Judge Ryan Keefer takes you inside the brutality of "the sweet science" and realizes yet again that the sport takes more than just a pound of flesh.
"Alfaro could have jumped into the ring and stopped the fight himself. Paret would have been disqualified, but disqualified is a lot better than dead."
One of my first memories as a boxing fan growing up was watching a hard fought 1982 title bout between Korean boxer Deuk-Koo Kim and Ray Mancini on network television. The two men battled over almost the entire 15 round fight before the referee stopped the fight. Kim collapsed shortly afterwards, and died of injuries from the fight several days later. Within six months later, the fight's referee and Kim's mother separately committed suicide. The tragedy of this fight led to several reforms within boxing. Bouts were shortened as a result (title fights went from 15 to 12 rounds, non-title fights went from 12 to 10), and more medical precautions were implemented before, during and after a fight. Would Kim have survived if he had not fought the equivalent of about five more minutes is hard to say. And in current times, where the image of boxers is of either those old-timers who are slurred, trembling shadows of their former selves, or of current fighters who occasionally die from injuries in the ring, the question can't be whether or not to ban boxing. It has to be, with the calls to ban boxing being repeated for so long, when will someone follow through on their words?
Sadly, it's been occurring long before the early '80s. The center of Ring of Fire—The Emile Griffith Story is an upbeat boxer from the Virgin Islands. Through a business manager, Griffith was introduced to a trainer named Gil Clancy (who has worked with fighters like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar de la Hoya at points throughout his career). With Clancy's direction, Griffith won the welterweight title at 23 years old, knocking out a fighter named Benny "The Kid" Paret. The two would have a rematch several months later where Paret would regain the title on a judge's decision, and it is their third bout that is the inspiration for the film (and arguably Griffith's life). Griffith was a very amiable person outside of the ring; even in interviews now at age 67, his smile is almost always visible. He had very little bad feelings toward any of the people he fought, and, ironically to some people, his good nature was his weakness. His interest wandered during a fight, and some observers felt he lacked the proverbial "killer instinct." When Paret started to insult Griffith's sexual nature, Griffith became angered. When the two fought for the third (and final) time in 1962, the prevailing thought seemed to be that Griffith would win the title back. Despite being knocked down early in the fight, Griffith managed to come back and take charge, eventually winning in the 12th round after a barrage of punches to Paret's unprotected head. Paret slumped in the corner and was taken out of the ring on a stretcher, and to a hospital where he died days later.
Paret's death was unfortunate, and also made more tragic by the fact that it was broadcast on national television. The governor of New York established a commission to investigate what happened in the fight. The referee, a former fighter and proven veteran himself, was blamed for not stopping the fight sooner. Paret's manager was blamed for being insensitive and riding the cash cow one fight too many. Does any of this sound familiar to boxing fans? The documentary by Ron Berger and Dan Klores (The Boys of 2nd Street Park) focuses on Griffith's life before and after the Paret fight, and explores a little bit of Griffith's private life. What many people forget about Griffith is that he fought for 15 more years after the Paret fight, retiring at age 39. He then went into training and helped train a prominent Lightweight champion named Juan LaPorte. In 1992, Griffith was assaulted in New York and hospitalized for a month, the victim of a probable hate crime. As a result of this incident, Griffith is without most of his short-term memory. He knows his mother died, but does not recall when (1997). Ring of Fire interviews the surviving members familiar with Griffith and Paret, including Albert and Clancy, and Paret's widow and son are interviewed as well. What makes the story a little more ironic is that Paret's son grew up and participated in the youth Golden Gloves boxing tournaments as a child. Interviews with writers of the era like New York stalwarts Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin are featured, and Norman Mailer provides voiceover commentary of the fight's final events.
Some of the events that Berger and Klores show do have some impact. During the recounting of the fight, several different people share their recollections of how many punches Griffith landed, and the variations are dramatic. They range anywhere from 17 to as many as 50, which is a telling reminder of how different people remember one event. Some of Griffith's story is a reminder of just how nice a person he is. While he worked as a prison guard in the mid 1980s, Griffith struck up a friendship with Luis Sandoval, an inmate in the prison. The friendship has stayed around long enough that Griffith has adopted Sandoval as his son. There would seem to be small pockets of his life that are glossed over, and not talked about completely, but this is no fault of the filmmakers. Besides, Griffith probably can't remember parts of it, that's due to the sport he was involved in. And when the meeting between Paret's son and Griffith finally occurs, a small part of it feels forced, but it's not a problem. The film would have suffered if it did not happen. And it is emotional for just reasons, providing the proper end note for the film.
For all the bad rhetoric that boxing has received for the last few decades, people are still drawn to it as participants for the tempting drama and power. Many people still find it a viable option to get out of any substandard living they have. And the nature of one-on-one combat still has a romantic nature for people. Others write about the sport, some for several decades, despite all the bad things on TV and in print. Ring of Fire is a compelling story about an engaging individual, who found himself in circumstances that were beyond his control. For all the dramatic interpretations that people have taken from the sport through the years (Million Dollar Baby being the most recent case), to know that there are a wealth real of stories from fighters young and old is both amazing and sad at the same time. This is one of the better documentaries that you will see in 2005.
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