In walking shorts and cowboy boots, taking his moonlit strolls through southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, panning playfully for gold in a swift little creek near his luxurious bungalow, or swapping barks with a fox that hunts near the training camp in the evening, Roy Harris cuts an odd figure for a heavyweight challenger. Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis—none of them was like this fellow. But if he should win the heavyweight championship from Floyd Patterson at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles on the night of August 18, Roy Harris could become very like them at the gate. There is color and human interest in everything he does. He is a handsome lad and might even stir the interest of women in boxing as feminine hearts have not been stirred since the days of Georges Carpentier. He might even be able to fight, too.
The Harris camp at the Arrowhead Springs Hotel takes its personality from the fighter. Like him, it is a relaxed and easygoing place in off hours, uncommonly so. Trainers and fighter sit around their porch at sundown and trade yarns about pit dogs and chicken fights. It is a subject close to Harris' heart. He confides that one of his Cut and Shoot kin will eat no eggs or flesh of ordinary barnyard chickens but savagely restricts his poultry diet to fowl that have been bred to fight.
"He says the other kind don't have any flavor," Roy explains.
Roy has been bred to fight, too, but his good manners and soft voice won't let you appreciate it until you see him in the training ring, earnestly absorbing the lessons of Bill Gore, a tall and slender white-haired veteran of a thousand training camps, a man who has trained such knowing champions as Willie Pep and Joe Brown. It is Gore's job to give Harris enough learning so that he may have a decent shot at Floyd Patterson's title. It is not an easy job. Harris is no Pep or Brown, with their consummate skills. He lacks their experience and probably lacks their native abilities. He is still somewhat crude, still learning. Gore's job is enormous, but he does not think it is impossible. He has discovered that Harris, a boy during his off hours, becomes a man when he works, that he takes correction with mature earnestness and that he is an apt pupil. Gore decided early in the game, and probably wisely, to limit what Roy must learn for this fight rather than confuse him with more instruction than could be absorbed in the brief training period.
August 17, 1958
"I think he's picking it up," Gore finally announced the other day. "He shoots better with his right hand. Everything is all right going down the stretch. As for his morale, he is overburdened with confidence. I have never seen such a determined fellow. This is a fighter they'll have to carry out of the ring if he loses."
WORK AND REST
The situation and atmosphere at Patterson's camp, a beach resort some 85 miles away at Oceanside, is vastly different. It, too, reflects the personality of the fighter. This is the camp of a champion of Ph.D. grade, a fellow who has none of the basics to learn any more, settled in his routines, coolly aware of the value of his title, coldly determined that no one will take it from him if meticulous preparation will save it. Fighting has become a serious business for Patterson, and so there is a certain grim efficiency about his camp, expressed in such ways as a tendency to walk on eggs lest the champion's frequent slumbers be disturbed. The camp motto is "Work and Rest." It is not a place where fighting can be regarded as fun. Patterson, who likes the woods, is not yet quite at home on the beach, where he is not permitted to swim because of the effect swimming might have on his muscles. A quiet man who has acquired a rather special dignity as champion, he answers questions easily and straightforwardly but volunteers no small talk.
Patterson is a superbly tuned fighting instrument. Harris is a country fiddle. Because Patterson is so seriously bent on perfection, and thus is easily disturbed by breaks in routine, he got off to a rather poor start in his California training. A two-week postponement of the fight upset him, disturbed his precise timing, finally caused him to ease up for a few days. When he resumed, the champion's good early schooling began to assert itself, his timing improved and he began to fire combinations in bursts of oldtime machine-gun speed. One sparring partner, the durable Paul Wright, was battered just too much about the body, where most Patterson combinations start, and found it necessary to retire. Jose Torres, a middleweight who had impressed the boxing world by decking Patterson with a right hand—pretty much a slip, according to Patterson—began to need all his speed to stay in the ring with the champion.
Harris started out looking very good indeed. He stumbled a little on a couple of occasions as 212-pound Howie Turner, who has previously trained with Patterson, began to apply some of the knowledge he had learned from the titleholder. But then Harris picked up and began to show steady improvement.
"I wish I had had Bill Gore training me three years ago," Harris said one evening after a very good workout. "I'm sure learning a lot."
He is learning such rather simple, elementary things as, for instance, that a hook is delivered with a hooked left wrist and that a right cross must also be delivered with a bent wrist. Perhaps he thought he was hooking properly but Gore, who likes to move about the ring like a referee, peered closely at him one day and discovered the defect. He set about correcting it. Harris' straight-wristed punches, the jab and right uppercut, seem to come natural to him and are excellent. His left hand is extremely fast, perhaps as fast as Patterson's in single punches. That uppercut, though, may be the key to whatever success Harris will have at Wrigley Field. It is a first-rate blow, and Patterson has been hit repeatedly with right uppercuts in training. Gore is obviously interested in its possibilities. He believes it is his charge's best punch.
Gore first saw Harris fight against Willie Pastrano but did not assume command of his training until it was time to get ready for the Willi Besmanoff fight last October. Until then Harris had most often been described as "awkwardly clever"—an expression that probably meant he confused his opponents and their corners. In training he does not look really awkward and he does not look particularly clever. What he will look like under pressure is another matter. Perhaps the word "awkward" was based on Harris' footwork, which is not of the best. He has had to be taught, for instance, that in retreating he should draw back his right foot first, rather than his left, in order to gain an extra step. (If you want to try this in the living room, extend your left foot forward in the fighter's natural stance. If you draw the left foot back until it is parallel with the right you are as close to your opponent as you were before. If you draw it back past the right foot you are off balance and likely to be knocked down. Draw back the right foot, then the left, and all is well. So much for Arthur Murray.)
Harris is a straight-up fighter, with very little bob or weave to make an opponent miss. For the most part he holds his hands protectively high, with elbows tight to the body, but it was noticed that quite often when he throws a left he raises the right hand, exposing the rib cage. That could be disastrous, for one of Patterson's most devastating combinations starts with a left hook to the body.
THE MAXIM TECHNIQUE
Combinations, incidentally, are one principal difference between the two fighters. Patterson puts his punches together in awesomely complex series, every punch planned to clear the way for another. Harris' best series seems to be the elementary, though effective, 1-2.
Gore hopes to prevent Patterson from using his combinations.
"Harris will keep Patterson on the end of his left hand," the trainer said. "That left hand is very fast, and I don't think Patterson slips or brushes aside a jab too effectively. Joey Maxim used his left hand on him and did all right."
Joey won the official decision, as a matter of fact, though not a newspaperman present agreed with the officials.
There are those who hold that Harris' skills have been underrated, that his moves are better than they look. Certainly his defeat of the very skilled Willie Pastrano would indicate something of the sort. A Harris enthusiast, Frank Godsoe of the Houston Press, kindly listed some Harris moves that bewildered Pastrano:
"1) Roy would slip to the right on Willie's second jab, then slam a right to the body.
"2) He would slip and feint and throw a left hook to the body or jaw.
"3) He used sneak right-hand leads landing clean to the head.
"4) In the late rounds, when Pastrano was tired and lunging, he would hit him with right uppercuts.
"5) He hit Pastrano with jabs all night."
Suspicion that the Pastrano verdict might have been a home town decision vanished in a check of a dozen competent witnesses, all but one of whom agreed that Harris won.
Though Harris rates behind Zora Folley (now No. 1) and Eddie Machen in the National Boxing Association ratings, only Folley and Machen are complaining that they were bypassed for this title fight. This was only justice, a deserved punishment for their San Francisco fiasco. Harris at least has never put on a bad fight and is undefeated in 22. Except for Pastrano, his opposition has not been of the highest available caliber, but it compares favorably with that which Patterson himself has fought. This could be Floyd's roughest opponent since he met Archie Moore.
There is some mystery about Harris' weight. Gore was disappointed at the start of training when he found his charge weighed a mere 186 pounds. He started him immediately on a diet of steaks smothered in steaks, which Roy attacked happily, and managed to add several pounds despite rigorous training. He thinks now that Harris may enter the ring weighing 192. If so, he will outweigh the champion, who probably won't go above 185.
Harris is not likely to win the title but he may well be the first opponent to extend Patterson since he became champion. But if, by chance or by some hidden genius of his fists, he should seize the championship, Roy Harris could be the man to restore the title to the prestige and acclaim it enjoyed in the days of Dempsey and Louis, which were the best days it ever had.