Floyd Patterson, R.I.P.

Floyd Patterson.jpegWorld champion heavyweight Floyd Patterson, who died May 11 at 71, was remembered at a memorial today in New Paltz, N.Y.:

The Rev. Dan O'Hare, who met Patterson shortly after the boxer retired to New Paltz in 1973, said, "I didn't understand how this gentle, kind person beat up people."

O'Hare said he later saw photographs of Patterson helping up men he had knocked out.

Another picture, printed on the back of the memorial's bulletin, shows a smiling Patterson and the scar tissue on the knuckles of his big left hand, which the 190-pound boxer used to knock out Ingemar Johansson and retake the heavyweight crown in 1960.

Patterson's son, Floyd Patterson II, recalled going to a dinner where his father left the table for the restroom and didn't come back. He was found talking to fans. His son said Patterson would talk and sign autographs as long as people wanted him to.

Patterson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1956 when he knocked out Archie Moore. He lost and regained the title in fights with Ingemar Johansson and lost the title for good to Sonny Liston. Patterson retired in 1972 with a 55-8-1 record and 40 knockouts. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

Patterson was the first boxer to ever to regain the heavyweight boxing crown after losing it, that history playing out over three classic bouts with Ingemar Johansson in 1959-61. He lost it the second time to Sonny Liston and lost the rematch, both times in first-round knockouts. After the Liston fights, Patterson continued his career long enough to get three more shots at the title, in 1965 and 1972 against Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, and in 1967 against Jimmy Ellis.

In between the Liston knockouts and the Clay challenge, writer Gay Talese wrote a famous portrait of Patterson, "The Loser." I happened to check out The Gay Talese Reader: Portaits and Encounters from the library shortly after Patterson died, so I read the piece. It first appeared in Esquire when that magazine published the best non-fiction in the country. "The Loser" is truly beautiful, poignant writing — an honest, clear-eyed writer encountering a honest, insightful subject who had a great story to tell. (The Talese collection also includes classic portraits of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra.)

When Talese visited Patterson at his remote upstate New York training center, Patterson was in training even though, at that time, the boxing world thought Patterson was through — at 29. Patterson continued boxing for the same reason he started in the first place: "I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do… Whether boxing was a sport, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at." But, contemplating his life, Patterson seemingly startles the near-invisible narrator Talese when he claims he is "a coward."

"When did you first think you were a coward?" he was asked.

"It was after the first Ingemar fight."

"How does one see this cowardice you speak of?"

"You see it when a fighter loses. Ignemar, for instance, is not a coward. When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fountainebleu. Had I lost, I couldn't have gone to that party. And I don't see how he did."

"Could Liston be a coward?"

"That remains to be seen," Patterson said. "We'll find out what he's like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It's easy to do anything in victory. It's in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat, I can't face people. I haven't the strength to say to people, 'I did my best, I'm sorry,' and whatnot."

Patterson admitted to Talese that he brought a disguise with him — fake whiskers and mustache and a hat — to every fight after his first lost to Johannson. He won every fight from then on until Liston, but after Liston beat him, he used the disguse to slip away, first by car from Chicago to New York, then on an airplane from New York to Madrid, a location he chose upon reading the city's name on a sign at the airport.

"You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don't know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you're alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word–myself–is because… is because…I am a coward."

Amazing for a writer to get a 29-year-old world-famous and successful athlete to say things like this. Amazing that the young man could acknowledge that weakness within his heart — and then work his way back for three more legitimate shots at the top in the next seven years.

(Sports Illustrated recently interviewed Talese about the Patterson story and his other writings on sports. It's here.)

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