From the moment that he first set his flat feet on American soil Brian London, a British prizefighter who must never be referred to as a boxer, was a changed man. It was as though a werewolf had acquired winsomeness, as if a tiger had turned pussycat. This drastic personality transformation took place in less than two weeks and cannot, therefore, be attributed to psychoanalysis.
Before he met Floyd Patterson at the Fair Grounds Coliseum in Indianapolis, where they were formally introduced in a contest for the heavyweight championship of the world, London had been regarded in his native England as a bit of a churl. A former British and Empire champion, he had never been thoroughly accepted, though his record was generally regarded as the best among the British heavyweights, though he had never been knocked off his feet except by a foul and though he had recently stopped (on a cut) a top-rated American boxer, Willie Pastrano. There was something about Brian—his lack of the social graces, for one thing—that chilled his countrymen's regard. As a fighter he was a brawler, a durable taker of punishment, and that won him sufficient acclaim, but there was something about his sneer of victory that held down applause.
But when Brian London entered Indiana he charmed the countryside. His geniality, his wide-eyed smile, his affectation of an accent closer to Oxford than to his native Blackpool, his willingness to tweak babies—all these won the hearts of the Hoosiers. Indiana ladies fawned on him and Brian fawned right back.
Tommy Farr, the ex-pugilist, who as a journalist has himself taken on the urbane manner and genteel diction of a Windmill Theatre straight man, studied this sea change for days and was increasingly astonished.
May 10, 1959
"Do not be deceived," he finally besought American reporters, who had known him since he upset their natural prejudices by staying 15 rounds with Joe Louis. "Brian has never been like this before. In the ring he is a bull. He is without mercy, I assure you. I have seen him ruin an opponent needlessly."
Farr, writing for the Sunday Pictorial, was one of 11 British reporters on the scene, and most of the 10 others agreed that they never had known such a sweet-souled London.
They were further surprised when London, who has heretofore disdained defense, went into a clumsily effective version of Patterson's glove-to-cheek peekaboo style and made only sporadic attempts to punch, even though, on the few occasions when he tried his fast right hand, he landed it more often than not.
Instead of the vicious style which had won him so much respect, London hid for round after round behind his eight-ounce gloves, the standard weight for title fights in Indiana. He tucked them firmly against his chin and they alone saved him from early destruction. "I kept left-hooking him to the glove," Patterson said.
Thus London remained afoot until the 10th round, when Patterson's alternative, a body attack, finally forced down the high guard. In the 10th Patterson crashed a left to London's body, then caught him on the temple with a right hand that felled London for the first time in his entire bully boy career. London sank to one knee. There was a count of 5, and then the bell rang. It saved London, but only temporarily.
GAME AND DIZZY
He wobbled back to his corner, his knees knocking more than usual. "I'm dizzy, Dad," he told his father, the dour Jack London Sr., who once had been British and Empire champion himself.
There was a quick decision that Brian should "chance it" for at least another round. Some hope still prevailed that he might survive the full 15 rounds, like Farr before him.
But the end came in the 11th round on a beautifully calculated combination. The champion, frustrated in a first-round try at a knockout, put the entire pattern of the fight into four perfectly timed punches. He brought London's guard down with a left and right to the challenger's ruddily contused body, which had endured a rib-smashing tattoo for far too long. He followed these with a right and left to London's jutting chin, now prettily exposed. They caught London as he moved backward and he fell to the canvas, very much knocked out, with the champion leaning over him.
"I have a bad habit in training of picking up my sparring partners when I knock them down," Patterson explained later, "and I guess that's why I bent over him."
The referee ordered the solicitous champion away and counted 10.
Patterson has the fastest hands ever seen on a modern heavyweight, but he has more besides. At his peak—and he looked better in Indianapolis than at any time since he beat Archie Moore—he uses these hands in bewildering combinations. He has fired as many as 14 effective punches in a streak. His scientific approach to the destruction of an opponent takes account of the chess principle that speed and force, in efficient combination, will capture the king.
A SERIOUS WARMUP
The king was amply defended but lacked an attack. He was a fighter of durability whose purpose was to provide Patterson with serious preparation for the vastly greater trial against Ingemar Johansson, Swedish conqueror of Eddie Machen, at Yankee Stadium on June 25. Johansson was a ringside spectator, flown in fresh from Sweden, and properly truculent.
"How about Patterson's body attack?" a reporter asked him. "What would you do about it?"
"I would give it to him right back," Johansson said.
Though the fight was a warmup, London took it with great seriousness. He had been advised that a good showing would overwhelm him with offers in heavyweight-thirsty America. And he was overwhelmed. Al Weill, who managed Rocky Marciano to greatness, said a California backer wanted him to buy London. Lou Viscusi, manager of the lightweight champion, Joe Brown, came forward with an offer of $20,000 for London to meet Roy Harris in Houston. London, with a blackened left eye and a bruised right cheek, asked for a few days to think it over.
He had a great deal to think about, especially, if he is to fight in America again, the problem of combining offense with defense. Normally a heedless brawler, he had been so thoroughly instructed in the rudiments of defense that he seemed able to think of little else. His offensive weapon was a fast right hand but he used it sparingly because he was so preoccupied with protecting himself.
A prizefight is presumed to be a fight and so, traditionally, even though professionals generally are quite emotionless about each other, every effort is normally made beforehand to reassure the public that the two opponents abhor one another.
But in this case a certain unnatural camaraderie prevailed from the day Brian London left England. He was met at Idlewild airport, for instance, by Edwin S. Schweig, who is Patterson's lawyer. London was entertained, and at the same time hidden from the press, by members of the Patterson camp. London even had a sneak peek at Patterson in training and all but blanched at the sight. For training purposes London was given the services of Nick Baffi, who is a trusted friend of Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager.
It was highly irregular and on the surface it looked as if collusion were afoot. But the appearance of Schweig at the New York airport came about because he was escorting Cecil Rhodes Jr., who was about to be removed as promoter of the fight (SI, April 27), and was becoming, in Schweig's eyes, a man to be watched. And London was concealed from the press because, even two weeks before the fight, the promotional fumbling was such that there was no assurance that the bout would take place. It was feared that London, exposed to reporters, might blurt out something harmful. His look at Patterson in training was an accident resulting from D'Amato's tendency to be accident-prone. D'Amato had to consult with Patterson that day, and at the same time he felt he had to keep London in sight. So the champion and challenger, who properly should not have met except with the usual chaperons at the signing and weighing-in, were brought together prematurely, thus destroying a tradition.
The selection of Baffi turned out to be excellent from London's standpoint, for Baffi brought him to a peak of condition that the Blackpool bully boy never before had achieved. London had trained diligently, by British boxing standards, for his second fight with Henry Cooper last January and he then went through 15 rounds of punishment in a way that could not be attributed to mere courage. But those of us who made the trip to England to see this fight did not ignore the potbelly he followed into the ring at Earls Court, London. At the Fair Grounds Coliseum, Indianapolis, his belly was, by comparison, as flat as a Dover sole. The only coddling London received from Baffi was a daily ration of Brussels sprouts and a surfeit of tea. Otherwise, he damn well had to eat steak.
"I am trying to do an honest job," Baffi said one afternoon, blinking sincerely through thick-lensed glasses. "I know the position I am in and I know what people will think. But I want to bring this boy into the ring in the best condition possible. Naturally, in two weeks I cannot teach him everything."
All Baffi had time to teach was a defense that permitted survival for almost 11 rounds. That was a lot.
Baffi was trainer because D'Amato, engaged in his great war with the demons of boxing, knows few trainers who are at liberty and at the same time so denigrated by the International Boxing Club as to be trustworthy. During the IBC's heyday Baffi fighters, some of whom were pretty good, were sufficiently ignored by the IBC to make him look incorruptible. Thus he became kindred to Cus. As for the London camp's willingness to accept a friend of Cus as trainer, it must be noted that a $60,000 purse had the effect on the London camp of a serpent on a bird.
Still and all, the whole sequence of incidents was an affront to the traditions of boxing. If you can say anything good about the IBC you can say that it was forthrightly devious, that its machinations were expertly contrived and that its public relations covered a multitude of sins. It never made the promotional blunders that distinguished this show.
Despite the blunders, the show was a promotional success. Tickets were printed only nine days before the fight, but even with so little time to sell them there was a crowd of 10,088 in the Coliseum (which seats 13,500) and they paid $122,800 to get in.
And, as a pleasant aftermath, it is reported that Floyd Patterson won a host of new friends for boxing in America's living rooms with his gentlemanly, compassionate and literate appraisal of his own evening's work and that of his challenger during a postfight television interview.
It was no surprise to those who know him well, but it was good to hear that Patterson, in his true personality as a fighter and a man, is beginning to be recognized.