The Death of Benny Paret —Norman Mailer
Paret was a Cuban, a proud club fighter who had become welterweight champion because of his unusual ability to take a punch. His style of fighting was to take three punches to the head in order to give back two. At the end of ten rounds, he would still be bouncing, his opponent would have a headache. But in the last two years, over the fifteen-round fights, he had started to take some bad maulings.
This fight had its turns. won most of the early rounds, but Paret knocked down in the sixth. had trouble getting up, but made it, came alive and was dominating Paret again before the round was over. Then Paret began to wilt. In the middle of the eighth round, after a clubbing punch had turned his back to , Paret walked three disgusted steps away, showing his hindquarters. For a champion, he took much too long to turn back around. It was the first hint of weakness Paret had ever shown, and it must have inspired a particular shame, because he fought the rest of the fight as if he were seeking to demonstrate that he could take more punishment than any man alive. In the twelfth, caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin. I was sitting in the second row of that corner—they were not ten feet away from me, and like everybody else, I was hypnotized. I had never seen one man hit another so hard and so many times. Over the referee’s face came a look of woe as if some spasm had passed its way through him, and then he leaped on to pull him away. It was the act of a brave man. was uncontrollable. His trainer leaped into the ring, his manager, his cut man, there were four people holding , but he was off on an orgy, he had left the Garden, he was back on a hoodlum’s street. If he had been able to break loose from his handlers and the referee, he would have jumped Paret to the floor and whaled on him there.
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
When I learned of Emile Griffith’s death Tuesday morning at the age of seventy-five, my mind instantly went back to a night more than fifty years earlier, the cold, blustery Saturday evening of March 24, 1962, when I happened to be at Madison Square Garden. I was ten and a half years old, a fifth-grade student at a boarding school in Maryland, and I was attending the Griffith-Benny “Kid” Paret fight for the world welterweight championship with Hugo Harris, a former New York cop who would eventually become my stepfather. Also there, as it happens, was Angus Cameron, the legendary Knopf editor, though it would be thirteen more years before we actually met in person and he became my mentor. The notion that two people could be in the same place at the same time, two people who would later become important to each other, has always intrigued me, a kind of serendipitous coincidence that has underscored my deep belief in fate.
This was the first big prize fight I had ever seen in person, and I loved everything about it: the smell of cigar smoke, the palpable tension surrounding a big event, and the growing buzz of the crowd in anticipation of what was to come, as one fight after another on the undercard concluded, all leading to the main event. There was the dramatic ping-ping of flashbulbs popping, and the silence that befell the huge arena as everyone waited for the fighters to make their way down their respective aisles, toward the elevated ring and its plush ropes. All of it felt irrecoverably, deeply primal, though I feel pretty sure that, at the time, I didn’t know what “primal” meant. But I would soon find out.
Watching “Friday Night Fights” with my maternal grandfather, followed by “Make That Spare” (“Live from Paramus Lanes in Paramus, New Jersey, it’s ‘Make That Spare’!”), had become a kind of ritual for me. I would go over to my grandparents’ house for Sabbath dinner and to stay the night. The religiosity of the evening was then echoed by the devotion we attached to the gladiatorial struggle that awaited us. I had never yearned to box myself, as Angus had, nor did I have the benefit of a neighborhood “gym,” as he had had across the alley in Indianapolis. But I followed boxing with a passion, and had plenty of opinions about Sugar Ray Robinson and Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson and, though they had long retired before I had a chance to see them fight, the same fighters that had been such an integral part of Angus’s growing up: Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard.
What I didn’t know, nor could Angus, was that this would be the third—and last— fight between Griffith and Paret, but not for the usual reason, that three was often the greatest number of times that two fighters would meet each other in the ring when a championship was at stake. Griffith, born in the Virgin Islands and blessed with incredibly quick hands, had won the first bout in Miami Beach less than a year before, on April 1st. Then Paret narrowly reclaimed the title on September 30th. But Paret wasn’t satisfied with one crown, so he tried to add the middleweight one, held by Gene Fullmer, to his trophy case. It turned out to be a drastic overreach, and he wound up pummeled. Nonetheless, here he was, slightly more than three months later, ready to defend his welterweight crown. At the weigh-in, the sassy Cuban, in an attempt to gain a psychological edge, taunted Griffith, calling him a maricón (Spanish for “faggot”).
The fight was a slugfest, and Paret nearly ended things in the sixth round. But after six more rounds, things ended for Paret as Griffith punched him senseless against the ropes, sending him into a coma from which he never emerged. He died ten days later. Norman Mailer, who was also in attendance that night in a ringside seat, wrote, “As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. … As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy axe in the distance chopping into a wet log.” Mailer summed things up with the following words: “Paret died on his feet.”
Mailer was right. Some part of Benny Paret’s death did reach out to all of us. I had not witnessed death before, and what I remember most clearly was the hushed silence in the arena as Paret was moved, ever so carefully, from the floor of the ring onto the stretcher, beginning a procession down the aisle of the Garden where I was sitting and where, as it turned out, Angus was, too. (His seat, however, was closer to the ring; he always had ringside seats because, as he later explained, “I knew everybody.”) It might as well have been a funeral procession without a casket. When the stretcher approached where we were seated, I looked—not for long, but long enough to see Paret’s battered face and the blood on his white satin trunks. That image, that instant, bore itself permanently into my memory.
Benny Paret’s shocking death was followed, a year later, by the death of the featherweight Davey Moore, which inspired Bob Dylan to write a song:
Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?
“Not us,” says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.”
After Moore’s death, boxing was banned from network television for another decade. As for Emile Griffith, he continued fighting, but he remained forever haunted by that Saturday night in March.
I can’t recall exactly when it was that Angus and I talked about that fight. It came up, of course, in the many discussions we would have about boxing, and his initial amazement at the coincidence quickly gave way to his clear pleasure that he and I shared an interest in the sport. Angus used to tell me about hanging around the Gramercy Gym and Stillman’s Gym (“The University of Eighth Avenue,” according to A. J. Liebling) in New York, spending time with Cus D’Amato, whom he had been hoping to persuade to write a book. Any fighter who was hoping to get a shot and become somebody trained at Stillman’s. Angus loved the raw simplicity of the sweat-stained place, loved hearing the sound of men grunting as they hit the heavy bag, loved the pungent smell of liniment that permeated every nook and cranny of the joint.
Of the many things he learned from Cus, who trained Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and, early on, Mike Tyson, among others, was this simple but unassailable fact: every fighter was afraid, every one was scared shitless. One time, when Cus was sixteen and living in a tough Italian section in New York, he was nominated by his friends to fight an Irish kid at nine o’clock one evening, an attempt to settle a dispute and prevent all-out gang warfare. Cus was scared, but apparently the Irish kid was even more so. He never showed. Then there was the time, Cus told Angus, about this fighter from Buffalo, who was going to have a big fight in Chicago, the biggest fight of his career up to that point, the shot he had presumably been waiting for. The boxer boarded the train, headed for the City of Big Shoulders, and never got there. The train didn’t derail; he did. He got off the train in Cleveland and went back to Buffalo. Angus loved that story, loved it so much he would tell it over and over—“And you’ll never guess what happened next. The guy simply couldn’t go through with it”—just to reinforce Cus’s point. And Cus’s point was particularly poignant in light of Benny Paret’s death, especially since Emile Griffith had that same fear—a fear of being hit, of being hit so hard and so many times that his pretty face would become unrecognizable, or worse.
When Angus left the Garden that night, he went, as he so often did after a prizefight, to Toots Shor’s for a nightcap, a cigar, and conversation, before heading across town to Grand Central, where he caught the last train to Westchester County, and home to his wife, Sheila. When I left with Hugo Harris, I went back with Hugo to my mother’s apartment on East Fifty-sixth Street, somehow sensing, perhaps even knowing, that I would forever carry with me what I had witnessed that night at such a young age. And instead of talking to many boys back at boarding school about the fight, or to anybody, really, I kept silent for quite some time, until Angus and I had the occasion—and, for me at least, the need—to speak of it years later.
Jonathan Coleman is the author of four books, the most recent of which is “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (which he co-wrote with Jerry West). This essay is adapted from his work in progress, “What He Stood For: The Many Worlds of Angus Cameron.”
Photograph by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive/Getty.