Floyd Patterson A Gentle Man In A Violent World


By: Michael M. Bates

Floyd Patterson, who died last week at 71, isn’t considered one of the greatest heavyweight champions. He might well be remembered, though, as one of the best men ever to hold the crown. My guess is that would be at least as gratifying to the thoughtful, introspective fighter.

Boxing served as a road out of poverty and possibly a life of crime for Mr. Patterson. Hard work and sheer determination propelled him to a middleweight Olympic gold medal in 1952. He quickly turned pro and, despite being small by heavyweight standards, won the championship in 1956. Rarely has the crown been worn with such grace.

He lost the title to Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson in 1959. What he vividly remembered about the match was telling. Getting knocked down by his opponent, Mr. Patterson looked into the crowd and saw John Wayne. The fighter said he was embarrassed at having the screen’s great American hero watch him lose.

The following year, Floyd Patterson became the first former heavyweight champ to regain the title. He punched Ingo so hard that the Swede’s leg kept quivering after the knockdown. Mr. Patterson helped carry him back to his corner and offered him a return match on the spot.

That was typical of the man. In one fight, he picked up his opponent’s mouthpiece and handed it to him. He was known for targeting his blows to opponents’ bodies if he’d already cut their face. Seeing the look of hurt and defeat in one fighter’s eyes, he didn’t move in for the kill but was satisfied to win by decision rather than by knockout.

In 1962 the champion lost, in the first round no less, to the menacing Sonny Liston. Many had counseled Floyd Patterson to avoid the controversial Liston. A couple of days after his win, Sonny told a press conference he was booked for the fight because of his opponent’s commitment to keeping his word.

Liston claimed that President Kennedy had told Floyd Patterson he should fight Liston. Mr. Patterson whispered to JFK that Sonny would be his next match. According to Liston, after the state of New York turned down the contest:

“Patterson said that rather than to lie to the President, he would fight me at my camp. I think Patterson, if he had told the President he’d jump off the Empire state building, would try to fly like a bird. He wanted to keep his word. If he hadn’t made that promise to the President, he would not have fought me Tuesday night!”

So ashamed was Mr. Patterson of his loss that he left town disguised with a phony beard and moustache so people wouldn’t recognize him. It may have been at about this time that some people referred to him as “Freud Patterson.” The Liston rematch also lasted less than a full round. But the former champ didn’t retire. He kept fighting and chalked up an impressive record over the next couple of years.

By 1965 he took on the man who’d vanquished Sonny Liston. Cassius Clay had changed his name and religion, but Mr. Patterson would have none of that. Their exchange reflects the intense tenor of the times.

In his book “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” author Thomas Hauser cites Floyd as quoted in Sports Illustrated:

“I have been told Clay has every right to follow any religion he chooses, and I agree. But by the same token, I have the right to call the Black Muslims a menace to the United States and a menace to the Negro race. I have a right to say the Black Muslims stink. I am a Roman Catholic. I do not believe God put us here to hate one another. I believe the Muslim preaching of segregation, hatred, rebellion and violence is wrong. Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race. No decent person can look up to a champion whose credo is ‘hate whites.’”

Hauser’s book also details Ali’s response. Calling Floyd Patterson “a deaf dumb so-called Negro who needs a spanking,” the former Cassius Clay went on:

“This little old dumb pork chop-eater don’t have a chance. From eating pork he’s got trillions of maggots and worms settling in his joints. He may even eat slime of the sea. Before the first round is over, people will say, ‘Forget it.’”

It took more than one round, but Floyd Patterson decisively lost. Ali kept taunting the former champion with “What’s my name?” as he pummeled him. Hauser’s book quotes the referee as saying, “‘Man-to-man, Floyd, are you okay? Do you really want to go on?’ He said, ‘Yes, please.’”

Even in that gloomy hour, Floyd Patterson maintained his politeness, his dignity and his pride, his innate decency. Those would stay with him all his life.

He served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. He built a gym for boys to learn how to box. He counseled troubled youths and even adopted one of them. He distributed Holy Communion to nursing home patients.

A life well lived by a gentle man in a violent world. May this true champion rest in peace.

This appears in the May 18, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

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