How long does it take to kill a man with your hands?
It took Emile Griffith about five seconds to land between 17 and 25 punches flush against the noggin of Benny "The Kid" Paret in a welterweight championship fight on March 24, 1962. Paret slipped to the canvas like a Titanic going stern-first into the dark water, sliding toward oblivion, seemingly in slow-mo, shocking by his total animal unconsciousness a nationwide TV audience. He died 10 days later.
Benny Paret's death at the hands of Emile Griffith, left, is the subject of a USA Network documentary.
Those five brutal seconds are at the heart of "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which examines the circumstances of the legendary fight. It wasn't legendary because Griffith killed Paret -- not so shocking in the world of boxing even with the added fact that it took place on TV -- but because at the weigh-in, the Cuban emigre Paret had taunted Griffith with a Spanish slang term for homosexual.
And so the fight acquired an extra-athletic resonance, became more melodrama than sport: Many thought that Griffith took his vengeance out on Paret for the insult, a blood debt in macho Latin culture (though Griffith was from the Virgin Islands), and brought a special fury to bear in those five seconds.
The film, painstakingly directed by Dan Klores and Ron Berger, makes a number of exculpatory points while not quite walking away from the charge. The first, of course, is that all of Griffith's punches were legal by boxing standards, and occurred within a few feet of referee Ruby Goldstein, who probably couldn't have reacted any quicker to stop the hitting. Griffith's hands were that fast.
The second is that Paret had been savagely beaten by Gene Fullmer three months earlier and almost certainly carried brain damage into the ring with him. This is a fight that medically never should have been permitted, and Paret's death was no fault of Griffith, but perhaps that of Paret's manager, who saw one more payday.
The third is that the fatal flurry of punches landed in the 12th round. If any of Griffith's fuel was rage, it had almost certainly dissipated that late in the fight. Rage is artificial; it vanishes early on, leaving an athlete with only skill and will to get himself though the ordeal. More likely, the 24-year-old Griffith, a wary pro trying to regain the title he had lost to Paret six months earlier, saw the opening and, as he had been instructed to by his manager Gil Clancy, stepped in and took legitimate athletic advantage against a consenting professional opponent. The one reaction surely everyone will have to "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story" is that no opprobrium should attach to Griffith, who was simply doing the job he had been trained to do under the rules of his sport.
The 90-minute film, which airs without commercial interruption tonight at 9 p.m. on the USA Network after a successful screening in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is crisp and surgical if a little evasive on certain issues. It never deals directly with Griffith's sexuality, on the one hand allowing certain witnesses to assume that he was gay and others to presume that he wasn't. Griffith himself, who cooperated fully, dances adroitly around the issue. Does it matter? Not usually or normally, but here the filmmakers bring it up for dramatic advantage: Don't they incur a subsequent obligation to the truth?
But in other ways, the movie is straightforward and aggressive. One can understand the artistic difficulty the filmmakers faced. They had a narrow arc of action to sustain their narrative and so they use a time-honored (another way of saying almost cliched) format. They open at the fight but don't take us to the end, use it as a platform from which to get to flashbacks in which they trace the progress of Griffith and Paret to the fatal moment.
Then they give us that fatal moment in slo-mo. We see each of the blows land, the shudder of impact run through Paret, the spume of spray driven from his head as, after the first roundhouse right lands, Griffith closes for a flurry of pile-driving uppercuts. He's a boxer. He's supposed to hit the other guy. Otherwise it wouldn't be boxing.
Then, less driven, it ambles toward closure, ending up in the emotional reconciliation of Benny Paret Jr. and the man who killed his dad. That's the flaw in the narrative: that the movie is essentially over after the fight, yet it has another half-hour to run.
What it does best, I think, is evoke New York and boxing culture in the early 1960s. The journalist Pete Hamill is the most perceptive of analysts, noting the oddness of the year: In some ways, it was still the '50s, for the '60s didn't really begin until the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. New York was still an immigrant city, full of Irishmen and Jews and Puerto Ricans all struggling to get both along and by; there was no counterculture, no giant rock-and-roll or media conglomerates; television had just taken hold as a national phenomenon. And, even though the brims had become almost vestigial, everyone wore hats, along with suits and skinny black ties.
The filmmakers are also extremely lucky that the Griffith-Paret fight was broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, a popular boxing show, so the fight, punch by brutal punch, was recorded and is well preserved. They're lucky as well in that the sadder-but-wiser Griffith is still around to discuss the fight cogently, as are his manager Clancy and his discoverer Howard Albert. The movie also boasts an unusual richness of classic New York faces: Irish old-salts Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, reporters Jack Newfield and Bill Gallo, old fighters Carmen Basilio and Fullmer. They walked the walk, and now they talk the talk.
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (90 minutes) will be shown on USA Network at 9 p.m.