Ring of Fire
Reviewed by Richard Arlin (Dick) Stull
JULY 9, 2007 archive - Arete, Sport Literature Association
Primal Plate Tectonics in a Good Man's Soul
[Ring of Fire]
On March 24, 1962, I sat in the living room with my dad to watch Gillette's Friday Night at the Fights on an old eighteen-inch Zenith black and white TV. It was a regular ritual. My dad would drink Falstaff beer, we'd discuss the newest rankings in Ring Magazine and look forward to watching Carlos Ortiz, Kid Gavilan, Jose Torres, Floyd Patterson and Emile Griffith. At a time before instant replay, my father, in his quest for reception perfection, habitually got up during the fights to adjust the long rabbit ears antennae. It drove me crazy because he'd invariably cause a blizzard right at the critical knock-down or knockout. That night, Emile Griffith, an artful, powerful boxer, fought Benny "Kid"" Paret, a tough Cuban counter-puncher for the welterweight championship live from Madison Square Garden in New York City. In the twelfth round, Griffith pinned Paret in the corner and unleashed a barrage of punches that left Paret helpless along the ropes. As Griffith continued to pound away with straight right hands and tremendous uppercuts, Paret slumped along the ropes slowly to the canvas. According to one observer, Griffith threw seventeen unanswered punches. My dad never moved to adjust the antennae. The picture was crystal clear this time. Paret never regained consciousness and died ten days later.
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story is a documentary of uncommon power, a modern day Greek tragedy with individual and cultural twists and contexts that make unforgettable viewing. From the opening scene of the swollen streets of late 1950's New York City, James Brown's soulful rendition of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" in the background, Ring of Fire has you hooked. The back-stories and subsequent developments surrounding that night in 1962 are told by a colorful array of New York writers and boxing people and like Pete Hamill, Howie Albert, Juan Gonzalez, Jimmy Breslin, Jack Newfield, Neal Gabler, Hank Kaplan, Griffith's trainer Gil Clancy, boxers Gaspar Oretga, Jose Torres and Lupe Pintor, Ruby Goldstein Jr., Paret's widow, Lucy, his son, Benny Jr., and, of course, Emile Griffith himself, age 67 at the time of the filming.
Griffith and Paret were immigrants from the Virgin Islands and Cuba, respectively. They grew up in adjacent neighborhoods and had even played basketball together as kids. For the Irish, Italian, Jewish and other immigrant groups of the past, boxing was a way out of poverty. But the two fighters were on a collision course in more ways than one as they ascended to the top ranks of the welterweight division. Griffith was a popular, likable fighter, supremely gifted, who was genuinely respectful to his peers and opponents alike. Paret was a cocky, courageous counter-puncher willing to take four punches to land one. Griffith had won the title against Paret the previous year but lost their rematch. The third fight was more than a clash of boxing styles and personalities. Rumors on the street circulated that Griffith was gay. At the weigh-in for their third fight, Paret taunted Griffith with the word 'maricon.' Griffith, while never directly confirming or denying his sexual orientation, said ominously in the opening interview for the documentary, "He called me a 'maricon.' I knew 'maricon' meant faggot. And I wasn't nobody's faggot." During the fight Griffith was sharp, focused, moving skillfully, fighting cleverly out of the clinches, beating Paret to the punch from long and short range. Although Paret knocked Griffith down in the sixth round, it was Griffith's fight. Finally, in a 12th round that was comparatively benign, Griffith caught Paret on the ropes in the corner of the ring. What happened then was described by writer Norman Mailer as Griffith's right hand "like a piston-rod unhinged from the crank-case" with the effects of a "ball-bat smashing a pumpkin." Referee Ruby Goldstein, lauded on the Ed Sullivan Show because he had the courage to step in and stop fights before fighters were permanently hurt, inexplicably stood by as Griffith pounded Paret. After finally stepping in to separate the two, Paret, wrote Mailer, "went down like a large ship that turns on end and slides second by second into its grave."
Paret remained in a coma, never regaining consciousness, and died after ten days. Griffith was inundated with hate mail. Politicians called to ban boxing. Television, which had become the new national medium, had literally shown an execution as mass entertainment.
The documentary also points out the inverted vice bowl of poverty and exploitation of those in the fight game. Paret, who had already suffered tremendous punishment in his previous fights, was likened by writer Pete Hamill to a car that had been in a crash and could never be the same. His manager, Manny Alfaro had simply used him for one more big payday. Ironically, Griffith, a genuinely likable, respectful, thoughtful, humane human being, never intended to become a boxer. At the age of fifteen, he was working as a hat designer in the garment district when he took his shirt off on a hot day. His boss, noticing his Herculean body, immediately took him to fight trainer Gil Clancy, who taught him how to box.
Griffith was shattered by the death of Paret. He nonetheless continued to fight into the seventies and won five additional world championships. Incredibly, after he retired, he was severely beaten by thugs outside a gay night-club and sustained brain and memory damage far worse than he ever had taking blows in the ring. He is cared for by his adopted son, a former inmate in a correctional facility where Griffith used to work. Griffith still has nightmares about the fight.
There are some unforgettable scenes. One, showing Benny Paret Jr. as a toddler playing on the floor with a picture of his late father in his boxing attire on the wall in the background, is heart-breaking. Paret's young wife, Lucy somehow carried on, never remarried, and is shown laying flowers on the grave of her late husband forty-four years later. Finally, there is an emotional meeting of Griffith and Benny Jr., now in his forties, where Griffith, haunted for years by that fateful night and his fears of meeting Benny Jr., embraces the fighter's son. Lucy was never able to bring herself to meet with Emile. "I understand," Griffith said to Benny Jr.
Ring of Fire is a profound commentary on fate, violence, primal pathos, cultural and class complexities, sexuality, wives and mothers, fathers, sons, tragedy, what it means to be a man, what it means to be human - a fiction writer couldn't have invented this story. See it for yourself. Unforgettable. Like that night in 1962.
Ring of Fire - The Emile Griffith Story (2004). Starring: Emile Griffith, Howie Albert Director: Ron Berger, Dan Klores. Running Time: 87 Min., Format: DVD MOVIE
Copyright © 2007 by Richard Arlin Stull.