Just the thought of it is enough to suck the wind out of you, even now, a half-century later, considering how stark the circumstances were: on a March night in 1962, in a boxing ring in Madison Square Garden, Emile Griffith beat Benny “Kid” Paret to death. It’s on video, on YouTube, if you’ve got the stomach for it; adding to its inherent horror, it’s in that kind of black-and-white kinescope that sort of looks like soot and ash, like the film caught fire and burned for a good long while but remains viewable. Okay, first, a hard fact: once in awhile, fighters die. Long an accepted hazard of the sport, as time has passed, mounting concern over the danger has probably had as much to do with boxing’s fade from the mainstream as a lack of marketable heavyweights and, you know, the inherent corruption of the alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies.
Things were different in 1962, though, obviously; Paret-Griffith was different, too. By all accounts, Griffith was on fire that night. (A small matter of Paret’s having repeatedly called Griffith a maricón in the weeks leading up to the fight.) And this wasn’t just a fighter dying of his injuries. Paret got caught in the corner, and Griffith knocked him unconscious, and then the beating started in earnest, Griffith getting in eighteen solid rights to Paret’s head in about three seconds before the ref stepped in. The footage of Paret slumping to the canvas afterward gives credence to Norman Mailer’s assertion that Paret “died on his feet”. It’s one thing to know a man will die of his injuries; it’s another thing entirely to effectively watch him die. Now, Terence Blanchard has been tasked with making an opera out of the saga of Emile and Benny, the working title of which is Champion, a joint commission by Opera Theater of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis with an eye on a premiere next summer. (FULL ARTICLE: Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times)