted to play baseball instead but the boss has the money. In happened for him when in 1958 Emile won golden gloves in the New York inner city amateur welterweight and went on to win the National Amateur Welterweight Crown, at the age of 20, Griffith became a professional boxer. When he went pro the first 24 fights he only lost twice. Emile would hold the welterweight professional championship three times, first won it from Benny (“Kid”) Paret in a 13-round knockout on April 1, 1961; he lost it to Paret in a rematch by a 15-round decision on September 30, 1961; and he regained it by a knockout of Paret on March 24, 1962. It was this last fight that all of us who remember feel we lost a part of ourselves that night.

Benny "Kid" Paret was born in Santa Clara, Cuba in 1937. What Paret remembered most about his childhood was poverty and despair.

Paret joined an amateur fight club in Santa Clara and soon was at the top of his sport. Paret's  main rival was a boxer from Havana, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, who was undefeated at the time. The fight between Paret and Rodriguez took place in 1958 in Havana. Rodriguez won a close decision in an exciting and hard fought bout. Later the same year Paret lost another decision to Rodriguez. Soon after the second fight a couple of men from Miami who offered Rodriguez the title in exchange for a 50% cut of his future earnings. The next fight was to be against the world champion Don Jordan of the Dominican Republic. Rodriguez declined the offer and Benny Kid Paret not Rodriguez was given the shot. May of 1960, in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was Benny "Kid" Paret who defeated Don Jordan. Paret would fight April 1, 1961 against Emile Griffith for the first time in Miami Beach. It was evenly matched for the first twelve rounds.  Then in the thirteenth round Griffith landed an evil left hook followed by an even more evil right. Paret fell to the floor and the fight was over. A rematch was fought in September in Madison Square Garden. This time the fight lasted the full 15 rounds. Paret won the decision and regained the championship. Griffith thought the decision unfair and said so publicly.

Both said things about the other and bad blood begin to brew.

Griffith boxed in three more fights, soon after, winning all of them.

Paret soon after also had his boxing matches. Moving up in weight, he challenged Gene Fullmer for the Middleweight Title. Gene Fullmer gave courageous little warrior Paret an atrocious pasting in December 1961 in Las Vegas. Paret has hurt more than he would admit. He could not let the ref stop the fight as manhood itself was at stake

The fateful night in 1962 the Griffith and Paret third encounter started out on a bad foot. Paret approached Griffith at the weigh in and called him a maricón, which is a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual. They had to be separated, as the fight would have happened off camera.

The fight itself was a classic literary drama. The fight began with a calling each to destroy the other. Paret fought hard as he dropped the solidly favored Griffith in the sixth round, Griffith tried to get up Paret landed a series of punches and knocked Griffith down Griffith was stunned the fight was at an end right there, but the bell signaling the end of the round sounded before the fight was stopped.

This was no ordinary fight. The series of rounds was a hate match. Then the 12th round it was Griffith forced Paret into a corner weakened and dazed. Griffith landed a combination of uppercuts and hooks showing no compassion for the seriously injured Paret. Paret was in trouble all could see it yet the fight continued. Paret started to go down, but his arm got caught onto the ropes and it held his body up. Griffith intensified the ferocious assault. Paret sustained ongoing damage. By the time the referee stopped the fight Paret was unconscious. He had to be carried out of the ring. The 25-year-old fighter went into a coma and died 10 days later.

During that 1962 fight we sat in our living room with my dad’s union buddies to watch the fight on black and white TV with the sound turn off and the radio cranked up to hear the blow-by-blow account. It was a manhood festival.  Being fifteen and surrounded by the International Brotherhood of Carmen was great in and of it self. But, my brother who was ten and myself shared in the before fight whisky and also shared in the homemade Italian Sausages, Red Wine and hot peppers. It was manhood’s finest hour. As the fight continued the fever pitch  intensified, until round 12. Reality all ways comes uninvited what should have been entertainment was angry and it was personal and we all lost something that night and no one who watched the fight would ever be them same.

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