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TV Review

Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story **** (out of four)

9 p.m. today, USA

Some of the details are fuzzy, but one of my childhood memories occurred on a Friday night in 1962. I was in bed sleeping when I heard my father screaming at the television set.

"Stop it, stop it, stop it," my father said.

He had been watching Emile Griffith Jr. on ABC's 10 p.m. boxing program throwing repetitive punches at a defenseless Benny "Kid" Paret during the 12th round of a welterweight title bout in Madison Square Garden. Referee Ruby Goldstein didn't hear my father's plea. Paret was beaten to death before Goldstein stopped it. Paret went into a coma and died 10 days later.

TV's endless replays of the bout helped spark politicians to launch what one journalist labels an "irrational epidemic of piety" and debate whether boxing should be abolished.

The events leading up to the fight and the impact on the lives of Griffith and Paret's family are given a blow-by-blow account from star journalists and boxing experts in a knockout of a documentary, "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which airs at 9 tonight, without commercial interruption, on USA Network.

I'll never forget the night of the fight. But I don't remember hearing about Griffith's supposed sexual preferences being discussed. That's probably because it was 1962, which in some ways seems more like a century ago culturally and socially. It was a time that copy editors for newspapers changed a reporter's word referring to homosexual to "unman." Homosexuality wasn't discussed, certainly not by boxers raised in a homophobic culture.

Griffith was a boxer originally from the Virgin Islands. So when the Cuban-born Paret used a slang Spanish word, "maricon," for homosexual at the weigh-in of their third fight, Griffith wanted to start swinging right there. Whether Griffith's anger had much of anything to do with the beating he gave Paret in what had been a competitive fight is open to conjecture. The film doesn't make any conclusions and documents other possible reasons for the fighter's death.

Paret had been beaten badly by middleweight Gene Fullmer three months earlier. His manager wanted to get another big payday out of him. And Goldstein was slow to stop the beating, which the film replays along with Don Dunphy's live commentary.

As explained in the film, only the haunted Griffith knows what he was thinking. The former hat designer with a chiseled body always seemed too gentle a soul to even be a fighter. He looks even more so now that he is an old man living in a Long Island apartment that couldn't be further than the lavish lifestyle he lived as a boxer.

Addressing the speculation that he is homosexual, Griffith says only that he used to go to gay bars to meet gay and straight friends and that people can believe what they want to believe.

"I know I'm not doing anything wrong," he says. Most of those interviewed seem to assume Griffith is gay. He apparently also was the victim of a hate crime in 1992. Three decades after Paret's taunts, no one around was around to shout "stop it, stop it, stop it."

Thanks to interviews with heavyweight journalists like Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, Jimmy Breslin and Bill Gallo and boxing professionals like Gil Clancy and Howie Albert, "Ring of Fire" uses Griffith's career to go way beyond the gay question. They paint a compelling portrait of a sport of the underprivileged that grew with the popularity of television, only to be KO'd by TV for a decade after the first televised bout to eventually end in death. Like the sport, Griffith was never the same after the Paret fight.

The film from Dan Klores and Ron Berger also has some applications to Monday's decision in Nevada concerning Joe Mesi's boxing future. After Paret's death, Breslin notes: "That's when you started to learn about subdural hemorrhage and all the terms of bleeding on the brain. . . . One punch can be too many. The brain was not meant to be hit."

The film also has some elements that may have inspired Mark Burnett to create the reality series, "The Contender." There are emotional interviews with loved ones and discussions of an uncaring manager who may have been more concerned about purses than a fighter's well-being.

In poignant interviews, Paret's widow recalls an alarming phone call from her husband the night of the fight, his funeral and how little money she was left with to raise her then infant son, Benny Jr. She addresses the economics of boxing without anger or bitterness.

The filmmakers were looking for a knockout ending, hoping to reunite the now physically weak and still haunted Griffith with Paret's widow and adult son, Benny Jr., even if the meeting wouldn't be easy for them.

They don't get quite the ending you may expect, but the final scene of forgiveness still packs quite an emotional wallop. In the end, the documentary is as unforgettable as the 1962 fight.