Opinion

Things most foul

byClark Booth
8/2/2013

Back in the spring of 1962, while indentured to the US Army as a Private E-1 doing basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, I landed a weekend pass allowing me to ramble up to the Big City to catch the fights. It's funny how sometimes encounters with the historic can just fall in your lap.

On this particular evening, events at the old Madison Square Garden at 8th and 49th would be avowedly "historic." The occasion was a middleweight championship match between two very tough Latin kids with loud and fierce followings; Emile Griffith, a terrific fighter, and Bennie "Kid" Paret, not as skilled but every bit as brave.

It was widely billed as a grudge match loaded with bad blood. The vibes were terrible. In the jangled drumroll of the looming tragedy insults raged with Griffith concluding that his manhood had been deeply and unforgivingly disparaged, nor did Paret -- a notably brash character -- deny that was precisely his intention. The street talk crackled with anger. By fight time, the Garden was seething. A stylish fighter and relatively mild-mannered -- at least as boxers go -- Griffith entered the ring in an awful rage.

Impossibly, the brawl exceeded expectations. For 11 rounds it was a toe-to-toe slugfest while all over the Garden skirmishes flared in the aisles and seats with the rival constituencies clashing amidst a piercing din.

Then in the 12th, Griffith cornered Paret in a corner and with sheer fury bordering on the insane pummeled him with what was officially determined to have been 17 consecutive smashing blows from short range to the Kid's head as Referee Ruby Goldstein, seemingly transfixed, did nothing. The murderous assault took about 10 seconds, though it seemed much longer with what further seemed more like three or four dozen blows being struck. It was unspeakably gruesome.

Goldstein, an ex-boxer of distinction long considered a great Ref, later lamented he was waiting for the Kid to go down for the count. But Paret couldn't fall because his right arm had become hooked on the ropes. We could see he was hopelessly ensnared from about 20 rows back but Ruby didn't, or couldn't, and when he finally restrained Griffith, Paret was already unconscious. He lingered nine days, never awakening. A half-century later, the madness of the scene remains a vivid memory; especially the shrill chirping of the rival gangs in their unrelenting venting of their hatreds, even as the Kid lay dying on the canvass.

The effect of that horrific evening on boxing was monumental. The ensuing uproar was ruinous. I firmly believe boxing essentially ceased to be a major American sport that night. For the tragedy had been beamed on network television. These were less jaded times. The very notion of witnessing a mindlessly savage homicide in the guise of an alleged sporting event in the comfort of your living room was a greater issue then than it might be today; it being well before we could collectively say as a culture that we'd seen "everything."

Obviously, the sport didn't expire. But it would never again be like it was; not even close. Yet ahead would be the Ali years. Later, our entire region would be lengthily enthralled with the raucous experiences of Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The game still persists. Aficionados survive and if they crave a fisticuffs' fix, one is often enough available, albeit for an increasingly hefty cable price.

But with the vast and general public, Boxing no longer has currency. It's long gone. Dead! Boxing was a mainstay of network television in its crucial formative years; carried with gravity as much as four evenings a week through the 1950s. But Benny Paret's death live on the tube ended that strange romance. It was, if you will, yet another fatal blow.

This may seem an odd reflection on my part but what inspired it is simple enough. In the event you missed it, Emile Griffith died the other day. He was 75 and he departed having lived a life so familiar among men who've plied this wicked game. It was a deeply sad, conflicted, bewildered and, in the end, aimless life filled with too much sorrow, pain and confusion. In short, Griffith was typical.

Most sportswriters I've known, and all the great ones, have been hooked on boxing. It's a fascinating doge forever populated with endlessly fascinating characters. There are no bores in boxing and if there are too many crooks there are very few frauds. Boxing is a fabulous study of compelling allure. None of which diminishes the fact it's not just a brutal business but decidedly rotten.

Emile Griffith was a great fighter. He held three championships and whipped the fabled likes of Dick Tiger and Nino Benvenuti. He was ever willing and never mailed it in. But he's best remembered for having killed Kid Paret.

It haunted him. He must have apologized ten thousand times; saying again and again, "I didn't want to kill no one." But to those who were there, the rage he lugged into that ring that night truly qualified as "murderous," with a potential regrettably too inevitable.

Before being distracted by boxing memories it was my intention to wax upon the deplorable Aaron Hernandez mess this week; a rather more predictable subject. On the other hand, what's left to say about this dreadful matter that's been unsaid? Dare we say, "nothing?" Except, perhaps, for this.

If indeed -- as all the Patriot people led by the Lord High Coaching Mikado Himself are telling us -- "it's time to 'move on,'" there is this question. What precisely does that mean?

Does it mean we should forget about it? Not possible, old Sport. That Rubicon has been crossed.

Or does it mean we should ignore it? That too proves impossible especially as onrushing legal proceedings approach the scale, gravity, distraction, aggravation, and public entertainment value of the Whitey Bulger epic.

Maybe in their heart of hearts they think skeptics, in their nasty preoccupation with trifles relating little to football, are overstating Mr. Hernandez's alleged indiscretions? If I were them, I'd be careful of that one given law enforcement's current probes which yet might multiply the "raps" linked to their wayward tight end.

Or might they secretly believe we should care more how our guys in red, white, and blue fare on fields of friendly strife come autumn.

Right!

But my biggest questions concerns that extraordinary 22 minute alleged "apologia" delivered with so much familiar condescension (if a bit more tact than usual) by the Head-Coach in what he's pledged will be his last word on the subject. And on that, we certainly do believe him!

In my opinion, it was a tap dance worthy of Fred Astaire.

While Mr. Belichick conceded questions he was asked were "fair," he answered none of them. He was roundly applauded by an adoring Boston media for admitting he was "saddened" and "disappointed." What was the alternative; for him to say he was overjoyed? Why were the knights of the keyboard so grateful he was willing -- after a full month's abject silence -- to speak of an issue historically impacting his team? Why did none of them ask, "What took you so long?" He accepted responsibility for drafting Hernandez but refused to explain why he ignored all warnings to avoid him. He promised to introduce reforms but offered NO details. He stonewalled. And they loved it.

To the Coach, one has this advice. Run your camp. Play your season. Win or lose, as fate ordains. Forget you drafted, cultivated, admired, and employed the disgraced fellow in question, obviously focusing only on his considerable skills while glibly ignoring all the other baggage he was bearing. Do all this without a wink, a nod, or a blush.

But don't tell us "it's time to move on." Because this historic calamity, my dear Coach, has only just begun!