Benny “Kid” Paret’s fatal loss to my favorite boxer, Emile Griffith, took place 50 years ago this week.
So did Willard “Turk” Glover’s fatal dispute with my favorite musician, Lloyd Allen – the same day, in fact.
That was a lot of mayhem to lay on a 10-year-old boy in Portland, Ore., at a time when conventional wisdom claimed that children should be protected from all abnormality, much less the sordid side of life and death.
But that’s the sort of back story that turns a boy into a writer.
Sure enough, I’ve written a lot about boxing, and Griffith-Paret was, aside from the first Clay-Liston fight and Ali’s victory over George Foreman, the most memorable, not to mention horrifying, event I’ve seen in boxing, occurring as it did on the most memorable day of my childhood.
I’ve been even more preoccupied with writing about Lloyd Allen, then as now a popular blues singer-guitarist with whose family my younger brother and I had lived, weekdays and weeknights, from mid-1954 until the end of 1956. That was an unusual arrangement for that time and place, to say the least.
Musically inclined even as a toddler, I doted on Lloyd, as many people did and still do, and tended to think of him as my role model in the years before and even after the murder.
Still, the murder and mayhem in my midst in the nine months preceding March 24, 1962, had already been excessive without Lloyd’s input and a televised boxing fatality. Even for me it all amounted to piling on.
The cycle began in June 1961 when my maternal grandfather fell to his death from a roof he was tarring, inches from where I was trying to referee a fuss between my 8-year-old brother and our grandmother. A customer on my paper route, a young single woman, was murdered around Christmastime in her apartment.
Most shocking of all, a family friend had killed herself and her 12-year-old son in August 1961, so the bereaved widower/father, Portland Symphony principal cellist Roman Dukson, had come to live with my father, brother and me at our apartment in Northwest Portland.
After Lloyd committed the pre-dawn murder over an employment dispute at the Broiler, a nightclub at Broadway and Salmon streets in the heart of downtown Portland, the killing was the lead story in the bulldog edition of the Sunday Oregonian that Saturday afternoon, complete with a three-inches-deep headline and a sullen mug shot that looked nothing like the Lloyd Allen I knew, though I hadn’t seen in two or three years.
As I delivered those Oregonians featuring Lloyd, who was 25 then (as was Paret), I consoled myself with the belief that the homicide might have been justifiable, although it wasn't. Lloyd was convicted of second-degree murder and would spend most of the 1960s in Oregon’s state penitentiary.
I put Lloyd out of my mind in time to take in the Griffith-Paret fight at 7 p.m.
Mr. Dukson, who was not a young man, hadn’t been able to reconcile the generally high level of intellect in our household with the sports passion my father and I shared on Saturdays.
By the early 1960s, the Wednesday Night Fights on CBS and the Friday Night Fights on NBC had morphed into ABC’s Fight of the Week on Saturdays.
Portland Amateur Boxing followed at 8 p.m. on KPTV. I felt vague ties to dominant Negro fighters from Knott Street Community Center and probably had known some of them via the Allens.
Lloyd says he knew most of the Portland pros, who often fared well at the national level. The ABC fights frequently featured Portland welterweight Dennis Moyer and his somewhat less well-known older brother Phil, a middleweight, as well as Eddie Machen, a smallish black heavyweight with a disdain for mixing it up.
Denny Moyer, who had challenged for the welterweight title in 1959 at 19 (champion Don Jordan outclassed him), engaged in three close fights with a young fighter from the Virgin Islands, Emile Griffith, with Moyer winning once.
Griffith was stoutly built for a 147-pounder, but he wasn't a slugger, seldom scored knockouts. He wasn't a fancy dan either, not like the Cuban Luis Rodriguez, who seemed to be the best welterweight at the time. Griffith, later a middleweight champion, always seemed to win on resourcefulness and determination, much as Timothy Bradley does today, eventually outmaneuvering Rodriguez in two of three meetings.
By the end of 1961 Griffith had won the welterweight title against another Cuban, Paret, whom I never considered to be of championship caliber. Nevertheless, there was a rematch in which Paret somehow outpointed Griffith despite suffering a knockdown.
Before granting Griffith a rubber match, Paret stepped up in weight class, despite being a smallish welterweight, to fight middleweight champion Gene Fullmer in December 1961. Fullmer battered Paret, who somehow lasted the full 10 rounds.
In time for Paret's next fight, the third bout with Griffith, my father and I had managed to convince Mr. Dukson that boxing was not about brutality, that it was an art form, and we figured the Griffith-Paret rubber match would be more artistic than most.
My one reservation was that I felt Griffith would win one-sidedly. I had not heard reports that Paret had called Griffith, whose former day job was in New York’s garment district, a maricon, although I had heard Griffith's West Indies lilt and might have concurred. But I knew Griffith had something to prove, and I knew he was the better fighter and was not coming off a brutal loss, as Paret was.
From the midpoint on, the fight was one-sided in Griffith's favor, and we feared Mr. Dukson would witness a brutal conclusion. Griffith had knocked Paret out in the first fight. But not that brutal.
Fight 3 ended with Griffith trapping Paret in a corner and hitting him with 17 punches in five seconds before referee Ruby Goldstein stopped the fight. Paret slid down the ropes only then, lapsing into a coma.
My father was preoccupied for days with soothing the forlorn Mr. Dukson, who was quite traumatized by the outcome. I was more matter-of-fact. I understood the difference between this and the fatalities on “Gunsmoke,” but I was resigned to the probability that Paret would have a blood clot on his brain and die a few days later, as my grandfather had died from his fall nine months earlier. That's pretty much what happened.
If you want to know what happened to Griffith, there are two excellent sources, both circa 2005. One is a Sports Illustrated profile by the legendary Gary Smith, and the other is the documentary “Ring of Fire” that has been airing a lot recently on ESPN Classic.
If you want to know what happened to Lloyd Allen and his family and what happened to me after such an iconoclastic childhood, hold out for “Stereo Types,” my soon-to-be-published-somehow memoir.
We can debate whether the murder ruined Lloyd’s life, but this I know for certain: Seeing the Griffith-Paret tragedy did not ruin mine.
The kind of wisdom I gained from all the experiences that coalesced that day in 1962 beats the crap out of the conventional kind.