There was a faint tattoo, as insubstantial as a shadow, on Benny (Kid) Paret's left biceps—a sentimental composition of hearts and flowers with the legend, "True Love"; a souvenir of some happy hour. Until the bleak, early hours last Sunday morning, there was no True Love between Paret, who was the welterweight champion of the world, and Emile Griffith, who now is. Under intolerably distressing and lamentable circumstances, Emile had taken the title from Paret. He had knocked him out in the 12th round with a terrible succession of uppercuts and hooks, had watched him leave the ring in Madison Square Garden unconscious on a stretcher, high white shoes first, their gaudy candy-striped laces untied. And Griffith was seized with the common sorrow and natural compassion of decent men.
"I hope he isn't hurt," Griffith said in his dressing room. "I pray to God—I say from my heart—he's all right." Paret, alas, was not all right. He was near death in Roosevelt Hospital. He had been given last rites by a priest who was bitter at what he called the ultimate immorality of prizefighting. Paret's brain, that soft, vulnerable instrument, was hemorrhaging, and at 12:30 a.m. Sunday he was operated on to relieve the enormous pressure of blood collecting under the brain lining.
The force of Griffith's uppercuts had, presumably, driven the blood back toward the rear of Paret's skull; the force of Griffith's hooks made the brain reverberate against the skull, which moves more quickly than the brain. This jouncing caused many of Paret's cranial blood vessels to break. The brain lining is so tight that when blood collects it exerts tremendous pressure on the brain, eventually causing death. To relieve pressure and evacuate the blood, Paret's doctors drilled holes in the skull (in similar fashion, when blood collects under a fingernail, a hole is drilled in the nail). If the brain is badly bruised, or lacerated, however, the blood clots accumulate again and the patient dies.
In his heyday, Benny (Kid) Paret was a cocky little man who favored bright, heavy jewelry, but he once cut sugar cane for $2 a day in the fields of Santa Clara, Cuba, where he was born. He acquired a wife, Lucy, produced a son, Benny Jr., 2, bought a 1962 Eldorado Cadillac and a 1962 Thunderbird. He had 49 fights, he won 34. He was not a notably hard hitter or a consummate boxer, but he had never given ground or given up. His manager. Manny Alfaro, said that Paret, 25 years old, had planned to retire after this fight with Griffith. Alfaro said Benny had gotten what he wanted. All that was unfulfilled was his wish to become an American citizen.
It was a fight marked with episodes of anger and resentment—butts, surly shoves, low blows and milling after the bell. The bad blood had its origin in an incident during the weigh-in for the second Griffith-Paret fight last September—they had three bouts in all—in which Paret won a highly regrettable split decision. Smiling fatuously as they posed for the photographers at the scales, Paret had blithely cursed Griffith in Spanish. Griffith vowed that if Paret ever taunted him again in this manner he would fight him then and there. Saturday morning, when they weighed in for the third fight, Paret did.
As before, Paret called Griffith maricón, gutter Spanish for homosexual. It is the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom and is particularly galling to Griffith, who has a piping voice, wears extravagantly tight clothes, has designed women's hats and is, ordinarily, a charming, affectionate kid. Griffith told Benny to "shut up." Paret laid a gratuitous, slighting hand on Emile's back. "Keep your hands off me, Paret," snarled Griffith.
The fires Paret had lit in Griffith were banked as he entered the ring Saturday night, but they were not banked very deep. Griffith won the first five rounds on all the cards, though his attempts to finish off Paret were repulsed by flurries of body punches. But towards the end of the sixth round, Benny caught Griffith with a long left hook and dropped him along the ropes. Griffith got up at the count of eight, steadying himself by holding onto the ropes. Referee Ruby Goldstein had to pry his hand loose.
Emile retaliated with spirit in the last moments of that round and again during the seventh, but Paret took the eighth. Emile appeared drowsy and listless, as though he had not fully recovered from the knockdown. In the 10th, however, Griffith hit Paret with a smart right hand, his most effective weapon throughout, and a classy one-two which drove The Kid into the ropes. There Emile hit him some 30 times without opposition. At one time during this barrage, Paret slid down, as though to sit on the second strand. If Griffith had backed off for a moment, it was conceivable that Paret would have fallen. Griffith's punches and Paret's stubborn resolution were all that were propping him up. Emile didn't step back, and Benny survived.
A remorseless fusillade
The 11th was a reverie to no purpose. The 12th began in the same fashion, the fighters locked in each other's arms, punching drably. Suddenly, Emile battered Paret into a neutral corner with a plangent right. This time Griffith was resolved to finish him. He began belaboring the suffering Paret with right upper-cuts, one after another, an unrelenting fusillade, Emile's hand banging against Benny's jaw as remorselessly as the clapper of a great, dark bell. Paret sagged back against the middle turnbuckle. Griffith's punches drove his head out between the top and middle strands.
Benny was helpless, bleeding from his nose and a cut on his right cheek; his puffed eyes were closed. Still Griffith punched him, with mounting and maniacal rage, as though determined, literally, to wipe out both Paret and the memory of his taunt. There were, in all, about 15 uppercuts, followed by several hooks. Then Referee Goldstein was tugging at Griffith from behind, pulling him off. As Emile, berserk, struggling passionately in Goldstein's embrace, was dragged away, Paret, now obviously senseless, crumpled slowly and collapsed. The doctors fluttered into the ring and crouched about him like ravens.
"When I saw Paret hurt," Griffith said later, "I want him to be on the ground before the fight was stopped. I wanted to keep punching. I was still eager to put him down. I thought he [Goldstein] was just breaking us." Emile kept touching his temple with his small, slender hand and shaking his head in the confusion of seeking a logical explanation for what had been irrational, emotional behavior.
Later there was criticism of Referee Goldstein. Why hadn't he stopped the fight when it was obvious that Paret was unable to defend himself—was, indeed, absolutely beaten? But Paret had a history of enduring great punishment—as he did in the 10th round—and then, seemingly out, returning fire. "I felt I did the right thing last night," Goldstein said the next day, "and I feel the same way about it today. Sometimes things don't turn out right afterwards. I knew Paret as a tough fellow."
In the first fight between Griffith and Paret, last April in Miami Beach, Emile knocked Benny out in the 13th round, winning the title for the first time. Unlike the subsequent two bouts, it had a particularly appealing and gratifying ending. After Paret had taken the count, reclining moodily on his side as though he were a guest at a Roman dinner party, Griffith embraced the startled referee and turned exuberant somersaults. His mother, a hefty, emotional woman whom Emile kids behind her broad back by calling her Chubby Checker, danced intently about the ring. He is as ingenuous as a child; Co-manager Howard Albert has to take the chewing gum out of his mouth when he falls asleep, turn off the television and radio.
The conclusion of the second fight last September demonstrated the other half of the child-man that is Emile Griffith, 23 years of age. Although Managers Gil Clancy and Howard Albert ranted and fumed about the decision, Griffith took the bad news commendably. He went over to shake Benny's hand while Paret was sitting on his handlers' shoulders, and walked briskly, nifty as ever, to his dressing room, head high. What perturbed him most was that he had let his fans down and that so many had booed him. "As long as I can move these two hands," he said then, "I'll make them like me."
In his dressing room Griffith said to Manager Albert: "Howie, you know we win it. I know I win it. Come on, let's zoom out of here." And to Mrs. Griffith: "Ah, take it easy, Mommy. Don't make me feel like a heel." He looked at two little boys, twins, who had come to visit him and who were waiting politely on the bench beside the dressing room door. "Gentlemen, let's go," Griffith said. "Twins, lead the way!"
Before his September loss, Griffith was simply and keenly delighted to be champion. "I'm so glad I'm champion of the world," he said. "I can give Chubby Checker what my father couldn't give her." Emile's father died several years ago, and Emile has had to support his mother and seven younger brothers and sisters, whom, as the money earned in fights over five years came in, he brought one after another to New York from his native Virgin Islands. Emile recently bought a house for "his" family (his mother gave him a flashy bracelet in return), where, for the first time in his life, he had a room of his own. "My own room!" he exulted. "Boy, am I happy. But I bet my brother Guillermo—he's my favorite, he's 11—will sleep with me. He kisses me on the cheek when he thinks I'm sleeping, to make up for the bad things he does during the day. He's so funny."
Emile, whom his mother calls Junior (he calls himself Little Griff), was a bad boy in his day, too. When he was seven, Mrs. Griffith, who didn't think him very funny, tied him to the bedpost with her stockings so he couldn't swim out to dive for pennies, when the cruise ships came to St. Thomas. Emile speaks respectfully of her "heavy hand" and a miniature baseball bat she wielded "on the soft parts" when he fought with one of his brothers. In more considered moments, he is determined to send this brother through law school.
Emile has great style with children, who loyally and delightedly follow him about. He also calls himself The Pied Piper. One small fan, Alvin Senter, holds up signs reading "Emile Griffith for President" at his fights. "Senter's too bold at times," says Griffith. Another small, but slightly older, fan, a pretty singer named Ce'Vara, whom Emile fell shyly in love with when they did jigsaw puzzles together at his training camp, has an even higher opinion of Griffith. She has given him a picture of herself. It is inscribed: "1. God. 2. Earth. 3. Emile." "Did you ever meet anyone with size 2 shoes?" asks Emile, astonished.
Griffith's co-manager, Howard Albert, is a successful milliner and Griffith has, on occasion, designed hats for him. His most notable creation was a number decorated with 13 roses. "We had a whole season on it!" Howard says, proudly. Now Griffith works in the hat factory as a kind of foreman and troubleshooter.
Albert, Clancy and Griffith are, according to Emile, much like the Three Musketeers or, rather, the Three Stooges. "We have a lot of fun together," Griffith says. "We're always planning to do something to each of us. Whatever we do, the three of us do together. I buy a continental suit—strictly continental—Howard buys the same suit. I invest in a mutual fund, Howard and Gil invest in the same fund. Clancy and I play ping-pong a few hours before each of my fights. People think we're cracking sometimes, we do the craziest things. The day before one fight Gil and I raced up Ninth Avenue—in the snow."
"I won," says Clancy.
"A close decision," says Emile.
"In the 12-yard dash," says Clancy, "I'm unbeatable."
It is, obviously, no longer a season for crazy things and the 12-yard dash. The despised Paret is forgiven and mourned by Griffith, child of misfortune, a na√Øf perhaps burdened now with more manhood than he can endure. And Goldstein, at 54, is locked in his implacable torment: the frailty of man, the agony of hindsight. Consider these, who have to contend with their terrible responsibilities, as well as The Kid.