There was a faint tattoo, as insubstantial as a shadow, on Benny (Kid) Paret's left biceps—a sentimental composition of hearts and flowers with the legend, "True Love"; a souvenir of some happy hour. Until the bleak, early hours last Sunday morning, there was no True Love between Paret, who was the welterweight champion of the world, and Emile Griffith, who now is. Under intolerably distressing and lamentable circumstances, Emile had taken the title from Paret. He had knocked him out in the 12th round with a terrible succession of uppercuts and hooks, had watched him leave the ring in Madison Square Garden unconscious on a stretcher, high white shoes first, their gaudy candy-striped laces untied. And Griffith was seized with the common sorrow and natural compassion of decent men.
"I hope he isn't hurt," Griffith said in his dressing room. "I pray to God—I say from my heart—he's all right." Paret, alas, was not all right. He was near death in Roosevelt Hospital. He had been given last rites by a priest who was bitter at what he called the ultimate immorality of prizefighting. Paret's brain, that soft, vulnerable instrument, was hemorrhaging, and at 12:30 a.m. Sunday he was operated on to relieve the enormous pressure of blood collecting under the brain lining.
The force of Griffith's uppercuts had, presumably, driven the blood back toward the rear of Paret's skull; the force of Griffith's hooks made the brain reverberate against the skull, which moves more quickly than the brain. This jouncing caused many of Paret's cranial blood vessels to break. The brain lining is so tight that when blood collects it exerts tremendous pressure on the brain, eventually causing death. To relieve pressure and evacuate the blood, Paret's doctors drilled holes in the skull (in similar fashion, when blood collects under a fingernail, a hole is drilled in the nail). If the brain is badly bruised, or lacerated, however, the blood clots accumulate again and the patient dies.
In his heyday, Benny (Kid) Paret was a cocky little man who favored bright, heavy jewelry, but he once cut sugar cane for $2 a day in the fields of Santa Clara, Cuba, where he was born. He acquired a wife, Lucy, produced a son, Benny Jr., 2, bought a 1962 Eldorado Cadillac and a 1962 Thunderbird. He had 49 fights, he won 34. He was not a notably hard hitter or a consummate boxer, but he had never given ground or given up. His manager. Manny Alfaro, said that Paret, 25 years old, had planned to retire after this fight with Griffith. Alfaro said Benny had gotten what he wanted. All that was unfulfilled was his wish to become an American citizen.
It was a fight marked with episodes of anger and resentment—butts, surly shoves, low blows and milling after the bell. The bad blood had its origin in an incident during the weigh-in for the second Griffith-Paret fight last September—they had three bouts in all—in which Paret won a highly regrettable split decision. Smiling fatuously as they posed for the photographers at the scales, Paret had blithely cursed Griffith in Spanish. Griffith vowed that if Paret ever taunted him again in this manner he would fight him then and there. Saturday morning, when they weighed in for the third fight, Paret did.
As before, Paret called Griffith maric�n, gutter Spanish for homosexual. It is the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom and is particularly galling to Griffith, who has a piping voice, wears extravagantly tight clothes, has designed women's hats and is, ordinarily, a charming, affectionate kid. Griffith told Benny to "shut up." Paret laid a gratuitous, slighting hand on Emile's back. "Keep your hands off me, Paret," snarled Griffith.
The fires Paret had lit in Griffith were banked as he entered the ring Saturday night, but they were not banked very deep. Griffith won the first five rounds on all the cards, though his attempts to finish off Paret were repulsed by flurries of body punches. But towards the end of the sixth round, Benny caught Griffith with a long left hook and dropped him along the ropes. Griffith got up at the count of eight, steadying himself by holding onto the ropes. Referee Ruby Goldstein had to pry his hand loose.
Emile retaliated with spirit in the last moments of that round and again during the seventh, but Paret took the eighth. Emile appeared drowsy and listless, as though he had not fully recovered from the knockdown. In the 10th, however, Griffith hit Paret with a smart right hand, his most effective weapon throughout, and a classy one-two which drove The Kid into the ropes. There Emile hit him some 30 times without opposition. At one time during this barrage, Paret slid down, as though to sit on the second strand. If Griffith had backed off for a moment, it was conceivable that Paret would have fallen. Griffith's punches and Paret's stubborn resolution were all that were propping him up. Emile didn't step back, and Benny survived.
A remorseless fusillade
The 11th was a reverie to no purpose. The 12th began in the same fashion, the fighters locked in each other's arms, punching drably. Suddenly, Emile battered Paret into a neutral corner with a plangent right. This time Griffith was resolved to finish him. He began belaboring the suffering Paret with right upper-cuts, one after another, an unrelenting fusillade, Emile's hand banging against Benny's jaw as remorselessly as the clapper of a great, dark bell. Paret sagged back against the middle turnbuckle. Griffith's punches drove his head out between the top and middle strands.