Sports

Emile Griffith vs. Benny Paret: A Tragic Trilogy That Left One Fighter Dead and the Other Devastated by Guilt

Throughout the long and storied history of professional boxing, there have been many great rivalries. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier is arguably the greatest trilogy in boxing history. Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson fought six times. The list goes on and on. One of those great rivalries came in the welterweight division in the early 1960s featuring Emile Griffith and Benny Paret. Unfortunately, the rivalry came to a tragic end on March 24, 1962.

Emile Griffith and Benny Paret traded wins and the welterweight crown in 1961

Emile Griffith and Benny “The Kid” Paret first met on April 1, 1961, for Paret’s welterweight crown in Miami Beach. In an epic battle, Griffith, who came in with a 22-2 record, emerged victorious, flooring the champion in the 13th round to win his first championship.

Just shy of six months later on September 30, 1961, Paret would have his revenge, even if it was a bit controversial. The Cuban-born challenger battled back and forth with Griffith for 15 rounds, taking a lot of punishment, but earned a split-decision victory, a decision that wasn’t agreed upon by everyone.

Paret had taken a vicious beating at the hands of Emile Griffith, which was why it was so shocking when he bumped up divisions to take on NBA middleweight champ Gene Fullmer just over two months later. Paret took another beating and was knocked out in the 10th round. But he was still the welterweight champ and a third fight with Emile Griffith was set for March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden.

Paret taunted Griffith with gay slurs at the weigh-in

It wasn’t yet public knowledge but Emile Griffith later came out as bisexual. In 1962, that obviously wasn’t nearly as acceptable as it is today. Paret, like most in the boxing world, suspected that his rival was a homosexual and took things too far at the weigh-in.

As Griffith stood on the scale, Paret used a gay slur against his rival, calling him “maricon”, which both men knew was Spanish for “fa**ot.” When asked to take a picture with Paret, Griffith refused, saying that he would likely swing on him at that moment and decided to hold everything in for the fight later that night.

Tragedy strikes in the 12th

In true Emile Griffith vs. Benny Paret fashion, the fight was a brawl. For 11 rounds, the two traded blows back and forth. Griffith seemed to be getting the better of things but Paret stunned him with a combination in the sixth round, sending him to the canvas with only the end of the round saving his title chances. After the round, Griffith’s trainer, Gil Clancy, told his fighter to get to the inside and to keep punching until the referee stopped him. Unfortunately, Griffith would listen.

In the 12th round of a scheduled 15, Emile Griffith hit Benny Paret with two brutal right hands, stunning the champion. At this point, however, Paret still had his hands up and could defend himself. That didn’t last long. Paret teetered backwards into the ropes and Griffith unloaded on him. Paret could no longer keep his hands up and his head was wide open. Griffith, obviously still angered by what had transpired that morning, pinned Paret against the ropes with his left hand while rocking him with his right, again and again with Paret’s head now outside the ring. Referee Ruby Goldstein inexplicably allowed the onslaught to continue and never heard Paret’s corner’s attempt to stop it.

Griffith was angry and just punched and punched and punched, torquing his body every time to deliver the maximum amount of damage with each blow. After 29 consecutive shots, Goldstein finally jumped in and stopped it, giving Griffith the TKO win and the welterweight title. But there was more at play here than a title. Without Griffin holding him up, the unconscious body of Benny Paret slowly slid to the ground, all of this playing out on national television.

After the fight, Emile Griffith went to the hospital where Benny Paret had been taken but was never granted admittance. Paret died 10 days later, never regaining consciousness.

Emile Griffith never truly got over the death of Benny Paret

In the years that followed, Emile Griffith continued to fight, although everyone could tell that he wasn’t the same fighter. By his own admittance, he was gentler in the ring than he’d been before, scared that he could do the same thing to someone else that he’d done to Benny Paret. Griffith fought for 15 more years, finally retiring in 1977 with a career record of 85-24-2.

For decades, the death of Benny Paret haunted Emile Griffith. He had dreams about Paret, extending his arm for a handshake that never came. Although he was cleared by the NYPD of any legal wrongdoing, in the eyes of many he was a murderer. People claimed he had killed Paret on purpose and Griffith received numerous death threats through the years. For more than half a century, Griffith had to live with the fact that he had killed a man in the ring and the nightmares never went away.

Emile Griffith died on July 23, 2013, at the age of 75.