Dangerous Ring Rivalries

By Ray Schultz

Gil Clancy, the former gym teacher who trained fighters, had a gruff manner, and I could imagine him greeting a boy’s gym class by sneering, “Hello, girls.” He was all charm, though, when Oscar said I was writing Garcia’s biography. “Garcia is a great fighter, one in a million,” he said. “He’s fought everyone and knows what to do in the ring.” Then he threw this damper on it: “He’ll never make any more money.” 

Clancy’s biggest success, Emile Griffith, joined him in praising Garcia. “That man there is the only man who’s been fighting longer than I have—four more years,” Griffith said one day. Oscar returned the compliment. “This man was five times a champion.” Yes he was: Three times welterweight and twice middleweight champ, the Virgin Islander was the only fighter at the Solar Gym with his own dressing room. 

Now a grizzled 39, the once-handsome Griffith had a long history with Garcia’s countrymen. Having decisioned Luis Rodriguez and Florentino Fernandez in early bouts, he was matched with Benny Kid Paret for the welterweight championship in Miami in April 1961. Paret was the first of the new Cubans to win a title—he’d beaten Don Jordan for it in May 1960–and he was a likeable champ. The words “true love” were tattooed on his bicep, and his “ebullience was infectious,” Sports Illustrated wrote.

Paret was “not a naturally hard hitter or a consummate boxer,” the magazine continued. Yet he never gave an inch, and Griffith had trouble with him. Then Gil Clancy smacked Griffith at the start of the thirteenth round. Griffith went out and landed a good left hook, then another, then a right, and Paret went down for the count.

A rematch followed at Madison Square Garden in the fall, and Paret won it by a split decision after 15 grueling rounds—how happy he looked as his cornermen hoisted him aloft. Then came the third bout—at the Garden—in March 1962. The weigh-in was ugly—Paret called Griffith a “maricon”– and the ill feeling went into the ring with them. I saw it on TV. Paret floored Griffith in the sixth, but Griffith recovered and in the twelfth, he staggered Paret with a right. Paret “reeled onto the ropes,” Bob Waters reported. “His head was on the top strand of ropes and his right arm was crooked around the middle strand. Griffith hit him with a series of right uppercuts and then threw hook after hook for about 10 seconds until referee Ruby Goldstein grabbed Griffith and tugged him away.” 

In the dressing room, Clancy “allowed Griffith half an hour to be jubilant over his victory,” Waters wrote. “Then he broke the news that Paret was badly hurt” (brain dead, in fact).  Waters was moved by what he saw the next day. “A Methodist, Griffith prayed for Paret in a Roman Catholic church. Paret is a Catholic. ‘I prayed for Benny,’ Emile said. ‘I asked God, to please save him…make him well. I broke down. I wanted to regain the title very much, but no title is worth this.’” 

Despite those prayers, Paret died on April 3, and on the Fight of the Week that Saturday, the bell was tolled ten times for him. The non-boxing world was unmoved by this demonstration, and there were calls for abolition of the sport. Critics pointed out that Paret had taken a savage beating from the middleweight champ Gene Fullmer only a few months before. “Paret was one of the toughest guys I’d ever fought as far as actual tough,” Fullmer told Peter Heller. “I never hit anybody more punches harder than I hit Paret.”

The threat of death or injury didn’t deter Garcia. Fighting the Corsican Saveur Chiocca that fall, he caught a “shattering right to the jaw,” and went down for six, then hit the floor again a moment later. But he “gained control of his rapid feet” and won the fight, The Ring wrote. Next, he fought the ranked French welterweight Jean Josselin. “Josselin belted away unceasingly, always moving forward,” The Ring reported. Garcia retaliated by “roughing things up whenever he got the chance.” The heavier Josselin was “badly marked, Garcia undamaged, but utterly exhausted at the finish.” 

I asked Garcia about Paret the night we drank at the Beauburn bar. He answered, more or less, that Benny was tough, but that he didn’t think it could happen to a fighter with his own defensive skills. 

Maybe not. But a year after Paret died, two Cubans fought for world titles on the same program in Los Angeles. Welterweight Luis Rodriguez outpointed Griffith in a close one, reversing his earlier loss, and Garcia’s friend Sugar Ramos kayoed Davey Moore for the featherweight crown. Ramos was a stalker, who concentrated on “blows to the mid-section, and stinging lefts and rights,” Sports Illustrated wrote. The end came in the tenth. Moore was “knocked to the canvas twice and reeled helplessly against the ropes as the round ended,” Bob Waters wrote. In his dressing room, Moore said, ‘This just wasn’t one of my nights. It was a bad night.’” Then he collapsed, and Waters reported the next day that Moore was near death. The scene was a strange replay of the one the year before. 

“‘I am very, very sorry,’ Ramos said to the clusters of people who were standing in the hospital lobby,” Waters wrote. “’We are friends outside of the ring. I wanted to see Davey. I wanted to tell him I am sorry.’ Moore’s manager, Willie Ketchum, said, “‘Don’t worry, Kid. He’s in good hands. He’s in God’s hands. And you gotta trust God.” 

Griffith sent Ramos a telegram: “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault. You’ve got to pray; you’ve got to have faith.” But Moore died and boxing was again condemned. In a song titled, “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, Bob Dylan mocked the excuses of every party to it, including Ramos, “who came here from Cuba’s door where boxing ain’t allowed no more.” 

I personally resented those lyrics when I read them years later. How could you condemn a man who fought at age 12 for extra helpings of food and faced the same dangers in the ring as Moore? But the verse that upset me most seemed aimed at Bob Waters himself:

“Not me, said the boxing writer

Pounding print on his old typewriter

Saying boxing ain’t to blame

There’s just as much danger in a football game” 

Of course, the deaths depressed me—I grieved for Paret and Moore. But I felt protective toward boxing. I was sickened later when a radical newspaper tied Barney Ross to Jack Ruby and possibly to the Kennedy assassination. Barney Ross, the three-time title holder and hero of Guadalcanal? How dare they? And I agreed with Red Smith’s defense of fighters: “It is hard to believe that a nation bereft of such men would be the stronger or better for it.” 

Once again, the tragedy didn’t stop Garcia. He kayoed the Jaguar of the Sahara, Aissa Hashas, in Tunis, and won another war with Sauveur Chioca in Paris. And assuming he heard it, he ignored the commentary coming from Havana on the “criminal methods of professional boxing—boxing being run by real gangsters who are interested only in filling their bags with dollars and do not have the least regard for the lives of the fighters.” 

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