Back in the spring of 1962, while indentured to the US Army as a Private E-1 doing basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, I landed a weekend pass allowing me to ramble up to the Big City to catch the fights. It’s funny how sometimes encounters with the historic can just fall in your lap.
And on this particular evening, events at the old Madison Square Garden at 8th and 49th would be avowedly “historic,” the occasion being a middleweight championship match between two very tough Latin kids with loud and fierce followings; Emile Griffith, a terrific fighter, and Bennie “Kid” Paret, not as skilled but every bit as brave.
It was widely billed as a grudge match loaded with bad blood. The vibes were terrible. In the jangled drum-roll of the looming tragedy, insults raged, with Griffith concluding that his manhood had been deeply and unforgivingly disparaged. Nor did Paret – a notably brash character – deny that was precisely his intention. The street talk crackled with anger. By fight time, the Garden was seething. A stylish fighter and relatively mild-mannered, at least as boxers go, Griffith entered the ring in an awful rage.
Impossibly, the brawl exceeded expectations. For 11 rounds it was a toe-to-toe slugfest in the ring while all over the Garden skirmishes flared in the aisles and seats with the rival constituencies clashing amidst a piercing din.
Then in the 12th, Griffith cornered Paret, and with a sheer fury bordering on the insane, pummeled him with what was officially determined to have been 17 consecutive smashing blows to the Kid’s head from short range as the referee, Ruby Goldstein, seemingly transfixed, did nothing. The murderous assault took about 10 seconds, though it seemed much longer with what seemed more like three or four dozen additional blows being struck. It was unspeakably gruesome.
Goldstein, an ex-boxer of distinction who was long considered a great ref, later lamented that he was waiting for the Kid to go down for the count. But Paret couldn’t fall because his right arm had become hooked on the ropes. From about 20 rows back, we could see that he was hopelessly ensnared, but Ruby didn’t, or couldn’t, and when he finally restrained Griffith, the Kid was already unconscious. He lingered nine days, never awakening. A half-century later, the madness of the scene remains a vivid memory, especially the shrill chirping of the rival gangs in their unrelenting venting of their hatreds, even as Paret lay dying on the canvass.
The effect on boxing of that horrific evening was monumental, the ensuing uproar ruinous. I firmly believe boxing essentially ceased to be a major American sport that night because the tragedy had been beamed on network television. Those were less-jaded times. The very notion of witnessing a mindlessly savage homicide in the guise of an alleged sporting event in the comfort of your living room was a greater issue then than it might be today, it being well before we could collectively say as a culture that we’d “seen everything,”
Obviously, the sport didn’t expire, but it would never again be like it was; not even close. Yet ahead lay the Ali years, and, later, our entire region would be lengthily enthralled with the raucous experiences of Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
The game still persists. Aficionados survive, and if they crave a fisticuffs fix, one is often enough available, albeit for an increasingly hefty cable price.
But with the vast and general public, boxing no longer has currency. It’s long gone. Dead! A mainstay of network television in its crucial formative years, boxing was carried with gravity as much as four evenings a week through the 1950s. But Benny Paret’s death shown live on the tube ended that strange romance. It was, if you will, yet another fatal blow.
This may seem an odd reflection on my part, but what inspired it is simple enough. In the event you missed it, Emil Griffith died the other day. He was 75 and he departed having lived a life so familiar among men who’ve plied this wicked game. It was a deeply sad, conflicted, bewildered, and, in the end, aimless life filled with too much sorrow, pain, and confusion. In short, Griffith was typical.
Most sportswriters I’ve known – and all the great ones – have been hooked on boxing. It’s a fascinating dodge forever populated with endlessly fascinating characters. There are no bores in boxing and if there are too many crooks, there are very few frauds. Boxing is a fabulous study of compelling allure, none of which diminishes the fact that it’s not just a brutal business but a decidedly rotten one.
Emile Griffith was a great fighter who held three championships and whipped the fabled likes of Dick Tiger and Nino Benvenuti. He was ever willing and never mailed it in. But he is best remembered for having killed Kid Paret.
It haunted him. He must have apologized ten thousand times, saying again and again, “I didn’t want to kill no one.” But to those who were there, the rage he lugged into that ring that night truly qualified as “murderous,” with a potential outcome regrettably too inevitable.
Before being distracted by boxing memories it was my intention this week to wax upon the deplorable Aaron Hernandez mess, a rather more predictable subject. On the other hand, what’s left to say about this dreadful matter that hasn’t been said? Dare we say “‘nothing” – except, perhaps, for this:
If it’s “time to move on,” as all the Patriot people, led by the Lord High Coaching Mikado Himself are telling us, there is this question: What precisely does that mean?
Does it mean we should forget about it? Not possible, old Sport. That Rubicon has been crossed. Or does it mean we should ignore it? That, too, proves impossible, especially as on-rushing legal proceedings approach the scale, gravity, distraction, aggravation, and public entertainment value of the Whitey Bulger epic.
Maybe in their heart of hearts, the Patriots think that skeptics, in their nasty pre-occupation with trifles relating little to football, are overstating Mr. Hernandez’s alleged indiscretions? If I were them, I’d be careful of that one, given law-enforcement’s current probes, which yet might multiply the raps linked to their wayward tight end.
Or might they secretly believe that we should care more about how our guys in red, white, and blue fare on fields of friendly strife come autumn.
But my biggest question concerns that extraordinary 22- minute alleged “apologia” delivered with so much familiar condescension (if with a bit more tact than usual) by the head coach in what he pledged would be his last word on the subject. And on that, we certainly do believe him!
In my opinion, it was a tap-dance worthy of Fred Astaire. While Mr. Belichick conceded that the questions he was being asked were “fair,” he answered none of them. He was roundly applauded by an adoring Boston media for admitting he was “saddened” and “disappointed.” What was the alternative – for him to say he was overjoyed? Why were the knights of the keyboard so grateful that he was willing – after a full month’s abject silence – to speak of an issue historically impacting his team? Why did none of them ask, “What took you so long?” He accepted responsibility for drafting Hernandez but refused to explain why he ignored all warnings to avoid him. He promised to introduce reforms but offered no details. He stone-walled, and they loved it.
To the Coach, one has this advice. Run your camp. Play your season. Win or lose, as fate ordains. Forget you drafted, cultivated, admired, and employed the disgraced fellow in question, obviously focusing only on his considerable skills while glibly ignoring all the other baggage he was bearing. Do all this without a wink, a nod, or a blush.
But don’t tell us that “it’s time to move on.” Because this historic calamity, my dear coach, has only just begun!