Chin smashed, head spinning, the battered champion slumped against the ropes and gazed into the crowd--directly into the eyes of John Wayne.
Thirty-nine years later, he still cringes at the memory.
“This famous American hero had come to watch me fight, and I was losing the title to another country,” Floyd Patterson says. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
KO’d in the third round by Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, Patterson drove home in disgrace. For the next few months he brooded in seclusion, avoiding friends, trainers, even members of his family.
“You have to understand what it is like to be champion of the world and then not to be champion,” he says.
But what hurt most of all was that nagging inner doubt that always seems to strike when he is down, the feeling that somehow--despite all the titles, the trophies, the money and the glory--the great Floyd Patterson hasn’t quite measured up.
He felt it as a child when he scratched X’s across a photograph of himself, telling his mother, “I don’t like that boy.”
He felt it after he was bludgeoned senseless by Sonny Liston in 126 seconds on Sept. 25, 1962. Patterson slunk out of the stadium in a false beard and mustache.
And he felt it again on April 1, when he was forced to resign as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in the state.
Grilled for hours by lawyers for ultimate fighting--the no-holds-barred sport that is banned in New York--the ex-champ fumbled miserably. He couldn’t remember beating Archie Moore to become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world in 1956. He couldn’t remember his aide’s name.
Patterson protested that he hadn’t slept much the night before and that his memory is never good when he is tired. But the headlines were unforgiving: On The Ropes, Dazed and Confused. Their message was clear. The charismatic “gentleman” of boxing, appointed by Gov. George Pataki in 1995 to put a fresh face on the sport, to rebuild New York as boxing’s Mecca, was too punch-drunk to handle the $76,421 job.
Patterson refuses to discuss it, but his face crumples when the subject is raised. Friends say what hurts the most is the feeling that he let the governor down.
He hasn’t appeared at a fight since.
But he cannot stay away from the sport that made him king, that rescued him from the poorest streets of Brooklyn and offered him the world.
“If it wasn’t for boxing,” Patterson says, “I would probably be behind bars or dead.”
This is his argument to those who say boxing is for brutes and gangsters. This is his argument to those who say the sport should be banned. This is his argument as he gazes around his living room, a virtual shrine to his past, the walls draped with pictures of fighters and presidents and stars. Muhammad Ali. Joe Louis. Joe Frazier. Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan. Frank Sinatra. John Wayne.
Patterson has punched or shaken hands with them all. He has counted many as friends.
In pride of place in one corner, a huge photograph of Patterson and John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962. The president gave the champion his tie-pin and begged him not to fight Liston. Patterson’s manager begged him, too. Liston, with his prison record and alleged mob connections, was unfit to be champion, they argued. Besides, they were terrified that the “hulking brute” who outweighed Patterson by at least 25 pounds would kill their noble hero.
“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Patterson said. “The title is not worth anything if the best fighters can’t have a shot at it. And Liston deserves a shot.”
Nine months later, Liston demolished him.
At 63, Patterson lives up to his reputation as a gentleman both in and out of the ring. His polite friendliness and pompadour hairstyle give him a slightly old-fashioned charm. He opens doors for women with a stiff little bow--and says they have no place in the ring. The man who once wondered what he was doing in the Hall of Fame (“Isn’t that for guys like Joe Louis?”) still seems genuinely touched when asked for an autograph.
In person, Patterson appears smaller than he did in the ring, but he still has those massive forearms and his fighting weight of 185 pounds. He looks fit enough for a title fight.
“When I get up in the morning and I run and I work out in the gym it puts me on a physical high that is so good I don’t need any other drug,” Patterson says. “This is what boxing did for me, and for hundreds of kids that I’ve trained. It steered them off alcohol and drugs and put them on a path of physical fitness for the rest of their lives.”
The speech is Patterson’s mantra: He’s been giving it for years. In one afternoon, he repeats it four times.
The champion repeats himself a lot these days.
But boxing has given him far more than pride in his body. It made him a rich man. Patterson won $13 million for 20 years of professional fighting that included 64 fights, among them 40 knockout victories.
And boxing has given him this comfortable old farmhouse on 17 acres, about 75 miles north of New York City, where he lives with his wife, Janet. The fighter raised his two youngest children here, daughters from his second marriage.
It’s a beautiful place, wooded and quiet, just outside the town of New Paltz at the base of Mohonk Mountain. Patterson fell in love with the area as a teenager when he was dumped into a reform school a few miles away. It was the first time the young truant had seen mountains and woods and deer. It was the first time he didn’t steal to eat.
“Until then, I thought everyone lived in rundown concrete buildings in Brooklyn,” he says in a soft tenor voice that seems to complement shy eyes. “I promised myself that if I ever had enough money, I would buy a house here.”
Actually, his first big purse went to buy a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., for his parents and most of his 10 siblings. He was 21 at the time, a sensitive kid with furious fists, who relied on his manager and mentor, Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, to do most of his talking.
It was under D’Amato that Patterson perfected his unorthodox “peekaboo” style, blocking punches by holding both gloves tight to his face, peeping at his opponent, bobbing and weaving all the time.
“Cus did everything to protect the fighter,” Patterson says, springing into the peekaboo posture, his huge hands cupped to his face.
“In my case, it worked,” he adds, grinning. “See, I don’t have a flat chin or cauliflower ears like other fighters.”
Patterson throws combination punches at his imaginary opponent, scampering across his living room floor with some of the speed--if not the stamina--of the old days. Between grunts, he tells the story of D’Amato’s Gramercy Park gym, how he tagged along with his older brothers when he was about 14, how he wanted to cry the first time he was hit, how three years later the crybaby was a champion.
Golden Gloves in 1951. Olympic gold in 1952. First professional fight the same year.
By the time he reached Chicago Stadium on Nov. 30, 1956, Patterson was unstoppable. He sprang at Archie Moore with a fifth-round left hook and became heavyweight champion of the world. He was 21.
Patterson made $114,257 for the fight, more money than he had ever dreamed. His first child was born the same day. There were parties and parades and speeches. Congratulations poured in from around the world.
All the new father could think about was how sorry he felt for Moore.
The fighter’s killer instinct. The victor’s remorse. Patterson’s struggle to reconcile the two has led some critics to question if “the gentle gladiator” was too soft for blood sport. Too vulnerable.
“Floyd was probably too kind,” says Jimmy Glenn, Patterson’s corner man for many years. “He’s the kind of guy, you slap him on one cheek, he turns the other.”
Glenn tells how Patterson once stooped to pick up an opponent’s mouthpiece in the middle of a fight. Others recall Patterson easing up on blows if his opponent was hurting, helping Tom McNeeley to his feet in 1961 after knocking him down, backing off Eddie Machen in a 1964 fight, knowing his opponent had suffered a nervous breakdown.
“The problem with my father,” says his 29-year-old daughter, Jennifer, “is that other men just never measure up.”
Patterson shrugs off compliments, much as he shrugged off the critics all these years, those who wrote that he was just a glorified middleweight, those who said he had a glass chin.
“Floyd Patterson was unique in that he achieved something Mother Nature never intended him to achieve,” says boxing historian Hank Kaplan. “He didn’t belong fighting those monsters, and he wouldn’t have lasted in today’s fight. But he had an awful lot of courage and an awful lot of determination.”
True, Patterson lacked the dazzle of Ali, the brute force of Liston, the athletic beauty of middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, his personal favorite. But he had a heart that other boxers admired, a doggedness and intensity that won over the critics.
“They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most,” he says, “but I also got up the most.”
Proud as he is of his record, Patterson says he is just as proud of how far he has come outside the ring. Today, the fighter--whose 1962 autobiography is titled “Victory Over Myself"--can laugh about the disguises he once hid in his locker room. Today he is more curious than embarrassed by the emotions he felt winning and losing.
“The only thing I know is that victory means your opponent lost, defeat means you lost,” he says. “Either way, someone has got to leave the ring feeling bad. I always thought I would be happy if it could just be a draw.”
He smiles a bit sheepishly as he recites this sporting heresy.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I love victory, but I’ve run into a lot of nice guys in boxing. I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
The nice guys include Johansson, the Swede who stole Patterson’s heavyweight title and, for a year, his pride. Patterson regained the title in 1960, the first heavyweight to do so, after a vengeful bout that left Johansson comatose, his leg quivering. Bending over his opponent, Patterson remembers the terror. He had spent a year as a recluse, hating this man, training to kill him. What if he had succeeded?
Today Patterson and Johansson are friends. They have run marathons together. They visit each other regularly in Sweden and New York. Johannson jokes that Patterson--who once owned a string of Swedish fast-food restaurants that served “Floydburgers"--is more popular in Sweden than he is. He calls Patterson, “a helluva champion, inside the ring and outside.”
The nice guys include Ali, the irrepressible showman who launched his poetry career with a rhyme about his boyhood idol:
“A lot of people say that Floyd couldn’t fight
“But you should have seen him on that comeback night,
“He cut up his eyes and mussed up his face,
“And that last left hook knocked his head out of place!”
Patterson chuckles when Ali’s name is mentioned and, eyes twinkling says, “You mean Cassius Clay?” He has never called Ali by anything but “the name his mother gave him.” Ali, in return, insults Patterson by calling him “the rabbit.”
Their name-calling has mellowed over the years, since Ali hammered Patterson’s left eye shut in Madison Square Garden in 1972 and ended his professional career.
Ali, Patterson says, was a brilliant fighter, but he shouldn’t have opened himself up to so many blows, should have protected his head more.
“Not that he ever opened himself up to me,” he quips, referring to his two losses to Ali.
Patterson also lost twice to Liston, who was dethroned by Ali in 1964, one year after Liston wiped the canvas with Patterson.
Patterson watched the Ali-Liston fight from a ringside seat. He remembered John Wayne’s eyes. After the fight, he made his way to Liston’s hotel room and knocked on the door. The loser was alone, his ego more bruised than his body.
“Sonny,” Patterson told him, “You haven’t really lost anything.”
The two remained friends until Liston’s death four years later, of an apparent heroin overdose.
“The fights you lose,” Patterson says, as though he is still consoling Liston or coaching one of his students, “are the ones that teach you the most about yourself.”
This is what D’Amato taught him, and what he passed on to his son: that boxing leaves you naked to the world, in all your emotions, your strength and your pain; that the blows outside the ring are the ones that hurt the most, they are the ones that define a true champion.
Tracy Harris was 11 when he started hanging around Patterson’s gym, doing odd jobs just to watch the boxers. Patterson took pity on the fatherless boy, gave him a pair of gloves and a place to sleep. Two years later, he gave him his name.
“I asked if I could adopt him and he said, ‘sure’ and jumped for joy,” Patterson says, eyes shining at the memory. “I couldn’t get over the fact that anything would make him so pleased.”
The boxer bows his head. The falling-out between father and son over money and management a few years ago is well known. After winning the world super bantamweight title in 1992 at age 27, Tracy cut out on his own, much as Patterson had left D’Amato years earlier. For a time, Patterson couldn’t talk about Tracy without crying.
The healing began on the day the news broke about Patterson’s resignation. Tracy, who lives in a nearby town, drove straight to New Paltz and told his father he loved him.
“He listened to the wrong people,” Patterson says, “But he’s my son and I love him.”
Beside her husband, Janet puffs on a cigarette and listens intently. Patterson long ago gave up nagging his wife to stop smoking. She long ago gave up trying to protect him from pain.
Not that she could do anything once he was in the ring, except throw a party and pray. At other times, though, she’s the fighter in the family, fiercely guarding her husband’s privacy and good name, screening his calls, prompting him gently when he can’t remember dates.
“Floyd is often too hard on himself,” she says, “and too soft on everyone else.”
It is Janet who proudly tells friends about Patterson’s new job, counseling troubled children for the state Office of Children and Family Services. It is she who prods him into talking about his accomplishments on the commission: promoting title fights in Madison Square Garden, pushing for a pension for old boxers, supporting legislation against ultimate fighting. And it is Janet who boasts how her husband is the hero of the local nursing home, where he spends hours every Sunday serving communion.
“The eucharistic minister with the biggest hands,” Patterson jokes, holding up the fists that made him.
In a converted chicken coop behind the house he shows what those fists can do. Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat, rat-ta-ta-tat.
The small black bag whizzes overhead, the sound as magical as the speed. Patterson loses himself in its rhythm, its familiarity. His gloves become a red blur.
This is where the lawyers should come if they want to grill Floyd Patterson.
The champion doesn’t slip up here, he doesn’t forget. This musty little gym is where his memories lie. They tumble out of the faded posters on the walls: of the day Ali invaded his training camp, brandishing bunches of carrots and crying “carrots for the rabbit”; of the hundreds of youngsters he trained in this ring; of the day he met the sensitive kid with the furious fists who reminded him of himself.
He walks over to the heavy bag and slams his fists into the layers of duct tape that patch up the dents from the past.
“Sixty percent,” Patterson says, rating his form the way he did in the old days: 90 percent when he won against Johannson, zero percent against Liston. Never 100.
“If you are 100 percent, you have nothing to aim for so you might as well give up.”
Patterson pounds the heavy bag one more time. It swings back, low and fast and the boxer embraces it in a bearhug. His smile is one of sheer joy.
The champion may not be 100 percent, but this is as close as it gets.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
More Than a Contender
Career highlights of Floyd Patterson, former world heavyweight champion:
* 1952: Wins Olympic gold medal in middleweight boxing at Helsinki.
* 1956: Becomes youngest world heavyweight champion with fifth-round knockout of Archie Moore, Nov. 30.
* 1959: Loses heavyweight title when Ingemar Johansson knocks him out in third round, June 26.
* 1960: Becomes first heavyweight to regain world title, with fifth-round knockout of Johansson, June 20.
* 1962: Loses title to Sonny Liston, who knocks him out in first round, Sept. 25.
* 1963: Loses title rematch on first-round knockout, July 22.
* 1965: Is knocked out in 12th round by world champion Muhammad Ali, Nov. 22.
* 1972: Loses final fight on Ali’s seventh-round knockout, Sept. 20.