Floyd Patterson

Slight, self-effacing, introspective boxer who was twice world heavyweight champion
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The Independent Online

Floyd Patterson, boxer: born Waco, North Carolina 4 January 1935; world heavyweight boxing champion 1956-59, 1960-62; twice married (two daughters, one adopted son); died New Paltz, New York 11 May 2006.

In 1960, Floyd Patterson made boxing history by becoming the first former heavyweight champion to regain the world title, a feat which had proved beyond the scope of earlier legends of the ring such as James J. Corbett, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Four years earlier, Patterson had claimed another record by winning the title at the age of 21, an achievement which, the purists might maintain, remains unequalled to the present day (Mike Tyson won a version of the world title in 1986, aged 20, but Patterson was the undisputed champion in the days before rival world sanctioning bodies contrived to divide - and devalue - the title).

Yet, despite these considerable accomplishments, Patterson was never accorded the mythic status of Dempsey, Louis or his immediate predecessor as champion, Rocky Marciano. This was due to a combination of factors: his sensitive, introspective nature (a willingness to voice his fears to journalists earned him the press nickname of "Freudian Floyd"); the frequency with which he was knocked down (17 times in 13 championship fights); and the determination of his manager to avoid dangerous claimants to his charge's throne.

Floyd Patterson was born in 1935 in North Carolina, but grew up in the grim tenements of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, where his family had relocated in the year after Floyd's birth. A shy, awkward child, Floyd Patterson was troubled by his inability to help his family financially (he was the third son of 11 siblings), and would often point to a photograph of himself aged two and say: "I don't like that boy."

He took to roaming the streets, often hiding away in subway tunnels overnight, before turning to petty theft. At the age of 10, his constant court appearances caused him to be sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate New York. Patterson benefited from the relaxed regime, learning to read and write, and to express himself. On his return to New York two years later, he attended first PS614 and then the Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School.

In 1949, Patterson accompanied his older brothers to the Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street, owned by Cus D'Amato, a trainer and manager renowned for his idiosyncratic approach to boxing, and his almost paranoid determination to remain independent from the mobsters then controlling the fight game. Patterson quickly absorbed D'Amato's lessons on the nature of fear ("Fear is natural, it is normal. Fear is your friend . . . Without fear, we would not survive"), while at the same time developing what came to be called "the peekaboo defence" (gloves held high to the head, elbows tucked in to protect the ribs).

After making his début in 1950, Patterson quickly reached the top of the amateur rankings, winning titles in both the Golden Gloves and National AAU championships, before being chosen to represent his country as a middleweight at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. In the final, Patterson took just 20 seconds to stop his Romanian opponent and claim the gold medal.

Patterson turned professional that year, winning 13 fights in succession before losing a decision to the former light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim in 1954. Deeply embarrassed by the loss, Patterson locked himself away in his apartment, demonstrating what was to become a characteristic response to defeat. After being coaxed back to work by D'Amato, Patterson ran up a further 16 victories, first as a light-heavyweight then as a heavyweight, before being matched against Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson in an eliminator for the heavyweight title which had unexpectedly become vacant on the retirement of Rocky Marciano in April 1956.

Marciano's abdication (after a tough defence against the light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore) proved fortunate in that D'Amato was able to negotiate from a position of strength with the International Boxing Club, the corrupt organisation which controlled boxing from its headquarters in Madison Square Garden. Patterson duly ground out a split decision win over Jackson to earn a fight with Moore in Chicago on 30 November 1956. In the fifth round of his 32nd fight, Patterson stopped a curiously undermotivated Moore to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

Patterson's reign as champion began promisingly enough when, in July 1957, he managed to stop Jackson in the 10th round of their return match in New York. But D'Amato's unwillingness to deal with the IBC, combined with a natural desire that Patterson should make as much money from his title with as little risk as possible, soon saw Patterson defending against opponents whose right to a championship fight was doubtful at best.

The most extreme example of D'Amato's overcautious matchmaking was Patterson's next defence in which he faced Pete Rademacher, the 1956 Olympic heavyweight champion, who was making his professional début. Patterson stopped the ex-serviceman in the seventh round, and earned $250,000 in the process, but had to get off the canvas in the second round to do so. Patterson also made heavy work in disposing of Roy Harris in August 1958 and the former British champion Brian London in May 1959.

Defences such as these helped Patterson to become financially secure (even though he was in the 90 per cent tax bracket), but D'Amato's refusal to accommodate the claims of genuine heavyweight contenders fatally undermined the respect Patterson, as world heavyweight champion, was due. Nor, must it be said, did Patterson's demeanour help - slightly built for a heavyweight (his usual fighting weight was in the region of 13 1/2 stone, the modern cruiserweight limit), with sad, soulful eyes and a forehead often corrugated with worry, he simply did not look the part. Self- effacing comments ("I'm not a great champion. I'm just a champion"), while commendable in some respects, did nothing to erase the impression that Patterson's tenure of the championship owed as much to good timing as to natural fighting ability.

D'Amato's next choice was the lightly regarded European champion, Ingemar Johansson of Sweden. Johansson's principal asset was a heavy right hand (variously christened "Ingo's Bingo" and "The Hammer of Thor") and, when the pair met at the Yankee Stadium in New York in June 1959, he unleashed it on Patterson's frail chin to spectacular effect. Patterson went down but struggled up, only to be knocked down again and again. After the seventh knock-down, the referee stepped in to save the stricken champion in the third round of the bout.

Patterson's reaction was predictable: he shut himself away in his house, refusing all visitors. When the chance for redemption arose, in the form of a rematch with Johansson a year later, Patterson seized the opportunity with both hands. On 20 June 1960, in New York's Polo Grounds, Patterson used all his speed to nullify the Swede's jab, before landing a left hook in the fifth round that sent the champion down for a count of nine. Johansson struggled on but another left hook caught him on the point of the chin. He was unconscious before he reached the canvas, his foot shaking uncontrollably. Floyd Patterson was once again heavyweight champion of the world.

In March 1961, Patterson underlined his superiority over Johansson, stopping him in the sixth round of a rubber match at Miami Beach, Florida. Patterson's next defence was in Toronto in December 1961 against the hopelessly overmatched Tom McNeeley, who was dispatched in four rounds, but by now Patterson was under increasing pressure to fight Charles "Sonny" Liston, the former convict who had cut a bloody swath through the line of contenders avoided by Patterson and D'Amato.

Patterson, a quiet advocate of civil rights and integration, now found himself cast as the "Good Negro" versus Liston the "Bad Negro", with added pressure coming from black activists who did not want Liston as champion, as well as from President John F. Kennedy, who insisted that Patterson had to beat Liston. Against D'Amato's advice, Patterson accepted the fight.

On 25 September l962, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Patterson was bludgeoned to defeat after two minutes and six seconds of the opening round. He left Chicago wearing a false beard and glasses (props he had carried to each fight since his loss to Johansson). In New York, he caught the first outbound flight, and spent several days holed up in a cheap hotel in Madrid before venturing home.

As with the first Johansson fight, Patterson was convinced he could do better in a rematch with Liston, but when the pair met in Las Vegas in July 1963, the fight lasted a mere four seconds longer than their first encounter; the result, however, was the same. And yet Patterson fought on, beating Eddie Machen and George Chuvalo to earn another title fight, this time against Liston's conqueror Muhammad Ali.

Unwisely, Patterson chose to portray himself as the establishment crusader who would wrest the title back from the black Muslims, as represented by Ali. The political overtones of the fight added to the ugliness that unfolded in the Las Vegas ring in November 1965, as Ali punished Patterson for 12 brutal rounds before the referee stopped the one-sided affair.

The following year, Patterson travelled to England, where he knocked out Henry Cooper in four rounds at Wembley. In 1967 he drew and then lost on points to Jerry Quarry, before fighting Jimmy Ellis in Stockholm in 1968 for the WBA version of the title. After losing that decision, Patterson announced his retirement, but in 1970 he made a comeback, beating Oscar Bonavena on points in 1972 to set up a fight with Muhammad Ali for the North American Boxing Federation title. Once again, Patterson was stopped by Ali, this time in the seventh round, after which he announced his permanent retirement from the ring, leaving boxing after 20 years with a professional record of 55 wins, eight losses, and one draw.

In retirement, Patterson trained young fighters at the Huguenot Boys' Club in New Paltz, New York, before being appointed Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, the body which oversees boxing in the state. In 1984, Patterson was seen as a gym janitor in Terrible Joe Moran (also known as One Blow Too Many), a television movie notable only for the last screen performance of James Cagney. In 1992, Patterson guided his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, to the WBC super-bantamweight title, an achievement which he claimed gave him more pleasure than regaining the heavyweight crown from Johansson.

Patterson was reappointed as Chairman of the NYSAC in 1995, but in 1998, rumours that his memory was failing were confirmed when, during a legal hearing, he was unable to recall even the most basic facts about the sport he was supposed to be governing. His embarrassment was compounded when he failed to recall whom he had fought for the title in 1956. Before the story of his Alzheimer's broke in the press, Patterson resigned his post, admitting, "It's hard for me to think when I'm tired. Sometimes, I can't even remember my own name."

John Exshaw

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