Paret has taken a beating in three straight fights, including that dubious decision over Griffith; the most recent one, when he went up in weight to fight middleweight Gene Fullmer, was so frightful that even the cheap-seat sadists left the arena with a hollow in the pit of their guts. But Benny's still dangerous because he can catch a wrecking ball with his chin and remain vertical, then take five or six more for good measure, then--what?--blink away the fog and flatten you ... the way he did just moments ago to Emile, in the sixth round of this third fight. Clancy got in Emile's face after the round and shouted, "Emile, look, when you go inside I want you to keep punching until Paret holds you or the referee breaks you! But you keep punching until he does that!"
Midway through the 12th, Emile stuns Benny with a short right. Benny reels into a corner, eats another hammer, then another. His head and shoulders slump. The only way to nail his jaw now is with uppercuts, and so that's what Emile begins to hurl--or rather, that's what hurls out of Emile, an eruption of fury so mechanically precise that it seems to come from an engine house in hell rather than from the realm of human kinetics. At last Benny tilts, but the turnbuckle keeps him from collapsing, from saving himself, and now begins the terrible tick-tock of his cranium, left-right-left-right-left-right, combinations bursting from Emile faster than eye and brain can process.
The ref! Where's the ref? Who's the ref? Ruby Goldstein, a victim of his own expertise, a respected pro who knows this sport so well that he knows Emile's not a big finisher, knows Paret's a chronic possum, knows the Hispanics in the house will riot if he stops this fight just as their possum's about to pounce. Goldstein is caught flat-footed as 18 punches land in six seconds--29 consecutive unanswered punches in all--bouncing brain against skull again and again. Eyes puffed shut, blood oozing from his nose and his cheek, Benny slithers down the ropes, at last, as Goldstein grabs Emile and his cornermen run to wrap him too.
Silence falls over the ring. "I think we just saw a gay murder," a colleague murmurs to Pete Hamill. But even now, in the face of death, Emile remains an innocent. "I'm very proud to be the welterweight champion again," he tells the TV audience, "and I hope Paret is feeling very good."
Paret leaves in a coma, on a stretcher. It's not Emile's fault, of course. It's not the fighter's job to stop throwing punches. But now he's done it. Now that Benny lies near death, the media feel compelled to reveal the insult that would've been swept under the rug, the word that lit the fuse that may have exploded Paret's life. When the New York Times boxing writer Howard Tuckner attempts to explain to his tender readership that maricón is gutter Spanish for homosexual, an editor changes the word so that it appears as "anti-man." "A butterfly is an anti-man!" Tuckner later rages to Hamill. "A rock is an anti-man!"
For hours, just after the fight, Emile tries to gain entry to Paret's hospital room, finally gives up and races down the street, trying to run right out of his own skin. He ends up on 42nd Street, where passersby who've heard the news shower him with insults.
Paret dies 10 days later. There's smoke hanging over his death, a half-dozen contributing causes: the ref's hesitation ... the havoc in Paret's head wrought by Fullmer's fists three months earlier ... the lack of a careful medical exam before this fight ... the hunger of Paret's manager, Manuel Alfaro, to squeeze one more payday--some boxing insiders allege--from a shot fighter who told his wife the day before the bout that he didn't feel right and didn't want to fight. "Fullmer ate the meal, but Emile picked up the check," says trainer Bob Jackson. But all that is far too much ambiguity for the cerebral cortex of homo sapiens, much less for 15 inches of newspaper ink. So Emile goes down in boxing history as the man who killed Paret for calling him a faggot.
What happens to a child when he kills a man?
Nightmares. Decades of them. Dreams of Benny walking down the street, calling out greetings, extending his hand ... but when Emile takes it, it's as cold and clammy as last week's trout, awaking Emile in a bath of his own sweat. Dreams of one empty seat at a fight. "May I sit there?" asks Emile. A voice says yes, but as he takes the seat it dawns on Emile that it's Benny's voice, and now he must sit beside the dead man and watch two men wallop each other's heads for an entire night.