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Virgin Islands Culture: Griffith & Paret

In the spring of 1962, two boxers from two different Caribbean islands met in the ring at New York City's Madison Square Garden where they battled for the World Welterweight Championship.

The bout between Emile Griffith from the Virgin Islands and Benny "Kid" Paret from Cuba has been described as a grudge match and its tragic conclusion shocked the boxing world.

Griffith, for whom St. Thomas' Emile Griffith Park on Veterans Drive is named, lives today, at age 62, in New York City. He is known as one of the world's greatest boxers. Five times a world champion, he held both the World Welterweight and Middleweight Titles. He fought a record-breaking 339 title-fight rounds and 23 title fights, facing ten different world champions. In his 112 professional fights, he "went the distance" in all but two bouts-he was knocked out by Ruben "Hurricane" Carter and received a TKO by Argentina's Carlos Monzon. Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Emile Griffith was born on St. Thomas in 1938. At age 11 he moved with his family to New York City. He was hired at a hat factory when he was only 15 years old, claiming to be sixteen and of legal working age.

Griffith's boss, Howard Albert, a one-time amateur boxer himself, noticed that Griffith's build was a natural for the sport. Griffith had big shoulders, small waist, and powerful arms with a long reach. Albert arranged for him to meet one of New York City's best boxing trainers, Gil Clancy.

Griffith was against the idea; he knew nothing about boxing. The sport that interested him most, and for which he had already displayed aptitude, was baseball. Albert insisted and personally took Griffith by the hand and escorted him to the gym.

In an interview recorded for Peter Heller's book, In This Corner, Griffith recalls the first time he ever boxed at Clancy's gym and explains his reluctance to continue. He said, " was with a guy named Roger Harvey. He was a professional fighter and that guy used to put a beating into me every day. It got so I didn't want to go to the gym."

At Albert's continued urging, Griffith kept on training. The progress he made and the ability he showed gave Clancy reason to break one of his cardinal rules which was that fighters had to train two years before they could enter competitions. Clancy put Griffith into the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing organization, after less than a year of training. It was the right move. Albert and Clancy were to manage this outstanding fighter throughout his long and illustrious boxing career.

The first year as an amateur boxer Griffith lost in the finals. These losses spurred him to train harder and in his second year he won in New York City and went on to win the National Amateur Welterweight Crown. That year, at the age of 20, Griffith entered the world of professional boxing.

In his third year as a pro, Griffith earned his shot at the World Welterweight Title against the tough Cuban, Benny "Kid" Paret. Griffith had chalked up an impressive fight record having emerged victorious in 22 of his 24 professional matches, winning seven of those by knockouts. His only two defeats were hard fought battles ending in close decisions.

Benny "Kid" Paret was born in Santa Clara, Cuba in 1937. For many Cubans, boxing was one of the only roads leading out of a life of poverty and despair. Paret joined an amateur fight club in Santa Clara and soon was recognized as one of the two best amateur welterweights in the country. Paret's rival was a boxer from Havana, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, who was undefeated at the time.

Meanwhile, the welterweight champion of the world was a fighter from the Dominican Republic named Don Jordan. Rumors abounded about Jordan's mental instability and his weakness for alcohol and possibly drugs. It was therefore believed that the next qualified fighter to challenge Jordan could win the title. Boxing managers and handlers active in the mob-infested playground of pre-Castro Havana had their eyes on the two amateur Cuban welterweights.

The greatly anticipated match between Paret and Rodriguez took place in 1958 in Havana and was billed as the amateur fight of the century. Rodriguez won a close decision in an exciting and hard fought bout. Later the same year Paret lost another decision to Rodriguez.

According to the ringside doctor, Ferdie Pachecho, in his book, The Doctor Fights Back, Rodriguez was approached by "a couple of nice men" from Miami who offered Rodriguez the title in exchange for a 50% cut of his future earnings.

When Rodriguez refused the offer "the boys shrugged and went off to see Benny Kid Paret." The alleged organized crime involvement may have been the reason that it was Paret and not Rodriguez who had the first shot at Jordan and the title.

Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it, the fact remains that in May of 1960, in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was Benny "Kid" Paret who defeated Don Jordan in a close 15-round decision and walked away with the World Welterweight Championship.

Paret then went on to fight three non-title matches, losing two and winning one. He also accepted a tile-fight challenge from Federico Thompson, which Paret won in a 15-round decision.

Paret's next fight was scheduled for April 1, 1961 in which he would be squaring off against Emile Griffith for the first time. The venue for the event would be Miami Beach, Paret's adopted home turf, and the World Welterweight Championship would be at stake.
The two Caribbean men seemed evenly matched as they slugged it for the first 12 rounds, at the end of which Paret was leading by a single point. Going into round 13 Griffith's manager, Gil Clancy, told Griffith that it was now or never. Griffith came in strong. He landed a wicked left hook followed up by a powerful right. Paret fell to the floor and the fight was over. Emile Griffith at age 23 gained possession of the coveted World Welterweight Crown.

A rematch was fought in September in Madison Square Garden. This time the fight lasted the full 15 rounds. Paret won the decision and regained the championship.

It was a close fight. Griffith believed he had won, and was shocked to hear the referee's announcement. "I thought I beat him," Griffith proclaimed in an interview with author Peter Heller for the book, In this Corner. "It was disappointing to lose it, knowing I beat the guy, I was determined to win it back."

Boxing fans waited with baited breath for the inevitable rematch, which was eventually scheduled for March of the following year at Madison Square Garden.

Griffith was not idle in the months before the next rematch. He boxed in three non-title fights, winning them all. One of these bouts was fought in St. Thomas. Griffith's fellow Virgin Islanders cheered wildly as their hometown hero won a 10-round decision over Johnny Torres.

In what may have been his undoing, Paret also boxed before the Griffith rematch. Moving up in weight, he challenged Gene Fullmer for the Middleweight Title. The ringside doctor, Ferdie Pachecho, in his book, The Doctor Fights Back, described Paret's decision to fight Fullmer as "…a big mistake.

“Gene Fullmer gave the brave Paret a fearful beating in December 1961 in Las Vegas. It was awful to watch. All of us thought Paret might not return after that fearful thrashing. Instead, he signed to fight Emile Griffith."

Gene Fullmer spoke about the Paret fight in his interview with Heller, "Paret was one of the toughest guys I ever fought, as far as actual tough. I never hit anybody more punches harder than I hit Paret. I beat Paret like I never beat anybody in my life, and he fought way too early in his next fight…I didn't feel like fighting for six weeks and I'd won!"

The fateful night of Griffith and Paret's third encounter started out on a bad foot. Paret approached Griffith at the weigh in and called him a maricón, which is a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual. An argument ensued that almost came to blows right at the weigh in.

Griffith and Paret were familiar foes and had no need to feel each other out. Consequently, they got right down to business in round one. In round six Paret landed a series of punches and knocked Griffith down.

Griffith was stunned and it looked like the fight would end right there, but the bell signaling the end of the round sounded and Griffith was spared. Paret then put his hand on his hip and blew a kiss at his opponent. Griffith was infuriated.

In the 12th round Griffith backed Paret into a corner. Griffith connected with an assortment of uppercuts and hooks. Paret was in trouble. Paret started to go down, but his arm hooked onto the ropes and it held his body up. Griffith continued the ferocious assault. By the time the referee stopped the fight Paret was unconscious. He had to be carried out of the ring. The 25-year-old fighter went into a coma and died 10 days later.

Pachecho offers a possible explanation of the referee's fatal inaction, "…the referee, Ruby Goldstein, was recovering from a recent heart attack, and he was weak and ineffectual. On any night but this one Ruby Goldstein was the referee of choice… he had always controlled the fight, but not on this night.

"Griffith caught Paret in the corner, hurt him, and then lashed into him in a fury. Goldstein stood by glassy-eyed. He seemed incapable of stepping in. Paret's arm hooked on the top rope, and it held him up to more battering. The beating was savage, and compounded by the Fullmer beating three months earlier, it proved fatal."

Griffith regained the World Welterweight Title, but was emotionally devastated. For a while it seemed that he would have to give up boxing, but through the support of his friends and associates Griffith was able to return to the ring where he proved himself to be every bit a champion.

Upon his retirement, Griffith shared his knowledge of boxing by training professional fighters including the Heavyweight Champion Bonecrusher Smith.

Griffith now lives in Queens, New York and donates much of his time to working with neighborhood kids and supporting charitable causes. Emile Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and his name was recently engraved in gold letters on a plaque in Madison Square Garden along with the world's best boxers.

by Gerald Singer