When you think of great sports documentaries on TV, you think HBO. USA Network's "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which airs commercial-free Wednesday night, is that good. It's terrific.
"Ring of Fire" tells the story of Griffith, the '60s welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight champion who once killed a man in a nationally televised title match.
It tells that story with no narrator and very little panning of the camera over still photographs, that annoyingly ubiquitous documentary trick. Instead it uses vintage video, interviews with Griffith, now 67, and a host of boxing figures, reporters and family members. And except for some ill-advised, noodly original music near the end, it sets the scene with well-selected songs from the period.
It's a riveting, moving story about an enigmatic man. It looks like it's going to succumb to cheap emotion near the end, but it doesn't.
"Ring of Fire" begins with a black screen and a voice familiar to boxing fans of a certain vintage, Don Dunphy, welcoming viewers to the fight of the week. It's welterweight champion Benny "Kid" Paret against former champ Emile Griffith, March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden. There are scenes from the fight as James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's World" plays.
And then Griffith's voice, with his Virgin Islands lilt: "I came to this country in the 1950s from the Caribbean, and I am a six-time world champion. In 1962 -- changed my life forever. He called me a 'maricón.' I knew 'maricón' meant faggot. And I wasn't nobody's faggot."
Griffith, with tremendous talent but, according to his trainer, Gil Clancy, lacking a killer instinct, was enraged by the taunting of his Cuban rival, which had begun the previous year in the second of their three title fights. Griffith had taken the welterweight championship by knocking Paret out in April 1961, but the Cuban had won it back by decision in September. At the weigh-in for their third fight, Paret whispered the word "maricón" and pinched Griffith's ass.
Griffith barely survived a sixth-round knockdown, and in the 12th caught a fading Paret with a right hand. Paret retreated to a corner. Griffith landed another punishing right, then began hammering Paret with right uppercuts, one after another. Paret was defenseless, unable even to fall. Finally, referee Ruby Goldstein stepped in to stop Griffith. Paret slid to the canvas, out.
"He was slow," longtime columnist Jimmy Breslin says matter-of-factly. "Dreadfully slow."
Paret never regained consciousness. He died 10 days later. He was 25.
The twist in this story, or at least one of them, is that Griffith, so enraged at Paret for calling him a homosexual, may be a homosexual. He's cagey about it, though he talks freely about hanging out in gay bars and dancing with men.
There are so many ways "Ring of Fire," directed and produced by Dan Klores and Ron Berger, could have gone with this story, most of them bad. NBC-Universal, USA Network's parent company, commissioned a companion public-opinion poll about gays in sports, which would lead one to believe "Ring of Fire" would pursue the puzzle of Griffith's sexuality with some vigor.
It doesn't. It lets various commentators talk about attitudes toward gays in the early '60s. "How could you ever think of an athlete who was homosexual?" asks historian Neal Gabler. "It just could not happen. This was a society in which Liberace wasn't thought to be homosexual."
And then the movie lets Griffith say his piece. "Some people think I'm gay but I don't care," he says. "I don't care what they think. As long as I know right from wrong, I'm not doing anything wrong, I'm OK."
Then it moves on, drawing no conclusions.
"Ring of Fire" could easily have made Griffith, who has had short-term memory problems since a 1992 street attack that may have been a gay-bashing, look like a pathetic figure or a kind of noble dimwit. It does neither. Instead it lets others tell his story and the story of his time and place, the New York boxing world of the late '50s and early '60s, and then it lets him talk.
We see the unshakable sadness he's carried for four decades since Paret's death, but also the pride he takes in his achievements. Though it's often said of Griffith that he was never the same fighter after Paret's death, he was either the welter or middleweight champ for most of the next six years, and he fought for the middleweight title as late as 1973.
And we see his playfulness and humor, the sweet side that's made him so well liked throughout his life, that made him seem so poorly suited for his brutal calling. As a teenager new to America he got a job in a garment center hat factory. One hot day he asked the boss if he could take his shirt off. The boss, Howard Albert, took one look at Griffith's chiseled upper body, marched him down to Gleason's Gym to introduce him to Clancy, and became his manager.
"So that was my trouble right there," Griffith says wryly, "taking my shirt off."
Paret's trouble on that fateful night at the Garden was partly a slow referee -- Goldstein was one of the best in the business and had recently been saluted on TV by Ed Sullivan for stopping a fight quickly enough to prevent injury -- but mostly a ruthless manager, Manuel Alfaro, who put him back in against Griffith only three months after Paret had moved up in weight and taken a horrible beating at the hands of Gene Fullmer.
In the first of a pair of chilling scenes, Fullmer says, "I never beat anybody worse in my life than when I fought him." Fullmer has said elsewhere that Paret never should have fought again so quickly, that Fullmer himself hadn't wanted to step in a ring for six weeks, and he'd won.
In the second, Paret's widow, Lucy, tells of Benny calling her at home in Miami the night before the fight and saying he didn't feel well and didn't want to fight, but had to because so much money had already been put up.
The knockout itself is a terrifying thing to watch, and we see it the way those "Friday Night Fights" viewers did all those years ago. It isn't dressed up with editing or music.
In an awful bit of unintentional ironic foreshadowing, Dunphy says, "This is probably the tamest round of the entire fight" just before Griffith lands that first right hand. A moment later Griffith is unleashing his torrent of blows, 17 in a row, all landing, all but the first of them after Paret had stopped defending himself. The first 11 are piston shots, one after another, uppercuts, each one lifting Paret's head.
Five seconds pass between the moment it becomes clear Paret is helpless and the moment Goldstein steps in. It's an eternity.
A lifetime later, "Ring of Fire" climaxes with a scene arranged by the producers, a meeting in Central Park between Griffith and Benny Paret Jr., a toddler when his father died. It could have torpedoed the movie, a Maury Povich tear-jerker, false sentiment played out with one eye on the cameras. It's a tear-jerker all right, but while it's awkward, it feels true.
Griffith confesses beforehand to being afraid to meet the younger Paret, now in his early 40s, thinking Benny Jr. might want to take a swing at the man who killed his father. "My friend, I sit here talking to you," he says, "I can still feel like I ... I feel, oh, gosh -- I get chills, you know, talking about him. Sometimes I still have nightmares."
We're treated to a video of Paret Jr. fighting a youth amateur bout in the early '70s, then telling an interviewer he doesn't want to go into boxing because it's too rough and his mother doesn't like it. Mom and son visit Paret's grave in the Bronx for the cameras, Benny pulling weeds, Lucy saying she'd never remarried. "I didn't want my kids being brought up by anybody else," she says. She too is a remarkable portrait of steel, regret and even good humor.
Finally, the men meet. "I want you to know," Paret says, "there's no hard feelings here." Griffith, crying, hugs and thanks him. "I didn't go in there to hurt no one," he says, "but things happen."
Griffith asks Paret where his mother is, and Paret explains that it was too hard for her to come. Griffith says he understands and Paret again says there's no hard feelings. Sobbing now, Griffith grabs his hand and shakes it. Then, his eyes closed, he pulls Paret toward him and taps him on the chest with a gentle punch, a friendly punch, and they fall into a clinch.
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