Friday, July 26, 2013

Requiem For a Welterweight

By Jeff Kallman

Before the alphabet soup sanctioning bodies, and when people still thought boxing was a sport, warts and all, there was a world welterweight rivalry that ended in tragedy. A rivalry that began when Emile Griffith took the belt from Benny (The Kid) Paret and ended when Griffith re-took it from Paret with a 12th-round battering that ended up killing the incumbent.

Griffith, who died Tuesday after a long battle with dementia, would be a haunted man in the years to come even if he managed somehow to continue his boxing career, possibly beyond its time. And Paret probably had no business being in the Madison Square Garden ring against Griffith that 1962 night in the first place.

The short version: Only the bell ending the sixth round kept Griffith himself from being a knockout victim. Before going back for the seventh, trainer Gil Clancy gave him a fateful instruction: "When you go inside I want you to keep punching until Paret holds you or the referee breaks you! But you keep punching until he does that!"

The Virgin Islander battled the Cuban onward, and somewhat brutally, until Griffith bombarded Paret in the 12th with 29 unanswered, fast punches that knocked Paret out on his feet, before he collapsed and died in a coma ten days later.

The theories ran as amok as the outrage after Paret died. There were those who believed he was more vulnerable than he looked thanks to the head blows he'd taken in three prior bouts since taking the welterweight belt back from Griffith in a split decision — with all three fights happening within a year's time.

There were others who believed Paret had taunted Griffith into a raw rage at the pre-fight weigh-in, when Parent threw what we've long since called an anti-gay slur at Griffith, the Spanish word for "faggot." In due course, Griffith would profess bisexuality even as he thought nothing in later years of visiting gay and bisexual establishments.

"I don't know what I am," he would tell a reporter in later years. "I love men and women."

Still others believed referee Rudy Goldstein failed to stop the fight sooner. Quite a turn from Goldstein's apparent earlier reputation for stopping them too soon. (Though nobody argued when he stopped the Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis mismatch, after Marciano knocked Louis through the ring.) And Goldstein in fairness may have been mindful of one of the few blemishes on Paret's resume, his apparent reputation for feigning injury, not to mention Griffith's early reputation for being something less than a strong finisher.

Once a formidable lightweight and middleweight contender himself, until his inability to take too many punches stopped him short of title contention, Goldstein — whose career as a ref included such calls as Ingemar Johansson's staggering third-round knockout of Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight title in 1959 — had his career ruined by the Griffith-Paret fight.

There were also those ready to blame at Paret's manager, Manny Alfaro. Red Smith, the sportswriting legend then with the New York Herald-Tribune, isolated the point:

"Nobody involved has any right to blame anybody else for a tragic accident, least of all a manager who gets his boy cruelly beaten by Gene Fullmer, then sends him back against a man who has already knocked him out...

"Still, if a man honestly feels that boxing should be abolished, he has every right to cite the Paret case in support of his position."

Three fights in a year's time was bad enough in Paret's case. One of them was a play for the world middleweight belt two months after winning the welterweight back from Griffith. Paret fought Gene Fullmer, who'd taken the middleweight belt from Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957, and Fullmer made Paret resemble a sparring partner before winning a unanimous 15-round decision in which Paret was badly behind in every round.

Most likely, Paret was in shaky enough shape to stand in for a welterweight defense against anyone, never mind Griffith. Indeed, the New York State Boxing Commission would come under fire for sanctioning Paret to meet Griffith so soon after Fullmer had battered him nearly senseless. Even allowing Griffith's normal stock in trade being arm and leg speed instead of overpowering punches.

ABC commentator Don Dunphy started the twelfth round call by predicting it might be the tamest round of the evening. That was like predicting Hiroshima would be nothing but a loud pop. Griffith's unanswered barrage, including a sobering eighteen punches landed in a six-second span, sent Paret to and through the ropes, Paret somehow staying on his feet until Goldstein stopped the fight.

Paret's death drove boxing off the air as a television regular for almost a decade, abetted when Davey Moore fell into a coma — and died over three days later — after he was knocked out by Sugar Ramos to lose the world featherweight belt a year later.

Griffith would be haunted by Paret's death for years to come. It only began with focusing his ring style exclusively on his speed and his boxing intelligence. He'd have 80 bouts between the Paret fight and his 1977 retirement and score only 12 knockouts. Fighting that way helped him claim the world middleweight title from Nigeria's Dick Tiger in the mid-1960s by decision, then lose, regain, and lose it again to Nino Benvenuti.

In retirement, Griffith — who'd once packed and then helped design women's hats as a young man and was considered one of the most charming men outside the ring — struggled with his sexuality in some respects. He wasn't ashamed of his bisexuality, but he wasn't quick to speak of it at every given opportunity, either. Live and let live.

Few seemed to want to say what really might have triggered his dementia: a ferocious beating he'd taken outside a gay bar in New York in 1992, courtesy of five men with baseball bats and chains. Formerly regarded as an otherwise endearing presence wherever he visited, Griffith spent the final two years of his life bedridden and feeding by tube.

His biographer Ron Ross (Nine ... Ten ... and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith) told the Los Angeles Times, "I visited him three weeks ago. It was just so sad to see him like that, knowing he had this tremendous athleticism and instinctive skills once. He could do anything — play tennis, dance, sing. He never wanted to be a fighter."

But he suffered nightmares for the rest of his life about Benny Paret, often seeing Paret at the foot of his bed. In due course, Paret's son forgave Griffith, though Paret's widow could never bring herself even to look at him.

It's almost forgotten that Griffith took the world middleweight crown (after an earlier, failed bid to wrest it from Hurricane Carter) without trying to beat Tiger senseless, or worse. (Tiger himself, it should be said, had a career very similar to Griffith's: in 80 fights, he scored only 24 knockouts, winning most of his 60 wins by points or decisions.)

Long since has boxing become a spectacle in which the combatants — perhaps ignorant of what was meant when Pierce Egan named it "the sweet science," a phrase that became the title of A.J. Liebling's anthology of boxing writing — seem to enter with the single aim of turning an opponent into a zombie. You can only begin with seeing what's left of Muhammad Ali nowadays. (One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't even know there was a Manila, said a Joe Frazier intimate to a Frazier biographer, in 2002, a decade before Frazier died of liver cancer.) Or what was left of Patterson and Johansson, dying of Alzheimer's disease within three years of each other in the Aughts.

But you might want to remember one of the last men who did approach boxing as a balance between mind and body and something other than trying to knock a man into the middle of next month. A lesson he was re-taught, tragically, when a man who probably had no business being in the ring against him in the first place died for having been there.

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