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Emile Griffith vs. Benny “The Kid” Paret III

March 24, 1962

It had been a blistering back-and-forth battle between two men who genuinely despised one another. One year prior, on April Fool’s Day, 1961, Virgin Islander Emile Griffith took Cuban Benny “The Kid” Paret’s World and the Ring welterweight belts in a stunning thirteenth-round knockout; later that year, Paret would reclaim his titles in a split decision victory. Both men nursing grudges, they fought without reservation or restraint. In the sixth round Griffith had been knocked down and almost certainly rendered unconscious by a sharp cross-left hook combination. He’d been lucky then - the bell sounded seconds after he rose. In the twelfth round, their positions were reversed: this time, it was Paret rocked by a series of clean blows (gif row 1). Trapped in a corner and unable to defend himself by any other means, he shelled up. It was a fatal error. Knowingly or unknowingly, Griffith was in position not only to end the fight but his opponent’s life…

In a 2005 interview with Sports Illustrated, Griffith is quoted as saying “I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same…” Griffith’s identity as a bisexual was not a particularly covert matter (he lived with a boyfriend for some time during his career and, more recently, was viciously beaten while leaving a gay bar in 1992), but neither was it spotlighted by the media. But there was one person who would happily draw attention to it: Benny Paret, the hated adversary. At the weigh-in, Paret mocked and belittled Griffith, calling him “maricón" - the Spanish equivalent of "faggot."

That word fueled Emile’s already-burning anger as he pounced on his helpless enemy (row 2). His legs shot after Griffith’s vicious right (row 1, gif 3), Benny supported himself on the ropes. From a boxing standpoint, it may have made sense to him; if he didn’t lean on something, he’d take a down, which could cost him the match. His alternative cost him something far more dear. As Griffith realized that his opponent could no longer defend himself, he did what any good boxer would do: he went for the finish. What followed was one of the worst beatings in boxing history. In an era when championship gloves weighed a mere six ounces, little more than modern MMA gloves, Griffith delivered twenty-one unanswered blows before referee Ruby Goldstein stepped in to end the contest. 

Without the force of Griffith’s blows to keep him up, Paret slumped to the floor, unconscious (bottommost). His cornermen rushed to attend him as Emile lifted his arms in victory. A small crowd of teammates and doctors soon assembled around Paret; Griffith tried to get through to see him, but could not. When Paret was removed via stretcher, showered in the appreciative applause of the crowd, Griffith told his interviewer in his stuttering Virgin Islands accent: “I hope Paret is feeling very good, which they won’t let - tell me how he feels…” Unfortunately, “The Kid” would never wake up again. When Griffith learned of Paret’s state, he tried for hours unsuccessfully to see him in his hotel room. When he left, he ran through the streets, passers-by cursing him. On April 3, ten days after the fight, Benny Paret died. He was only twenty-five.

Many were convinced that Griffith had intentionally killed Benny Paret. Though the slurs Paret employed in taunting Griffith had been omitted by the media, the bitterness between the two of them was no secret. Ignoring that it is the boxer’s job to fight until the referee ends the contest, many of Paret’s supporters sent in hate mail accusing Griffith of murder. Their accusations were redundant. Griffith felt the loss deeply and carries that guilt to this day. By his own confession, Paret haunts his dreams.

It was the perfect storm - Paret’s decision to stay on the ropes, Griffith’s overflowing anger, Goldstein’s late call - and the whole world was watching live. Accusations flew in every direction and those seeking to ban boxing found a martyr to rally around. ABC, who hosted the fight, immediately cancelled their boxing broadcasts, and all other major networks followed its example. Boxing would not return to free television for a decade.

Like Sugar Ray Robinson after the death of opponent Jimmy Doyle, Emile Griffith found it hard to carry on in such a tragic sport - but, knowing little else, he kept fighting. Like Robinson, he came away a gentler man. Only twelve of the remaining eighty fights in his career were won by knockout, but he went on winning for some time, even holding belts at middleweight. Unfortunately, he fought past his prime, and after losing fourteen of his last twenty-three fights, he retired in 1977 with a final record of 85-24-2. He went on to train champions Wilfred Benitez and Juan Laporte before working as a corrections officer in New Jersey. Today, Griffith suffers from dementia pugilistica and requires full-time care. As for Goldstein, he never refereed another fight.

Griffith’s life, especially his bout with Paret, was showcased in the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: the Emile Griffith Story. It concludes dramatically with Paret’s son meeting and forgiving his father’s killer. The film is available to watch for free here.

Tags: boxing Emile Griffith Benny Paret sports martial arts history gif
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