Boxing had just one champion per division when Emile Griffith won six titles across three weight classes. His career spanned nearly two decades. He retired in 1977 at 39 with the most championship rounds of any fighter in history.
"One of the greatest welterweights of all time," boxing historian Michael Katz called Griffith, who fought 112 times from 147 to 160 pounds - nearly three times more than Sugar Ray Leonard fought. Blessed with a 26-inch waist and a 44-inch chest, Griffith (85-24-2, 23 knockouts) had a granite chin and the wind and endurance of a marathon runner.
"This guy was a machine - incredibly strong, had good hand speed, was a marvelous in-fighter and you could hurt him and he could come back from it. In his prime, he'd have given hell to Sugar Ray Robinson," Katz said.
But Griffith's legacy has been overshadowed by a single tragic fight: His 12th-round knockout of Benny "Kid" Paret at Madison Square Garden in 1962. After being pinned on the ropes and absorbing 27 unanswered blows, the Cuban-born Paret lapsed into a coma and died 10 days later.
Paret's nationally televised tragedy, in the last fight of a welterweight title trilogy, is the subject of Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, which airs tonight at 9 on USA Network,
Directed by New York publicist Dan Klores, the 90-minute documentary explores the resulting call for the prohibition of boxing, a near decade-long television blackout of the sport and, ultimately, the effect of Paret's death on Griffth's legacy.
Griffith fought 80 more times but had lost much of his aggression, haunted by the images of Paret's death. Griffith's trainer, Gil Clancy, said he had to "instill killer instinct" in Griffith, who often carried opponents.
"Whenever I look in the mirror, I see [Paret]," an elderly Griffith said in the film. "I get chills thinking about it. I wake up in sweats."
But Griffith isn't the only one responsible for Paret's death. Those familiar with the fight also blame Paret's manager, Manuel Alfaro, and referee Ruby Goldstein.
Benny Paret Jr., 45, blames his father's death on the late Alfaro, accusing him of mismanaging the fighter's career.
"I'll say it now, and I'll say it at any other time or place," said Paret Jr. in an interview. "Manuel Alfaro is solely responsible for my father's death. My father should not have been in that ring that night."
Before facing Griffith the third time, Paret had been put by Alfaro in four brutal fights in 1961. Paret defeated Griffith over 15 rounds in September. But in his next fight, a 10th-round knockout loss to middleweight Gene Fullmer, Paret was floored three times in the last round.
"I never beat anybody worse in my life," Fullmer said in the film.
Paret then dropped 8 pounds to 146 1/2 to face Griffith two months later. He complained of headaches before the fight and expressed a reluctance to go through with it during a call to his wife, Lucy Paret.
"Manuel Alfaro said too much money had gone into the fight, but he was just looking after himself and the money that he could make," Paret Jr. said "But there's no price high enough for the death of a fighter.
"We all know that my father took a beating from Gene Fullmer. I've never seen a man take such a beating. But he's the epitome of macho man toughness. He kept getting up. When I saw it myself, I found myself mumbling, 'Stay down, why are you getting up?'"
Griffith entered the fight with a chip on his shoulder stemming from Paret's calling him a "maricon" - a Spanish word meaning he was gay. Known to frequent gay bars, Griffith denies being a homosexual. He had to be restrained by Clancy at the pre-fight weigh-in after Paret grabbed Griffith's hips, gyrated behind him and yet again questioned his masculinity.
With Griffith trailing after 11 rounds, the film enters what has become a sore subject between two of those in it. An interview with former New York Daily News city columnist Jimmy Breslin makes it appear as if he's saying that Clancy told Griffith to "leave [Paret] on the floor" and to "kill the bum."
Clancy said he told Griffith to throw punches until the referee stepped in but denies he meant his fighter to cause Paret permanent damage.
Breslin also denies he heard Clancy say that.
"Talking about killing somebody - [Clancy] never said that," Breslin said.
Griffith, nevertheless, seized the opportunity. A shot to the temple sent Paret staggering to a neutral corner, where his left arm and head became tangled in the ropes. A hunched-over Paret vainly tried to protect himself, his head being banged about like a tether ball on a thin string.
A seemingly mesmerized Goldstein, the referee, looked on - a rare occurrence. Only months before Griffith-Paret III, Goldstein was honored alongside Sugar Ray Robinson on the Ed Sullivan Show for his reputation for ring safety and professionalism.
"Ruby was a fighter himself, and a good fighter. Like a lot of old-time purists, he was giving the champion every opportunity - but this was over the top," New York Daily News reporter Bill Gallo, who covered the fight from ringside, said of Goldstein.
"I was right by the corner where Benny was getting pounded. People were yelling, 'Stop the fight,' but I felt poor Ruby became a spectator," Gallo said. "[Paret] got hurt right away, went against the ropes, and when his hands went down, it would have been good to stop the fight. But there were nine or 10 punches after that."
Goldstein is dead.
Griffith, 67, lives in an apartment near Clancy's Long Island home. Long after having trained James "Bonecrusher" Smith to a heavyweight title in 1986, he suffers from dementia - the result of being nearly beaten to death during a 1992 mugging outside a gay bar in Times Square.
Long gone are the memories of being a 15-year-old immigrant from the Virgin Islands, who as a youth sang in a church choir and sold women's hats.
But he has an adopted son, Luis Rodrigo. Benny Paret Jr. nearly followed in his father's footsteps. He was 12-0 as an amateur when, at age 14, he ended his career at the request of his mother. Lucy Paret still lives in Miami. She never remarried. But her son has moved to New York, where he works alongside Rodrigo in the mailroom of Klores' communications firm.
"There's no bad feelings here," Paret Jr. tells Griffith at the end of Ring of Fire - this during a tearful embrace last October in Central Park with the man whose fists sent his father to a grave in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.
"Thank you, son," says Griffith. "I didn't mean to hurt no one, but things happen."