Death in the Ring: The Tragic Tale of Benny Paret - FloCombat (2024)

(Editor's Note: As Benny Paret slumped into the corner, victim of more than 20 consecutive punches from new welterweight champion Emile Griffith, it was immediately obvious to thousands in the arena and millions watching at home that something was seriously wrong. No one knew, however, that in the days to come both Paret and the sport itself would be fighting for their respective lives. Only one would emerge to fight another day.)

By Patrick Connor

In September of 1961 it had been 10 years since Madison Square Garden had hosted a fight which resulted in a ring death. For a venue that had become synonymous with boxing in New York City decades earlier and nudged the fights through their early television days, perhaps that was an impressive statistic. Then Emile Griffith, who had just lost his welterweight title to Benny "Kid" Paret, made a declaration to reporters that would become gravely prophetic.

"Benny's a nice boy. But I would like to kill him. And I will, if he'll get back in the ring with me."

Death has always been a part of boxing, a byproduct of that kind of intimate warfare since the 18th century, begrudgingly accepted by most. The big change came with television, for prior to that death had always been far away and difficult to envision. It was the trilogy between Griffith and Paret that brought forth this graphic reality to the public.

Paret wasn't just one of countless bums filling time and taking falls for the chosen few on television; he was a two-time welterweight champion and a resilient scrapper who had come from a childhood of working in Cuba's sugar cane fields. Griffith was a soft-spoken hat designer who stumbled into boxing and didn't seem much like a fighter, but he halted Paret and took his title with a pair of left hooks in April of 1961. Paret's manager Manuel Alfaro called for a return bout and just prior to the rematch six months later, Paret hurled a derogatory hom*ophobic slur toward Griffith, who many knew to be gay. What had begun as professional athletics quickly became a grudge match for the ages.

The split decision loss to Paret in their rematch marked Griffith's third as a professional and his response was to get back into the ring quickly and score three wins in as many months. Meanwhile Paret moved up to challenge middleweight titlist Gene Fullmer but was handed a frightful beating in a grueling fight as a reward for his bravery. Though he should have taken some time off, in that era boxers simply got on with the business of boxing. Paret dreamed of opening a butcher shop. The rubbermatch with Griffith meant money towards that goal and a chance to defend the welterweight title. And that meant no rest for the weary and wounded.

Griffith was again insulted at the weigh-in, again with a suggestion that he enjoyed the company of men, and this time had to be held back by trainer Gil Clancy. He didn't know it, but Paret might have sealed his own fate then and there. Usually a classy, respectful sportsman, this second incident ignited something in Griffith, who won the first five rounds on all judges' cards. It might have been that lust for vengeance that slowed Griffith down and walked him into a trap in round six; seconds before the bell Griffith traded hooks with Paret while retreating and was dropped hard. Griffith rose from the canvas and made it to the bell before seeking refuge in his corner.

Somehow, however, Paret was unable to capitalize on the momentum. Griffith got back into the fight despite appearing fatigued and worse for wear, but Paret took round eight. The Cuban was threatening to take control when he was rocked in round nine, and round 10 offered an ominous preview of horror to come as Griffith battered Paret almost through the ropes. It was brutal, but not quite enough to stop the gritty champion.

The grim end came in round 12, as a pair of right hands rocked Paret and sent him into a corner. Griffith threw right uppercuts over and again until Paret's head swayed between the ropes and he became trapped. held up by several more two-fisted punches before referee Ruby Goldstein could pry Griffith away. By then it was too late; Paret sagged to the canvas.

Once a distant and abstract, the plain fragility of fighters was laid bare when Paret, having never woken up, died of pneumonia 10 days later on April 3, 1962. He was just 25 years old.

Though the fighting public knew death was possibility in the ring, this was different. The public had seen it with their own eyes, and networks replayed it over and over for those who had missed it live to drive the message home. Boxing, as an enterprise, was in serious trouble. Despite MSG hosting the famed Gillette Cavalcade of Sports televised fights that helped boxing thrive in the 1950s, the sport was once again talked about as if it were a fetid remnant of an uncivilized era.

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller launched an investigation into the handling and sanctioning of the fight, and naturally conversation drifted to whether or not boxing should be a sport at all. A column in the New York Times entitled "The Manly Art" said, "The question everybody is asking is whether this fight was allowed to go on too long. A better question might be whether it, or any other professional prizefight, should be allowed to start."

Lost in the international headlines and politicization of Paret's death was the emotional battering the survivors took. Paret's widow Lucy insisted that her husband was improving and responding to her while doctors remained cynical about his condition prior to his passing. Further, he left behind a son named after him and a baby on the way. Ruby Goldstein became a convenient scapegoat and attended several hearings and veritable trials before being dismissed, going on to referee only one more fight. Griffith wouldn't find closure for over 40 years, when he finally met Benny, Jr. for a documentary called "Ring of Fire" in 2005. For fans, enjoying any of the three fights became taboo.

MSG remains a legendary venue, where the finest fighters still offer their blood to appease the crowds. Though many have lost their lives in the ring since Paret gave his, few instances have been as haunting.

Paret was "the man with the iron chin," until that toughness broke him and much more.

Death in the Ring: The Tragic Tale of Benny Paret - FloCombat (2024)

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