It was silent in the backseat of the car. The old boxer had just left the gay bar outside of which a gang of men had beaten him to the edge of death on a summer night 13 years ago. He couldn't remember how or why it happened. He had given up trying.
The traffic light on Eighth Avenue turned red. His head turned toward the passenger window.
"Look!" he cried. "There I am!"
There he was, five-time world champion Emile Griffith, 12 inches from his nose, on a poster plastered across the side of a bus that had just stopped beside his window.
He stared at himself. It was him, wrapped in anguish and shadows, on a spring night 43 years ago when he beat a man who had called him a maricón—a faggot—to the edge of death ... then beyond it.
"I don't have any clothes on!" he cried.
"No, Champ, you've got your black boxing shorts on," assured his adopted son.
"But you can't see any shorts!"
"That's because you're in shadows."
"No! I'm naked!"
"But you used to be naked in the locker room."
"But ... but I should have clothes on!"
The bus belched exhaust and pulled away. The old boxer kept staring out the window, but there was only smoke.
Get used to the smoke. Let it fill your lungs and sting your eyes. There's no getting rid of it, not in a story about Emile Griffith, not in the one American arena where the smoke just doesn't seem to dissipate. A policeman or a judge or a lawyer can openly be something other than heterosexual. A doctor or teacher or carpenter can be, along with, of course, an actor or a musician or a writer. Even executives on Wall Street now can. But a male athlete in a major sport?
Not one has ever emerged, not while he was still playing. Odd—isn't it?—because what sports does best is break down barriers and bring people of all colors and creeds together. Odd that no bat or ball or fist or foot could smash through this wall.
On April 20 a striking documentary about Emile Griffith—Ring of Fire, directed and produced by Dan Klores with Ron Berger and being promoted on buses all over New York City—will premiere on USA Network at 9 p.m. ET. Later in the year a biography of Griffith by Ron Ross, also addressing the issue of the fighter's sexuality, is expected to appear, and the rights to produce a feature film on the big screen have been sold. You'd think, under all those klieg lights and reading lamps, that the smoke's about to clear. But this is Emile Griffith. This is sports. And this is us. So the smoke may only grow thicker.
But I should have clothes on! Sorry, Champ. You're naked again, except for underwear and socks. You're approaching a weigh-in scale in front of a couple of dozen people, mostly writers and photographers. It'll be 15 years before you retire with more championship rounds under your belt than anyone in boxing history: 51 more than Sugar Ray Robinson, 69 more than Muhammad Ali. It's 1962, when a handful of writers—Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal—are virtually the only people known to be gay in all of America; even Liberace files a lawsuit against those implying he's a homosexual, for fear of what he'll lose.
"Easy, Emile," whispers his trainer, Gil Clancy.
But how can Emile be easy? The last time he and Benny (Kid) Paret—his opponent tonight at Madison Square Garden—met at the weigh-in scales, before their fight six months earlier, Benny did the unthinkable. Swished his limp wrist and hissed that word, maricón. Thank God the reporters pretended it didn't happen. Thank God it was 1961.
Then Paret nailed the insult to the wall of Griffith's heart, winning a controversial decision that night and taking back the world welterweight crown that Emile had snatched from him nearly a half year before. Now it's their third fight, the clincher. The fear of what Benny might do at the weigh-in climbs up Emile's throat. "If he says anything to me before the fight, I'll knock him out," he mutters to Clancy.
Emile steps on the scales. "Watch out," hisses Clancy. Too late: Benny's already slipped behind him, wriggling his body, thrusting his pelvis, grabbing Emile's ass. "Hey, maricón," Paret coos, "I'm going to get you and your husband."
Emile blinks, in his underwear, at a room full of boxing aficionados, reporters and photographers. If he doesn't respond, that means he's afraid, means he's weak ... means he may be just what Paret says he is.
Clancy steps between them. "Save it for tonight," he begs Emile.
It’s tonight. The 12th round. The whole country's watching. It's fight night on TV. The smoke of 7,600 men in sport coats and ties, sucking in and exhaling their Chesterfields and Camels and Lucky Strikes and White Owls, descends over the ring at the old Madison Square Garden. That blue nicotine fog, as Pete Hamill, a writer puffing for the New York Post at the time, calls it.
In the center of the smoke crouch two black immigrants from the islands. They've played basketball together in the neighborhood they share in the shadows of the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Paret, 25, the sugarcane cutter from Cuba who carries his two-year-old son, Benny Jr., everywhere on his shoulders, fighting in what he has decided will be his last prizefight ... never dreaming how right he'll be. Griffith, 24, a Virgin Islander who never wished to be a fighter, who just happened to ask if he could take off his shirt on a sweaty summer day as a teenager working in a hat factory on West 39th Street owned by a former amateur boxer named Howie Albert. Albert had never seen anything like it: a 26-inch waist fanning out to 44-inch shoulders, all rippling with muscle. "Shoulders," says boxing writer Bert Sugar, "that you could serve dinner for six on."
The young man didn't have the lust for hurting people—would've been happy hauling boxes of bonnets to Macy's and Gimbel's all his life—but his body was a destiny that had to be fulfilled. Albert took him to Clancy, a trainer with a growing reputation at a gym on 28th Street. Two months after he laced up the 11th-grade dropout, the kid was a finalist in the New York Golden Gloves. A year later he was the national Gloves champ.
Boxing solved things. It gave Emile a release for something that just didn't fit with the ear-to-ear smile he always showed the world: a monstrous rage that he felt whenever his family was insulted or his manhood was challenged. Boxing gave him—in his co-managers, Clancy and Albert—two of what he'd never really had one of: father figures. It gave him money for the first time and enabled him, after each pro fight, to fly one more of his seven siblings up from the Caribbean to New York City and attempt to re-create something that exploded in his childhood in St. Thomas, back when his absentee father cleared out for good and headed to America, when his mother left to take a cooking job for the governor in Puerto Rico, when his brothers and sisters were scattered like shrapnel, landing in the homes of their mother's relatives and friends.
Emile landed hardest: on his knees, on the bricks at Aunt Blanche's house, holding cinder blocks overhead as long as he could, knowing that when his arms dropped, her switch would rake his back. That was his punishment for dawdling in his daily task of hauling water in a steel drum up the hill to her house. He loathed living there so much that he begged to enter Mandal, St. Thomas's home for wayward and orphaned boys, and finally was accepted. Somehow, as the oldest child in the family, he felt responsible to gather all its splintered pieces one day and glue them back together.
He's 23 now, living with Mama and all her brood in the five-bedroom house he's just bought in Queens Village. A champ but still a child, leaping into the referee's arms to hug him the first time he takes the title from Paret and then, when the astonished ref fumbles him onto the canvas, doing a backward somersault. Running up $100 candy bills in the gift shop at the Concord Hotel, where he trains in the Catskills, doling out gum and grins to everyone, falling asleep with a wad of Bazooka in his mouth that Albert has to scoop out.
So sweet—maybe too sweet, the men in the city's boxing gyms have begun to whisper. They've started adding things up: that high-pitched singsong voice ... those Sunday mornings singing tenor at St. James Missionary Church ... those pants as tight as tape on his broomstick legs ... those young Latino males who seem to appear wherever he does ... that teenager he always lets use his car and calls his "son." But what's this all add up to? It can't be that, not in 1962 or even 2002: a prizefighter, a champion, a limp wrist with a knockout punch? It's the ultimate contradiction, the perfect smoke, so dense that Emile himself can't see through it. "It was irreconcilable ... to be homosexual and a world champion," says Sugar. "As long as he was beating the s—- out of people, it gave lie to the slander. You couldn't confirm it, you couldn't deny it, you just had to put it ... over there."
"Besides," says Bob Jackson, a New York City trainer who was just getting started at the time, "we're like the police, the blue wall. There's a code. We might talk among ourselves about it, but nobody would talk in public about something like that." Nobody ... except a desperate man.
Paret has taken a beating in three straight fights, including that dubious decision over Griffith; the most recent one, when he went up in weight to fight middleweight Gene Fullmer, was so frightful that even the cheap-seat sadists left the arena with a hollow in the pit of their guts. But Benny's still dangerous because he can catch a wrecking ball with his chin and remain vertical, then take five or six more for good measure, then—what?—blink away the fog and flatten you ... the way he did just moments ago to Emile, in the sixth round of this third fight. Clancy got in Emile's face after the round and shouted, "Emile, look, 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!"
Midway through the 12th, Emile stuns Benny with a short right. Benny reels into a corner, eats another hammer, then another. His head and shoulders slump. The only way to nail his jaw now is with uppercuts, and so that's what Emile begins to hurl—or rather, that's what hurls out of Emile, an eruption of fury so mechanically precise that it seems to come from an engine house in hell rather than from the realm of human kinetics. At last Benny tilts, but the turnbuckle keeps him from collapsing, from saving himself, and now begins the terrible tick-tock of his cranium, left-right-left-right-left-right, combinations bursting from Emile faster than eye and brain can process.
The ref! Where's the ref? Who's the ref? Ruby Goldstein, a victim of his own expertise, a respected pro who knows this sport so well that he knows Emile's not a big finisher, knows Paret's a chronic possum, knows the Hispanics in the house will riot if he stops this fight just as their possum's about to pounce. Goldstein is caught flat-footed as 18 punches land in six seconds—29 consecutive unanswered punches in all—bouncing brain against skull again and again. Eyes puffed shut, blood oozing from his nose and his cheek, Benny slithers down the ropes, at last, as Goldstein grabs Emile and his cornermen run to wrap him too.
Yet every so often, he says, he is asked about his role in the death of Benny (Kid) Paret. Sometimes, particularly if the questioner is too hectoring, he will decline comment. At other times, he said, ''I may be talking to a guy and he knows I don't want to talk about it. He'll just keep jabbing and jabbing. I just block him out. I look at him, smile at him, nod at him and I don't hear a word he's saying.''
The memories, however, can surface without persuasion; he tries squelching these thoughts as well. ''It works sometimes,'' he said. The months after the fight, Griffith said, were filled ''with a lot of crying, a lot of screaming,'' a despondence that began the night of the fight - March 24 - when he secluded himself in his hotel suite and tried sleeping with the lights on. He would dream of Paret approaching him and disappearing when he extended his hand.
''He went through the gamut,'' said Gil Clancy, his trainer and co-manager and now a boxing commentator for CBS Sports. ''It took a lot of talking and cheering up and finally he put it in his subconscious and went on with life.''
Griffith won not only the welterweight championship but the middleweight title as well. He fought in 26 main-event bouts at Madison Square Garden, more than any other fighter. Yet long after the Paret fight, while in Europe for a bout, he recalled still coming across a newspaper headline reading, ''Griffith the Killer Arrives.''
Each time there is a well-chronicled boxing fatality, his insights are sought - in November when Duk Koo Kim died after a fight with Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, and particularly in 1979, when Willie Classen died in New York after being knocked out by Wilford Scypion. Griffith had worked in Scypion's corner that night.
''It sells, I'm sorry to say,'' Griffith said of the fight with Paret which he calls ''the accident.'' ''It still sells and I don't like it.''
''If I were ever to see Emile Griffith on the street, ever to meet him, I would shake his hand,'' said Benny Paret Jr. ''I know nothing was done intentionally to hurt my father.'' He is a 23-year-old drama student at New York University who hopes, one day, to portray his father in a motion picture. He bears a strong resemblance to his namesake, whom he recalls as a man who carried him on his shoulders wherever he went.
But to play his father, he says, he must learn a good deal more about him. Benny Paret died shortly after his 25th birthday. He was survived by his wife, Lucy, who was then 21 and pregnant, his 2-year-old son and his mother and siblings who had remained in his native Cuba and whom he had not seen in several years. His mother and brother Alberto, for whom his second son would be named, were flown to the United States after his last fight and later accompanied his coffin at a funeral attended by 2,500 people.
He won the welterweight championship in 1960, lost it to Griffith in their first fight a year later and regained it in their second. Four months before their third and final fight, he was soundly beaten by Gene Fullmer, the middleweight champion. Paret enjoyed a reputation as a fighter who could absorb punishment.
His death, however, was caused by some 20 straight punches to the head within about five seconds in a nationally televised bout at Madison Square Garden. The beating resulted in massive brain hemorrhaging and a coma from which he did not emerge. The knockout was replayed in slow motion for the television audience.
The fight was investigated by the New York Police Department, the New York County District Attorney, the State Athletic Commission and, several months later, a joint legislative committee on boxing. Ruby Goldstein, the referree, was publicly criticized for not stopping the fight sooner. Manuel Alfaro, Paret's manager, was rebuked for having agreed to a rematch with Griffith so soon after the Fullmer fight. And Griffith was left to read and hear about the ferocity with which the fight ended, and whether he might not have been seeking vengeance for having been called a homosexual by Paret during the weigh-in. Years later, he would recall that despite the taunt and the fist fight that almost ensued, he and Paret had waved to each other as they left for lunch that day.
No official blame was attributed to any of those involved in the event for the death. And although there were calls for boxing's abolition, the sport, in time, resumed its normal pace.
Goldstein, who had refereed 39 championship fights, officiated at one more fight and retired. Alfaro moved to Miami and eventually became a hotel dining-room captain. Lucy Paret gave birth to a second son. Until she realized that her older son was learning about his father's death independently, she told him that Benny Paret had gone to Cuba.
''I felt so sorry for him,'' she said, years later. ''Benny kept on waiting for his father to come home. Albert never asked about his father because he never knew him.''
She is 43 years old, lives alone in a trailer park south of Miami and works in a nursery tending to plants. Over the couch in her living room is a portrait photographed when she was a young woman of perhaps 17, working as a dancer in a Bronx nightclub owned by Manuel Alfaro. Paret, one of Alfaro's fighters, would watch her dance and send flowers but, by necessity, asked someone else to write the note because he was illiterate. On their first date, she recalls, a chaperone accompanied them to the movies.
In time, however, she moved into the single room he rented on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. ''It was exciting. I didn't know any better,'' she said. ''God, this guy loves me so much. Everything was so beautiful. Those were the best two months of my life.''
The relationship, however, would grow strained; but after considerable friction, Lucy Paret says, the marriage began improving in the months before her husband's death. He purchased and decorated a small, white house in Miami. It was there, on the night of his last fight, that she was baking a cake for his belated birthday celebration. She did not attend his fights, she says, because she abhorred boxing. A female friend came by to watch the fight on television. During the last minute of the 12th round, the friend called to her that Paret had been knocked out. She came inside and looked at the television screen. ''I was just looking at Benny lying on the floor,'' Lucy Paret said. ''I don't know why I told her, but I said, 'He's dead.' ''
What she recalls of the next nine days are many faceless visitors, a silent ride from the airport to Roosevelt Hospital the next morning, the sight of her husband, his head bandaged in white, and touching his still-warm hand in the early morning after he died.
She chose not to remarry, she says, because she did not want to alienate her sons and because she did not wish to have a stranger ordering them about, as had happened to her after her mother had died. Besides, she said, ''I could never love a man more than my kids.''
Still, there have been nights, after her sons were asleep and the house was dark, she says, when she has felt particularly alone. There also have been moments after her younger son's arrest when she wondered whether he might not have been more attentive to a father.
''I always kept it inside,'' said Ruby Goldstein. He sat with his wife, Beatrice, in their North Miami Beach apartment. He is 76 years old and noticeably trim. ''I would never bring it up. You're afraid sometimes that people will bring it up themselves.''
As was his habit, Goldstein arrived and departed from Madison Square Garden on the night of the fight as inconspicuously as possible. On his way to the fight, he kept his gym bag tucked behind his legs on the subway, he says, so that no one might recognize him and approach him about the match. But on the ride home that night, he said, ''You're dreaming. You hope nobody looks at you, hope someone doesn't come over and ask about the fight.''
In subsequent weeks he was asked repeatedly why he had not stepped between the fighters sooner. He explained that he knew Paret to be the sort of fighter who would take many punches, lull his opponent into a false sense of security and then counterattack, as he had done in the fight's 10th round.
But his official exoneration, he says, could neither restore the luster of being a referee, or deaden the sting of the brief attack he had witnessed and which he can still picture clearly: ''You almost feel like you're in the ring with them. It builds up.'' Then, he said, ''you always feel you did right.''
Still, he said slowly, ''What remains in a person's mind is a death, particularly in cases like that. If you're a human being and you've got a heart, it'll be a hard thing to lose for a long time. You try to pick up again, not go down into the dumps altogether. I never said to anybody, 'Don't ask me about it.' They know you don't feel good.''
Like his older brother, Alberto Paret boxed as an amateur. Their mother did not forbid them from fighting. ''When you tell a kid no,'' she said, ''that's when they want it.'' She declined to attend their fights.
Alberto is serving a 15-year sentence for the armed robbery of an elderly woman outside a supermarket, a crime that is not without a touch of irony: When Alberto was 8 years old, he says, he carried packages from a supermarket to shoppers' cars on weekends. He gave the money to his mother, although she did not ask for it. She would tell him to buy something for himself instead. He insisted that she keep it.
Sometimes, when other inmates see Alberto staring at the picture of the fighter on his nightstand, they ask who the man is. ''That's my dad,'' he said he tells them. ''No man, you're lying,'' some of them reply. ''What's your dad's name?'' He answers: ''Benny Kid Paret. Says it right there on the belt he's wearing, the Ring magazine belt they gave him.'' Alberto, who is serving the third year of his sentence, says that some people think he displays the picture of his father so that other inmates will not bother him.
If he is paroled and still young enough, he says, he would like to be a fighter. ''I want to be a champ, like him,'' he said of his father.
He turned and began walking toward a group of inmates. On the back of his pale blue prison-issue jacket were two black boxing gloves framing the words, ''Kid Paret.''Continue reading the main story