"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.
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