Emile Griffith fought Benny Paret on March 24, 1962, in a highly anticipated welterweight championship bout at Madison Square Garden.
In the 12th round, Griffith knocked Paret into the ropes and pounded him with more than a dozen unanswered blows. As The New York Times put it the next day, “The only reason Paret still was on his feet was that Griffith’s pile-driving fists were keeping him there, pinned against the post.” Paret never regained consciousness and died 10 days later.
The fight and its terrible aftermath were high drama. One might even call the story operatic. There has been little overlap between the high drama of sports and the high drama of opera, beyond the bullfighting in “Carmen” or perhaps that odd singing competition in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” But in telling Griffith’s story, Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s 2013 opera “Champion,” which opened earlier this month at the Metropolitan Opera and streams live in movie theaters on Saturday, brings together the brutality of boxing with the soaring passions of opera.
It helps that “Champion” is not just a tale of boxing, but also of Griffith’s life as a closeted gay man, an immigrant with a tough childhood and complicated relationship with his mother, and later an old age troubled by dementia and regret.