While waiting for his next event, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps assumed the Great Stone face of Death, concentrating hard on his next medal(s). You may recall the 2012 London Olympics, when the award for best Oly-Meme went to gymnast McKayla Maroney, though hers was the “Not Impressed” face while the Phelpser went all-round death glare.
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:
I never write about sports, and yet here is my second consecutive posting about sports. The day before yesterday, the subject was Muhammad Ali. Today, it is the comeback of my native city, Cleveland, Ohio, in winning the NBA championship after being down 3 games to 1. No, I didn’t watch the game—Martine controls the TV remote in our household—but I followed the sports news on the net and in the Los Angeles Times.
The last time Cleveland won any sports championship was the 1964 NFL championship, in which the Browns slammed the Baltimore Colts 24-0. And that was 2 or 3 years before the first Super Bowl. That was the great team that featured Dr. Frank Ryan at QB and Jim Brown at FB. I remember listening to the game on radio because it was blacked out in the Cleveland TV market.
It took 52 years before Cleveland won another championship … in anything. In the meantime, it became the butt of jokes, such as from Maynard G. Krebs (played by Bob Denver) of “The Dobie Gillis” show always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.
Well, the monster did not devour Cleveland this time. Although I would have to have my head examined before I ever went back to live in what we called The Mistake on the Lake, I retain a strong affection for the people who live in my old home town.
When I was in grade school, Cleveland was the 7th largest city in the United States. No more. After much of its industry went to Asia to stay, it is now 31st and still falling. Although they have been uniformly miserable in sports rankings over the years, I hope they start a new tradition of winning, so that the devoted sports fans of Northeastern Ohio have something to look forward to.
No, it’s not December 26. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), I wish it were.
Martine and I reacted to the heat by going to the air-conditioned Paley Center for Media. While Martine watched 1950s sitcoms, I saw Muhammad Ali’s three bouts with Smokin’ Joe Frazier over a three-hour period:
- The so-called Fight of the Century took place on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Frazier beat Ali in 15 rounds on a unanimous decision. Ali lost his world championship title as a result.
- On January 24, 1974, Ali beat Frazier in 12 rounds on a unanimous decision. Neither were world champions at the time.
- The “Thrilla in Manila” took place on October 1, 1975 in Quezon City in the Philippines. After 14 rounds, Ali, who was world heavyweight champion, hurt Frazier so badly that he was temporarily blinded, leading his trainer Eddie Futch to call the fight for Ali.
It was a grueling experience to see three fights between the same competitors one after the other, all with commentary by the grating Howard Cosell. At least, the Paley’s John H. Mitchell theater was well air conditioned, and the alternative would be to endure an altogether different sort of hell.
It was interesting to see Ali improve between the fights, starting from his clay-footed rope-seeking fighting style in the 1971 bout. Frazier stayed the same—always aggressive, bobbing, weaving, and left-hooking—but Ali developed new ways of meeting his challenge. Between the two of them, I was impressed by Frazier for his indomitable courage, and Ali for his intelligence and ability to adapt to different circumstances.