A highly dramatic real-life story is told in straightforward, vivid terms in Dan Klores and Ron Berger’s docu “Ring of Fire.” Tale of ’60s welterweight boxing champ Emile Griffith, whose career was made notorious by a foe’s subsequent death from injuries received during a telecast bout, benefits not just from subject’s charisma, but also from a colorful roll call of interviewees. USA Networks pickup at Sundance is a broadcast natural that could eke out modest theatrical exposure.
Born in the Virgin Islands, Griffith moved to New York City as a teen in the late 1950s. He found work in the garment district, where he proved a hit designing ladies’ hats (!), until an employer took note of his physique and pushed the initially reluctant lad toward boxing. Within months, he’d become a Golden Gloves finalist, earning enough money to bring his large extended family over from the Caribbean.
Popularity of the weekly matches on national TV at the time made Griffith a celebrity, particularly once he wrested the welterweight title from champ Benny “Kid” Paret. Encouraged by a sleazy manager, Paret began taunting Griffith with the whispered epithet “maricon” — apparently the boxing world had already gossiped about Griffith’s purported gay sex life. This enraged Griffith, who in latter-day interviews still bristles, “I wasn’t nobody’s ‘faggot.'”
That tension laid an incriminating subtext on their March ’62 fight, when Griffith pummeled a possibly already unconscious Paret, held upright only by the corner ropes. Paret never regained consciousness, dying 10 days later. While Griffith was never criminally prosecuted, the resulting taint on boxing as an excessively brutal sport ended its national-broadcast visibility for years.
Living the high life as a champ, Griffith found it difficult to quit boxing, continuing to decreasing success until forced into retirement at age 39. He hadn’t saved any money during those years, so he later took on jobs as a corrections officer and trainer. He befriended and eventually adopted a reformed juvenile inmate.
Griffith now lives in a modest apartment, his brain impaired by a vicious attack outside a gay club. Yet he remains haunted by Paret’s death. The issue gets a degree of closure in moving, if somewhat voyeuristic, climactic footage of his emotional meeting with the late rival’s now-grown son.
Griffith is non-committal on the sexuality issue, admitting he often visited Manhattan gay discos, and saying he “doesn’t mind” that “some people say” he’s homosexual. One interviewee here is Sadie, the beautiful dancer he married in 1967 — then abruptly separated from, claiming he traveled too much to be a fit husband.
Sports scribes, managers, fellow pugilists and family members constitute a wonderfully lively, articulate list of commentators. Wealth of archival footage — including slowed-down repeats of the fatal Paret K.O. — is a huge plus. Ace package makes terrific use of the period’s R&B and Latin pop hits.