Tonawanda News

July 26, 2013

Emile Griffith and the 'fatal barrage'

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Funny, what you remember. Contrary to modern belief, life was in color, prior to the advent of color television. I grew up in a house painted green, had a bedroom painted blue with white woodwork. The television was black and white, and I watched plenty of it.

I was around to see the sport of boxing go into decline and disrepute (there was a time, pre-television, in which baseball, boxing and horse racing were America’s premier sports), and it did so largely, I suspect, because of television. Once casual fans got an up-close-and-personal view of boxing, as television can offer better than anything other than actually being there, it lost whatever mystery and excitement it had. Unlike football, the elements and complexities of which are multiplied by TV.

There actually was a television presentation called “Gillette Friday Night Fights.” I forget the network, but for those of use awake but too young to go out on a Friday, it remains in memory. A boxing match of flexible length (three-minute rounds and a one-minute break, between rounds, meant a razor blades commercial every three minutes. Perfect.) was followed by an interview with the winner. 

A boxing match could be over in seconds, but the program, as I recall, was scheduled for 45 minutes and followed by some sort of bowling show that included advertisements for pipe tobacco, sung by the Sportsmen’s Quartet, who also did occasional duty as singers on Jack Benny’s program.

I saw a Saturday night fight as well, with details I could not comprehend, but they were details nonetheless. 

Madison Square Garden, 1962. Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret, for the welterweight championship. All that New York City action and hubbub, all that metropolitan speed and motion. Pre-fight rumors of bad blood between the fighters (Paret, a brash Cuban, called Griffith a maricon, a slang word for gay and not a complimentary one). 

Twelfth round. Paret gets back into a corner, Griffith lets fly with a flurry of punches to the head, later described as a “fatal barrage” of two dozen in five seconds. Paret drops like a tree. Griffith wins. Paret leaves Madison Square Garden on a stretcher, unconscious.

Benny “Kid” Paret died 10 days later, of blood clots on the brain. Emile Griffith, welterweight champion, dragged that night as baggage on his resume until last week, when he died at age 75, of kidney failure coupled with dementia.

Norman Mailer was among the reporters at that fight so long ago. So was I, watching it from a Buffalo living room, and it was Griffith’s obituary in sports sections and websites that dug it out of memory. 

This is something of a curse, the ability to conjure whatever you went through by simply having an external source trigger it. Even those of us who don’t get out much have made exponential leaps in the memory department, if we have observed the world at least in part through one medium or another (it must be worse if you are, or were, an all-radio person; more so than the TV viewer, you get to color in all the details solely by imagination).

So Benny Paret died after that fight, and for many people, so did the sport of boxing (which is why the National Football League instructs its networks’ announcers not to glorify violence, instructs its networks’ production people to turn away from the gory stuff, the waiting-for-the-ambulance stuff. You never know how much outrage you’ll manufacture and how it will impact your bottom line). Emile Griffith went on, fell out of the public mind and died, more or less forgotten and definitely demented, in Hempstead, Long Island.

I am among those in the first television generation. This makes me an early link in a chain in which “going out in the world” was less influential than the world coming to me, with profit-seeking people eager to do the delivery work. 

At the age of 11 I saw a man pummeled until he was carried out of a boxing ring and died. It happened not on a street corner in some neighborhood in which I did not belong, but in a box in a corner of a Buffalo living room. Brutal and immediate but safe at the same time, a metaphor for how life and death gets handled in this society.

Paret and Griffith are gone. So is Mailer, now that I think of it. Funny, what you remember.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears weekly in the Record-Advertiser. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.