“Ring of Fire” is one of my favorite songs; we wrote about it in connection with Johnny Cash’s death last year. It’s also the title of a new movie about Emile Griffith. The photo below shows Joe Frazier with a poster for the film:
Griffith, a member of the boxing hall of fame, was a great fighter. I believe he fought more rounds in title bouts than any fighter in history. But what he is best known for, and what has haunted him for more than forty years, is that he killed Benny the Kid Paret. It happened in March 1962, at Madison Square Garden. Griffith and Paret had fought twice before. Paret was then the world welterweight champion. This was in the days before there were multiple boxing organizations and weight classes every five pounds. At the weigh-in before the fight, Paret called Griffith a queer in Spanish (they were both from the Caribbean). In the sixth round of the March 1962 fight, Paret knocked Griffith down, and Griffith was saved by the bell. Paret blew him a kiss as he walked back to his corner. There is reason to believe, in fact, that Griffith may have been a homosexual.
In the twelfth round–title bouts then went fifteen rounds–Griffith caught up with Paret in a corner. Paret went down, but his body was caught in the ropes. The referee didn’t stop the fight, and Griffith did what he had been trained all his life to do. He kept punching. By the time the fight was finally stopped, Paret was in a coma. He died not long after. The photo below shows the 12th round action, before the fight was stopped:
I think I saw the fight. I could be wrong; I was 11 then, and memory is tricky after all these years. But my recollection is that it was televised, and I saw it. Or maybe it was only replays. Either way, it was a horrifying spectacle. Paret’s death cast a shadow over boxing for years. Reforms were enacted. Bouts were shortened, and referees began to stop fights much more quickly.
Whether Ring Of FIre is a good movie, I don’t know. Reviews have been mixed. Griffith and Paret’s son are in it. But boxing was a significant part of the sporting scene, and my life, then. The names of the boxers I saw on the Friday Night Fights still resonate: Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Dick Tiger, Ray Robinson, and many others. After Griffith killed Benny Paret, boxing disappeared from television, and, in large part, from the sporting scene. It was revived by Cassius Clay-later, Muhammad Ali–more than anyone, but in some ways it never did come back.
Anyway, I want to see the movie. You can read an interview with Emile Griffith here.
UPDATE: The response to this post has been remarkable. Apparently I’m not the only one on whom the Griffith-Paret fight made a deep impression. It was indeed broadcast live, as many readers have confirmed. Many readers, like me, saw the fight as young boys–mostly with their fathers or grandfathers–and have never forgotten it. All of which reinforces my desire to see the movie.
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