"A Good Guy In A Mean Sport"
If modern boxing ever produced a gentleman champion, then Floyd Patterson would wear that belt. Forty-six years ago this month, the shy and private ring master fought and lost his last bout before retiring to upstate New York where he would live a quiet, but purposeful life.
Patterson defined that rare pugilist who engaged boxing with class and athleticism, spirit and respect. Mannered, reflective and dignified, his character belied the background of a troubled youngster growing up in the tough streets of New York City.
The 6 foot, light heavyweight left behind a record of 55 wins, 8 losses, and 1 draw, not to mention an Olympic gold medal and various amateur awards. He won the heavyweight title twice, defeating Archie Moore and Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson; he also lost it twice, to Johansson as well, and to Sonny Liston.
But lacking big wins against star-powered legends like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, Patterson was relegated to memory less for being a great champ and more for being an important one. In later life, Patterson left the ring but not the sport itself, serving two terms as Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission.
After knocking out Archie Moore in 1956, Patterson became the youngest world heavyweight champion ever at 21. It would be another 30 years before Mike Tyson would assume and still hold that distinction following his defeat of Trevor Berbick as an explosive 20-year old.
His personality and demeanor couldn’t be more different from that of his most notorious contemporary, the brash and outspoken Muhammad Ali. The two faced off in 1965 and in 1972, with Ali emerging victorious both times. In his usual showmanship style, Ali publicly called his opponent an “Uncle Tom”, among other demeaning terms.
Disagreeing with his politics in general and his newly-embraced religion, Patterson reacted to Ali’s constant taunts by referring to him by his birth name, “Cassius”, instead of his adopted Islamic name of “Muhammad”.
In their first clash, with Patterson getting whipped in the ring, Ali kept yelling “What’s my name? What’s my name?” Patterson responded, “Cassius Clay and that’s what it’s always going to be regardless of the results of this fight, Cassius Clay”.
Reminiscent of Joe Louis whom he idolized, Patterson viewed himself as an American fighter first and a black boxer second. His supporters during the turbulent 1960’s included celebrities like Frank Sinatra, who deeply resented Ali for his divisive politics and anti-draft stance during the Vietnam war.
Patterson remarked that he experienced his lowest career moment after being floored 7 times in 1959 at Yankee Stadium by Ingemar Johansson. More than anything, he felt ashamed for letting his country down by allowing a non-American to claim the world heavyweight title for the first time since 1933.
In contrast, reflecting on his greatest achievements, Patterson noted that stepping off the plane at New York’s Idlewild Airport (former JFK) and being greeted by reporters after winning a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, was his proudest moment.
Patterson rose to prominence as a small heavyweight who displayed remarkable speed and power. Picked up and trained by the famous Cus d’Amato, he employed the ‘peek-a-boo’ style of boxing, which raised the gloves higher for quicker protection to the face.
Bobbing and weaving to disrupt an opponent’s timing, he would often crouch and spring up from a low angle with combination punches, or leap up with a lethal left hook. Three decades later, that style would be used by another Cus D’Amato protégé, Mike Tyson.
Quick, strong and intelligent, Patterson didn’t hesitate to pummel his ring rivals, but he also showed unusual respect. When he scored a knockout punch against Johansson in their third and last encounter, he kissed the Swede on the cheek, later saying “It was my expression of admiration for a man who had fought me well.”
True to his legacy, Floyd Patterson was a gentleman boxer. He died in 2006 at the age of 71.
BASEBALL April 2, 2010 Former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar dies at the age of 72. A 2x World Series champion and 4x All-Star, Cuellar started off with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959 and played for 5 teams, spending the most years with the Baltimore Orioles. He won the AL Cy Young award in his first season with the dynastic Orioles and was their starting pitcher at the 1969 World Series against the NY Mets. Cuellar closed his career with an ERA of 3.14 and 1,632 strikeouts.
BASKETBALL April 2, 2000 At the 19th Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship, the Connecticut Huskies defeat the Tennessee Volunteers 71-52. Led by their famed coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies claimed their second national title. They would win another 9 championships and become the nation’s most successful women’s basketball program to date. The Connecticut ladies dispatched Penn State at the Semi-finals before taking on Tennessee for the crown.
GOLF April 8, 1990 Nick Faldo wins the 54th annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia. Shooting a 278 (-10) and tying Raymond Floyd in the final round after the latter bogeyed on the 16th hole, Faldo emerged victorious in the playoff showdown. It was his second consecutive win at the Masters and third of what would be six career majors. Born in Herdforshire, England, Faldo turned pro in 1976 and has won more majors than any other modern European golfer.
OLYMPICS April 12, 1980 The U.S. Olympic committee announces their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A total of 66 countries chose not to attend the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, 80 other nations did agree to send their athletes to the first Olympics that were held in a communist country. Four years later, the Russians and their East European allies would follow-up with a boycott of the Los Angeles games.