You would not have guessed the lad would grow up to be the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Born the last of eleven children, he was a quiet, gentle, tormented boy. When he saw a picture of himself he told his mother, “I don’t like that boy,” and scrawled X’s on his picture. He was frequently truant from school. He didn’t talk and he couldn’t read or write. He was sent to a school in New York for troubled children.
There Floyd learned to read and write – and how to box. A year and a half later he returned home to Brooklyn. At age fourteen Floyd dropped out of high school and into the Gramercy Gym, a rundown slum of a gym in lower Manhattan. The owner, Cus D’Amato, taught Floyd how to box. He became Floyd’s trainer, mentor, and father figure. Even though they knew each other for decades Cus would describe Floyd as a “stranger.”
Floyd Patterson was kind, soft spoken, and polite. He was also guarded, suspicious to the point of paranoia, and extremely sensitive. Boxing was his outlet. Being in the ring gave Patterson structure, a place with rules he understood, and a forum to use his physical skills to excel. Floyd capped off an amateur career of 40 wins and 4 losses with a remarkable run in 1952: at age seventeen he won the National Amateur Middleweight Championship, the New York Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship, and the gold medal in the 1952 Olympic games in Helsinki.
Patterson turned professional and began boxing as a light heavyweight. He was not tall or physically imposing, but eventually he grew into a small heavyweight. Floyd’s strengths were mobility, fast hands, and an unorthodox boxing stance dubbed the “peekaboo style.” Patterson held his gloves high, covering his face, and leapt at his opponent with flashing punches, the money punch being a lethal left hook. After Rocky Marciano retired, Patterson was invited to participate in a tournament to decide the next heavyweight champion.
Patterson made it to the final bout, where he faced then light heavyweight champion of the world, Archie Moore. Patterson knocked out Moore in 5 rounds to become, at the age of twenty-one, the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight boxing championship.
Patterson was an active champion, defending his title four times in succession. Critics noted that even pedestrian opponents were able to knock Patterson down. Floyd always got up, however, and often knocked out his opponents. His “glass chin” was his downfall when he faced Swedish heavyweight Ingemar Johansson in 1959. The Swede found a weakness in Patterson’s defense that allowed Johansson’s powerful right cross to floor Patterson time and time again. The fight was stopped in the third round after Johansson knocked Patterson down seven times, drubbing him like a rubber ball.
It was a humiliating loss. Floyd fell into depression and went into seclusion. He came out of seclusion a year later to knock out Johansson in the fifth round of their second fight, becoming the first heavyweight to regain the championship after losing it. The knockout blow was a left hook that seemed to start at Patterson’s knees and detonated on Johansson’s chin with such force that he lay unconscious on the mat for many minutes, his foot twitching as if in seizure. Floyd cradled Johansson’s head in his arms and kissed him.
Both losses were humiliating in a definitive way. As if anticipating his own dowfall, Patterson brought a disguise to his locker room prior to the fight. After the first loss Floyd left the arena in disguise, then flew to Madrid and affected a limp to further disguise himself. He was depressed for over a year, but Floyd was not bitter against Liston. In fact he sought Liston out the night Sonny was knocked out in one round by Muhammad Ali. Eventually he found Liston sitting alone in the dark in an empty hotel room. The big man’s entourage had deserted him. Floyd tried to commiserate with Sonny about the humiliation of such defeats, and got the classic Liston glare for his efforts. He turned to leave the dark room. Behind his back he heard the big man say softly: “Floyd – thanks.”
Later Patterson wrote a book about his life entitled “Victory Over Myself.” He said: “You can hit me and I won’t think much of it, but you can say something and hurt me very much.” He talked openly of his torments, and acknowledged how boxing helped him vent his “convict tendencies,” He credited his Roman Catholicism with helping him recover from his humiliations.
Patterson had the heart of a tiger and the chin of a porcelain doll. Although his intense personal reaction to defeat was unprofessional, he did experience three very public, humiliating beatings. After the defeats by Liston, Floyd returned to the ring and fought several times for the championship. He failed to win it back but remained a top ranked heavyweight during a career that spanned three decades (1955 to 1972). He earned the respect of the public and of boxing writers like Red Smith, who described Patterson as “the man of peace who loves to fight.”
Boxing columnist W. C. Heinz found a fundamental difference between Patterson the fighter and Patterson the person:
“In expressing himself as a fighter,” Heinz wrote, “Patterson knows almost complete security. Outside the ring, he knows no such security. A shy, sensitive soul-searcher, he volunteers little. He might be called a conversational counterpuncher. When he does speak out, however, it is with a purity reminiscent of Joe Louis.”
Floyd described boxing this way:
“It’s like being in love with a woman. She can be unfaithful, she can be mean, she can be cruel, but it doesn’t matter. If you love her, you want her, even though she can do you all kinds of harm. It’s the same with me and boxing. It can do me all kinds of harm but I love it.”
These were prophetic words, for the sport would eventually take his mind away from him, and cause a divorce from his wife, who wanted Floyd to quit boxing. Floyd loved the game more than his wife. He trained his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, who went on to become a championship boxer. Floyd ran marathons with his former opponent, Ingemar Johansson. He was appointed chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, and was eventually inducted into the international Boxing Hall of Fame.
In 1996 a Sports Illustrated article noted: “still a trim 182 pounds at age 61, Patterson lives on a 17-acre farm in New Paltz, New York. He no longer trains fighters, as he did for 23 years following his retirement from the ring in 1972, but he remains active. As a Eucharistic minister, he administers Communion every Sunday to residents of a nearby nursing home.”
In 1998 Patterson was doing a deposition pursuant to his duties as chairman when his memory failed him. He could not remember very simple facts like his aide’s names. It was the beginning of “Dementia Pugilistica”, a form of Alzheimer’s disease boxers are prone to. For the last eight years of his life Floyd fought that and prostate cancer. He died at home in New Paltz in 2006 at age 71, and was buried there. He is remembered not as a great champion, but as a man with a great heart who always got up when he was knocked down; a man who suffered cruelly from public humiliation, yet held no grudges, and always showed up for the next fight; a man whose greatest triumph was found not in the ring but in finding peace of soul. May it be that Floyd Patterson is finally in a place where he needn’t fight anyone, including himself.