On the 24th of March, 1962, welterweight champion Benny Paret called former champ Emile Griffith a maricón at their weigh-in. The closest contemporary American-English equivalent to this word is faggot, but maricón means more, and worse. Griffith understood what it meant. He climbed into the ring with Paret that night, fought him, and killed him.
Boxing is the opera of sport. It is all extremes and heightened sensibility, intense and exhausting. The comedies tend to farce (this is true in boxing also) and the dramas wring the most intense emotions out of both participants and spectators. Anyone who saw Washington National Opera’s Ring Cycle last year knows this is true of opera; anyone who watched the Ward-Gatti trilogy knows that it’s true of boxing as well.
Thus it seems inevitable that there would eventually be an opera about boxing. In fact, there are a couple of them; we’ve seen operas about Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis locally. But as dramatic as the life of those two men were, Champion is after bigger game: the life of Emile Griffith, a Hall of Fame boxer who was also a bisexual man, and how that life hinged on seven seconds of mayhem in the ring.
Susan Galbraith, an opera scholar, will assess the work elsewhere on this site; I here report on the opera as a fight fan who saw Griffith fight and followed his career.
In many ways librettist Michael Cristofer — who knows a thing or three about boxing — gets it exactly right, from the opening scene where Joe Orrach works a punching bag with such speed and grace that it seems to disappear to the percussive grunts and shouts of the other boxers, preparing for battle.
The device by which Griffith’s older self (an excellent Arthur Woodley), deep in the grip of dementia pugilistica, drifts from his present tense to visit himself as a child (Samuel Grace) and as a successful boxer (Aubrey Allicock) seems to work. He successfully invokes Griffith’s unstable mother (Denyce Graves) and lunatic cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), who was convinced that the little boy was possessed by Satan and thus obliged him to raise a concrete cinder block over his head and remain standing. If Emile nodded off, the block would land on his head.
What Cristofer gets most right is the way people felt about homosexuality in 1962, and why Paret’s accusation was so terrifying to Griffith. Ten years previously, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness in the DSM. This was actually a sign of progress, because prior to that (and after that, too) people viewed homosexuality as a moral failing, a character flaw that justified shunning and worse. The prevailing view was that a man was a homosexual because he lacked the intestinal fortitude to love and win women; that he did not have the manly virtues; that he was a “sissy” and a frivolous person, and not fit to be taken seriously. Men were warriors; women could design hats (a profession which interested Griffith, and in which he had some talents). Thus the opera has his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges) sing “in this world, no one is less than a man.”
Cristofer also relates the story of Paret’s confrontation with Griffith accurately. The opera parallels the account Donald McCrae gave in The Guardian:
“Griffith was about to step off the scales when he heard his trainer Gil Clancy shout: “Hey, watch it!” He wheeled round. A smirking Paret feigned intercourse with him as his trainers whooped hysterically. He waggled a finger at Griffith. “Hey maricón,” Paret said in a cooing lisp, “I’m gonna get you and your husband.”’
Cristofer makes Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson) a menacing, swaggering bully, the snake in the garden of Griffith, who to this point has been an exceptionally happy and cheery man. Robertson is bigger than Allicock, too, which makes Paret seem more fearsome. (Griffith was actually half an inch taller than Paret).
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Where Cristofer — and chorographer Seán Curran and fight master Joe Isenberg — vary from the facts is in the fights themselves. The variance is so profound that it is obviously done for effect, and not from any misunderstanding of boxing or history. Griffith is shown starting his career with a series of circus knockouts (in fact, his first four career fights were decided by judges) — the sort of punches that no one ever throws in a professional fight. The punch which fells Paret, too, is a long, looping right, delivered in slo-mo and sending Paret to the ground, and to the twelve day coma that led to his death.
Real boxing, on the other hand, is pre-eminently the art of self-defense. The last thing the referee says to boxers before the first round begins is protect yourself at all times. The greatest modern fighters — Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins — were first and last defensive fighters, and the most recognizable boxer of our lifetime, Muhammad Ali, was famous for his ability to evade (and, later, sadly, to take) a punch.
So boxers fight from a crouch, and seek to lend short, crisp punches. Under ideal circumstances, it takes only about five pounds of force to knock out another boxer; most fighters punch harder because they expect the punch to be partially blocked or partially evaded and they still want it to do damage.
No boxer would throw the punch that Griffith uses to knock Paret out in Champion. Even if he were inclined to, his opponent wouldn’t let him; while he was winding up, the opponent would land half a dozen blows and sit him down on his keister. But showing the knockout like this, instead of the way it really was, has the effect of absolving Griffith from his guilt. He was fighting, as he was being paid to do. And his manager could convincingly blame Paret’s death on the damage done in his previous fight, when he had unwisely gone up a weight class to fight the terrifying middleweight champ, Gene Fullmer. (Many boxing experts believe this, too.) Fullmer beat him up for nine rounds and then knocked him out in the tenth.
But what really happened was a little darker, a little more sinister. Here, I’ve set it up for you.
(Warning: not for the squeamish. A man kills another man in this video, for real.)
As the bell for the twelfth round rings, the two men seem evenly matched. Griffith had dominated the early part of the fight, but Paret knocked him down in the sixth. With four rounds to go either man could win.
The round opens, and they are both up on the balls of their feet. They move freely, circling each other. Paret lands a nice jab; Griffith replies a few seconds later. They clinch, and punch inside. At one point, ring announcer Dan Dunphy says that this has been the tamest round so far.
Shortly after that, Griffith rocks Paret with a crisp right, and backs him into a corner. He lands another good right, and Paret gets rubbery. Then the massacre begins. Griffith hits him with both hands, right-left, and then saws into him, like a man cutting down a tree. Champion says he hit Paret seventeen times in seven seconds, but by my count it was twenty-nine. Norman Mailer said it best:
“Griffith, making a pent-up, whispering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin. Over the referee’s face came a look of woe, as if some spasm had passed its way through him, and then he leaped on Griffith to pull him away. It was the act of a brave man. Griffith was uncontrollable. His trainer leaped into the ring. His manager. His cut man. There were four people holding Griffith, but he was off on an orgy. He had left the Garden. If he had been able to break loose, he would have hurled Paret to the floor, and whaled on him there.”
Go back to the video; look at the last five seconds or so of the demolition. Do you see Griffith sneak his left hand up on Paret’s shoulder? He is hitting and holding, a violation of the boxing rules. Boxers sometimes hit and hold to prevent an opponent from escaping an attack. But Paret was in the corner, which offered no escape.
Did Griffith hold him to make sure he didn’t fall down, and end the fight before Griffith was done with him?
There is a lot of blame to pass around. Of course, Rudy Goldstein should have called the fight earlier. (It was Goldstein’s first fight since recovering from a heart attack; he never refereed again.) Paret’s corner should have thrown in the towel when Griffith landed the second right; it was clear that Paret was defenseless. And perhaps the ill-advised fight with Fullmer had jarred something loose in Paret.
But Griffith knew what he had done. He had eighty fights after that night. And in those eighty fights, he knocked his opponent out just twice.