April 25, 2015
The Main Event

 

At the weigh-in

on the morning of March 24th, 1962, the World Welterweight Champ,

Benny “Kid” Paret,

 

called his challenger, Emile Griffith, a maricón —

Cuban slang for “faggot”—

and smiled. Emile wanted to knock the Kid out right there.

 

Gil Clancy, his manager,

managed to hold him back, told him to “save it for tonight.”

The New York Times

 

wouldn’t print the correct translation, maintained that Paret had called

Emile an “unman.”

The sportswriter Howard Tuckner raved against the euphemistic

 

copy editors, “A butterfly

is an unman. A rock is an unman. These lunatics!”

No one would mention

 

the word “homosexual” in connection with a star

athlete. Another

journalist, Jimmy Breslin—Irish straight-talker—said,

 

“That was what Paret

was looking to do—get him steamed! If you’re going to look for trouble,

you found it!”

 

By the twelfth round, both men had tired. They clinched, heads ear

to ear, embracing,

then punching underneath, whaling away at the other’s

 

ribs, face. Such

intimate hostility. As if, could they have spoken to each other

through plastic mouth guards,

 

they would have groaned out curses, endearments, pillow talk.

At the close of the sixth round

the Kid had landed a combination, ending in a hard right

 

to Emile’s chin.

He had gone down in his corner for an eight count,

but got back up

 

and started slugging as the bell rang and delivered him

from an almost certain

knockout. The crowd had shouted, whistled, roared.

 

In the black-and-white footage

of the TV broadcast on YouTube, the referee Ruby Goldstein breaks up

their clinch. Photographers

 

lean in and slide their old-fashioned flash-bulb cameras across the ring’s

sweat-spattered

canvas floor to get a closer shot of the exhausted fighters. Cigarette

 

and cigar smoke

hangs heavy. The announcer Don Dunphy complains, “This is probably

the tamest round

 

of the entire fight.” One second later Emile staggers the Kid

with an overhand right.

“Griffith rocks him.” Emile lands twenty-nine punches in eighteen

 

seconds. “Paret against

the ropes, almost hopeless.” Emile steps back, winds up, then swings

to get his full

 

body weight into each punch. Eyewitness Norman Mailer, ten feet

away from the fighters,

would write that Emile’s right hand was “whipping like a piston rod

 

which had broken through

the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.”

The crowd screams,

 

frenzied as piranhas stripping in less than half a minute the flesh

from a cow fallen

into the river. As Emile hammers the Kid’s head with nine straight uppercuts

 

in two seconds, so it whips

back and forth in the slow-motion replay like a ragdoll’s head shaken

by a girl throwing

 

a tantrum, one commentator observes, “That’s beautiful

camera work,

isn’t it?” Another responds, “Yeah, terrific.” While Emile mauls

 

the Kid with mechanical

precision, he may be thinking of how the Kid reached out

and tauntingly patted

 

his left buttock, lisping Maricón, maricón, as Emile stood

stripped down

to his black trunks on the scales at the weigh-in. Or he may be thinking

 

of his job designing ladies’

hats in the Garment District. Attach that ostrich feather to the brim

of the blue boater, left hook,

 

pile-driver right. Lean into the punch. Put him away. But Paret,

tangled in the ropes,

won’t go down. Clancy had told him to keep punching until

 

the referee separated

them.  Emile doesn’t know that the Kid will never regain

consciousness, will die

 

in ten days. He doesn’t know that for the rest of his life

he will have nightmares

in which he and Paret are marionettes. Someone jerks his strings. He can’t

 

stop punching. He will become

world champ four more times, but will himself be beaten almost

to death by five young

 

homophobes, one with a baseball bat, as he leaves a gay bar near Port

Authority. He will drive

a pink Lincoln Continental. After Paret’s death, Manny

 

Alfaro, the Kid’s manager,

will say, “Now, I have to go find a new boy.” His widow,

Lucy, will bury him

 

in the St. Raymond Cemetery in the Bronx. She will never

remarry, will tell an interviewer,

“Dream? I stopped dreaming a long time ago.” Boxing matches

 

will stop being televised

for the next decade. Ruby Goldstein will referee only one more fight,

then retire. Emile

 

will suffer dementia pugilistica. He will be forced to sell his Continental

and will ride the bus,

he’ll say, “like everyone else.” Benny Paret, Jr., the Kid’s son

 

who was two years old

when Emile killed his dad, will meet and forgive him forty-two years

later. Lucy

 

had refused to go to the Garden or watch the fight on TV.

A neighbor had to tell her.

Across nine million flickering screens nation-wide

 

they hoisted the Kid’s

still body onto a stretcher and carried him slowly out of the ring.

Don Dunphy signed off,

 

“saying goodnight for your hosts, the Gillette Safety

Razor Co., makers

of the $1.95 Adjustable Razor, super blue blades, foamy shaving

 

cream, and Right Guard

Power Spray Deodorant, and El Producto, America’s largest-selling

quality cigar.”

 

–Donald Platt (Tippecanoe County)

This poem previously appeared in the Southwest Review, Fall 2014, and will be reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2015.

 

Donald Platt

Donald Platt, of West Lafayette, has published four volumes of poetry: Dirt Angels (New Issues Press, 2009), My Father Says Grace (Arkansas University Press, 2007), Cloud Atlas (Purdue University Press, 2002), and Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns (Purdue University Press, 1994). His fifth book, Tornadoesque, will appear in CavanKerry Press’s Notable Voices Series in 2016. An English professor at Purdue University, he has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three Pushcart Prizes.

 Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month by sharing a poem from an Indiana poet every day in April (hand-selected by Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras). Check in daily to see who is featured next!

Posted In: Poetry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *