I have just finished Norman Mailer’s essay for Esquire about the third Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston match on September 25, 1962. It was entitled “Ten Thousand Words a Minute.” As Patterson was knocked out a couple of minutes into the first round—so quickly that there was widespread disagreement about the number of punches that connected—Mailer wrote mostly about the coverage of boxing by the press and other matches.
What I remember most about the essay was Mailer’s description of an earlier match, between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret in March of that year. There was a lot of bad blood between the two boxers. Paret was on record as saying “I hate that kind of guy. A fighter’s got to look and talk and act like a man.” At the weigh-in before the fight, Paret touched his opponent’s buttocks and called him a maricón, in English: a “faggot.” Griffith was enraged.
Mailer ruminated on the confrontation:
The accusation of homosexuality arouses a major passion in many men; they spend their lives resisting it with a biological force. There is a kind of man who spends every night of his life getting drunk in a bar, he rants, he brawls, he ends in a small rumble on the street; women say, “For God’s sakes, he’s homosexual. Why doesn’t he just turn queer and get his suffering over with.” Yet men protect him. It is because he is choosing not to become homosexual. It was put best by Sartre who said that a homosexual is a man who practices homosexuality. A man who does not, is not homosexual—he is entitled to the dignity of his choice. He is entitled to the fact that he chose not to become homosexual, and is paying presumably his price.
In fact, Griffith was bisexual. He designed women’s hats. But at that particular time and place, he was inhabiting his own closet. He came into the ring for blood, and in the twelfth round, he took his revenge:
In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin….
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
Paret was rushed to the hospital in a coma, where he died ten days later without ever regaining consciousness. You can see the climax of the fight on YouTube: