There is a green door at Sing Sing, leading to the electric chair, and there is a green door at Palm Beach, Fla., leading to a chamber in which Ingemar Johansson works in secret to charge his massive fists with enough voltage to execute a grim purpose—knockout victory in his third and rubber fight with Floyd Patterson March 13 at the Miami Beach Convention Hall (elsewhere on closed-circuit television).
Just as Patterson trained secretly to regain his title, so Johansson now trains two days a week behind that closed and curtained green door. On these occasions press and public are barred. A movie camera grinds out the record of the workout. Next day Ingemar and his trainers study the movies, about which the ex-champion is enthusiastic.
"In them," he explained, relaxing last week at pool-side on the terrace of the Holiday Inn, where he lives in a sumptuous suite overlooking the ocean, "I see I do things I never knew I do. Wrong things. Next day I fix these moves."
From the star-chamber sessions behind the green door emerge black-eyed, battered sparring partners, a novelty in a Johansson training camp. Their bruises and mouses are the clearest signals you could find that in at least one very significant respect Ingemar Johansson, the playboy prizefighter of Hollywood, the Catskills, Paris, Geneva and now Palm Beach, has changed his charming ways. Training for his first and second fights against Patterson, Johansson scandalized a sporting profession whose spiritual home is Sparta. He danced, he swam, he ate strawberry shortcake. He flaunted his romance with the very comely Birgit Lundgren. And he never once laid harsh glove on pampered sparring partner. He treated these professional punching bags as dear friends, harassed them only with mild horseplay and left them at the end of each sparring session with the feeling that they had enjoyed pleasant exercise with a gentle, sweet-souled fellow. They were a happy breed.
February 13, 1961
It's all different now, and the sparring partners for this match are a morose lot, men who earn their $25-a-day-and-keep in the very hardest way, by accepting the blows of one of the ring's hardest punchers. So far two of them have been pummeled out of action, and Trainer Whitey Bimstein has been ordered to bring a fresh batch down from the north.
Out of Ingemar's secret torture chamber the other day emerged Tony Esperti of Brooklyn, 195 pounds, and Joey La Quatra of Pittsburgh, 190 pounds. Esperti's left eye was bruised purple, green and yellow, giving a lovely Floridian sunset effect. La Quatra's left eyelid was cut. A natural assumption was that these wounds had been caused by the vaunted right hand of the Swedish ex-champion.
"No," Esperti sighed. "He done it with the left. He lands the left funny. It comes across your face."
Next day Esperti did not show up for the training session. He explained that he thought he had "a sore throat or something." A rugged new boy, Billy Stephan of St. Louis, 181 pounds, took his unenviable place.
Esperti was the first person ever to acknowledge that a Johansson left hand could cause damage. All previous accounts of the left, and all previous showings of it in this country, had indicated that it was a mere device to distract attention from the lethal right. But Johansson always has insisted that his left hook is only slightly inferior to his right. And, after all, he was wronged when so many doubted the validity of his right hand before the first Patterson fight, during which it exploded with winning force. So, in the coming bout the left could be the hand to watch.
In addition to discomfiting his sparring partners, Johansson has departed from previous policy in other ways. He works out with dumbbells now, though he won't say why and he won't let anyone watch him work with them. Presumably he is building up some important muscles. It is unusual for any but young, underdeveloped fighters to work out with dumbbells. Most trainers believe that in time they bind muscles.
But Ingemar makes his own training rules. He likes to swim and does so briefly every day, though conservative trainers frown on the sport for fighters.
Another innovation is also a secret. Whereas in training for previous fights he ate everything that came his way, including gooey desserts, Ingemar is now on a special diet.
"It is what will make me strong but I will not say what it is," he says. His meals are being prepared by his mother, a late arrival at the training camp.
In other respects, the situation is pretty much as it was when Ingemar trained at Grossinger's for the first two fights. The Holiday Inn, where he lives, and the nearby Sea Breeze Hotel, where he boxes behind the green door, are very unlike the sparsely furnished, even ugly quarters a Floyd Patterson prefers. Johansson frankly enjoys the good things of life.
So the lovely Birgit is with him this time, too. Officially registered at the Sea Breeze, she spends most of her time helping Ingemar relax at the Holiday Inn, frolicking with him in the pool or surf, strolling with him along the beach or lolling on Ingemar's veranda. Both hotels, incidentally, are owned by the sports-loving Maurice Frank, owner of the Old Rose Farm and Sea Breeze Racing Stables.
While he lounges in beach-boy pants and Florida-flavored shirts, Ingemar does a lot of ruminating. His thoughts are not the brooding thoughts of the introverted Patterson, but cool reflections on mistakes he has made and methods of correcting them. Studying movies of the second fight, and especially Patterson's knockdown punches, he is disgusted with two particular failures on his part: neglect of the defensive virtues of his remarkably fast legs and neglect of his jaw.
"I have my ups and downs," he said, "so he could hit me on the chin. I never do that before. And I move my head back like this"—an upward tilting movement of the head, exposing the chin—"and I never do that before either.
"Well, I am not going to change my style but I make it better. The left is three times better now than it was before the last fight. I am sharpening it up from what it used to be. The left is what makes the openings for the right."
There was the matter of Patterson's famous and often-derided leap, a leap that last time ended with a knockdown left hook to the jaw in the fifth round, opening the road to the knockout.
"I know what to do about the jump," Ingemar said. Brother Rolf, who is staying at the inn with his wife and baby, interrupted.
"You can tell when the leap is coming," Rolf said. "To leap he must be down low. He cannot leap when he is straight up."
If Ingemar knows what to do about a leap he has experienced only once, it was suggested that surely Patterson must know what to do about the right, since he has experienced it twice.
"It does not matter," Ingemar said. "I hit him with the right both fights but no good left. This time he will know about the left. He will watch the left, too. But he cannot watch the right. It comes too fast. I do not know myself when I throw it." He remembered something and grinned.
"Three weeks ago in Geneva," he said, "I knock out a sparring partner with the right."
This dimple-chinned, blue-eyed bruiser, who speaks of his need for "fantasy," who enjoys listening to Beethoven on the electric organ in his suite, has a mean glint in his eye these days as he thinks of what the title meant to him when he had it and what its loss meant to him afterward ("The telephone did not ring so much").
He still enjoys his "fantasy," gazing at the sea and enjoying the company of Birgit Lundgren, but he has abandoned strawberry shortcake and a generous attitude toward sparring partners.