Is Boxing Called The Sweet Science Because of Emile Griffith?

BY Robert Ecksel ON April 19, 2005
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It is not the great word of the 20th Century. If there is a single word the last century has not added to the potentiality of language, that word is “maricon.” Maricon is Spanish for “faggot.” It is a word that can cut through flesh like a knife. It’s a slight, an insult, an affront to what it means to be a man. Benny “Kid” Paret called Emile Griffith “maricon” at the afternoon weigh-in before their third and final fight at Madison Square Garden. He also pinched Griffith’s behind.

Some believe it may have cost him his life.

USA Network will premiere "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story" without commercial interruption tonight at 9:00 PM/ET. Directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger, with cinematography by Buddy Squires, “Ring of Fire” focuses on the 1962 welterweight title fight between Griffith and Paret. It also explores the dark inverted mirrors of boxing, masculinity and sexuality.

“The tale of Emile Griffith is a tale of love and violence,” Klores said. “It contains many layers within: issues of politics, of ethnicity, of the American Dream, of gays in sports, of violence and media.”

“It was a major, major sporting event on live television,” Berger added. “And when you see what happens, the tragedy that happened in the ring, it sort of sticks with you as a kid, the same way seeing John Kennedy killed a year later sort of defined a generation in a lot of ways.”

“Ring of Fire” brings us back to the flammable 1960s. The liberating liberation movements were still to come, and being gay, especially a gay athlete, and a gay boxer on top of it? Forget about it.

As Jimmy Breslin states in “Ring of Fire”: “It was the first time people really talked about people being gay, except for when they were being arrested.”

We’ve come a long way, baby; progress, followed by regress, to this very day.

Klores, describing Griffith, said, “Here he was, a man living in a brutal, brutal world of boxing. He was an immigrant who conquered the American Dream, and then he killed someone.”

Griffith, from the Virgin Islands, first fought Paret, from Cuba, in 1960 and knocked him out in the thirteenth round. The fighters fought a rematch and Paret won a disputed decision. The rubber match was held at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962.

When Paret uttered his slur, he was repeating what he had heard about Griffith, but as Emile says in “Ring of Fire,” “I knew that maricon meant faggot and I’m not anybody’s faggot.” As if to back up his words, Griffith trapped Paret in the corner and unloaded. Referee Ruby Goldstein, a little slow on the draw that night, eventually stepped in and stopped the slaughter. It was too little and too damn late. Paret slumped to the canvas. He was unconscious for good. He died ten days later at Roosevelt Hospital.

There was a huge amount of fallout over the death of Benny “Kid” Paret. It happened live on national TV. In the petit bourgeois comforts of our Ozzie and Harriet bubble, Mom, Dad and the kids got to watch a real death in real time and in living black and white - all under the guise of entertainment.

It was a blow to America’s solar plexus. TV was supposed to be a friend, a member of the family, the reliable magic box, one's very own dispenser of dependable chatter and useless information. And now this betrayal. And all because of boxing. Moralists of all stripes stormed onto their pulpits to lay it on the line about this so-called sport. Anybody and everybody worth their salt put in their two cents. The Vatican weighed in; as did the London Parliament. Governor Nelson Rockefeller fathered statewide hearings about the game. New York District Attorney Frank Hogan threatened to investigate Ruby Goldstein.

With Emile Griffith in seclusion, the bluenoses had a field day.

Even the New York Times was calling for the abolition of boxing. Howard Tuckner filed a story on the fight and included the word “homosexual” in the text. The copy editor got cold feet (this after Hiroshima, Auschwitz and The Rosenbergs) and changed the word “homosexual” to “unman.”

When the dust finally settled, the networks yanked boxing off the air for ten long years.

Griffith was shattered by Paret’s death. He eventually reemerged and continued to do what he did best. Emile was and will always be a fighter. He fought for fifteen more years. He is in the Boxing Hall of Fame. He has been a credit to the fight game from the start.

“Ring of Fire” is beautifully done in a Ken Burns-ish kind of way, but because Griffith is a more contemporary figure than Jack Johnson, the subject of Burns' last effort, this documentary, while not a big ticket PBS item, feels a little closer to home. And the Latin underpinnings of a soundtrack by Tito Rodriguez, Ray Barretto, Machito, mixed with the soulful stirrings of The Temptations, James Brown, The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye, make this film sizzling hot.

But in the end, no matter how alluring that peephole, it matters less what a man does in the bedroom than what he does in the ring.

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