A strangecountry, Sweden, the poet Wordsworth thought, a place of leafless trees and icycrags that tinkle like iron and, always, that pervasive melancholy. But theweather and "feel" of Stockholm would have betrayed the poet most oflast week. Warm and softly beautiful, the city seemed idyllic and very far fromreality, with the Viking-like barques gliding through the canals, the bandplaying in the park, sunlight glinting off statuary and American draft evaderssitting under trees smoking hashish.
That wasStockholm before it all faded suddenly. It figured that Russian winter wouldtrail Floyd Patterson into town when he left his training camp on the edge ofthe Baltic Sea, and at fight time Saturday night being in Solna Fotbollstadiondid, indeed, feel like being on an icy crag. The sky was an Ingmar Bergman sky,strangely colored, and a cold wind beat through the stands as 32,000 people,bolstered by beer and aquavit, sat and waited for Heavyweight Champion JimmyEllis to provide a quick and absolute final end to one of the strangest careersin ring history.
But that was notto be. Patterson, the Captain Ahab of boxing who, many think, should retire andcultivate his neuroses, created a thrilling piece of work, making his finest(perhaps only) fight since he knocked out Ingemar Johansson in their secondmatch. With some style and much grit, he took Ellis across 15 rounds and, witha spectacular last stand in the 13th and 14th rounds, missed by a threadwinning his third heavyweight championship. It was a fight that only the mostidiotic of the large Patterson cult believed he would survive beyond the earlyrounds. The Swedes left the stadium visibly moved by his performance and almostapoplectic over the decision. Floyd? Well—just listen to Floyd.
"The refereedecides," said Patterson. "I have nothing to say about the decision. Ido not wish to detract from Jimmy's fight."
September 22, 1968
"Do you knowEllis may have suffered a fractured nose in the second round?" he wasasked.
"I'msorry," he said. "I'm sorry I busted his nose."
His pacifiststance and passiveness in close defeat, which long ago became tiresome to many,seemed particularly eccentric this time. He was hardly passive in the ring,though, as he stayed with Ellis in a tough, cruel fight that saw the WBAchampion come fearfully apart. The nose was fractured in the second round, andit streamed blood until the end. Ellis also damaged his left thumb in thatround and took a nasty gash over his right eye (six or seven stitches) whenFloyd caught him with another jab after the one to the nose.
Unquestionably,the nose distracted Ellis and hurt his fight, but Patterson's effort cannot beunderrated. If you believe that Ellis won (the referee, Harold Valan, the onlyofficial, scored it 9-6 but many newsmen had it exactly opposite), he mostcertainly won it in the 15th and final round. The fight appeared even untilthat point, but then Ellis, sensing his dangerous position, the screams fromhis corner piercing his ego, finally stepped out and did what he was supposedto do, did what he is capable of. He had fought a long, hard fight but hereached back for what was left in his hurt body and laid it all on Floyd. Hedug a left into Floyd's liver and stayed right on him and in the middle of theround he caught him with a pair of whistling right hands, and Patterson was onhis way out. Patterson's eyes stared out blankly now, pain masking his face,but Ellis could not finish him.
Patterson was inserious trouble other times early in the fight, once in the third round from aleft hook and a right hand in close and then again in the fifth from two righthands, one high on the head that seemed to freeze him in midair. Yet he escapedwhat he calls "the black spot," that one flashing moment of instantdarkness that has haunted him throughout his career, usually early in a fight,when he seems to be most vulnerable. Over the years he has been knocked down 22times, eight times by Johansson alone.
The fact thatEllis did not knock Patterson out or even down does not necessarily reveal anyinability to punch. Twice after catching Patterson, Ellis appeared to hold himup, refusing to let him drop. A number of things combined to make this fightclose. First, Ellis, by his own admission, had underestimated Patterson.Second, Ellis, though he looked extremely sharp in the gym, was constantlyworried about his weight, so much so that he did nothing the final two days butsit around eating "like a pig." He weighed in at 198 pounds, much tooheavy for his style of fighting. Third, Ellis concentrated entirely too much onhis right hand, and too often failed to put punches together. Fourth, Pattersonmade some rounds look quite close by volleying, with some of his old notablehand speed, in the last minute.
The result isthat Ellis' reputation has once again been damaged severely. He shares thesplintered heavyweight title with Joe Frazier; Ellis is the World BoxingAssociation champion and Frazier was made in New York. The two are involved ina battle for public recognition, and Ellis is losing despite the fact that hisrecord is much more impressive. Ellis needed a big victory over Patterson—sayan early knockout—but he came away from this fight with a disputed success thatexposes him to discredit.
Floyd has noidentity problem. He used to have a few hundred other problems, mostlyimagined, while he rusticated in one of his many retreats in upstate New York.He is no longer a factor in the heavyweight division, but he still has adedicated throng that bleeds with him after each fight. He is to many a classicanti-hero, while still others marvel at his gentleness in such a mean business.When Floyd traded punches with Ellis in the 14th round, Ellis went down slowly,and Floyd, tagged quite well himself, seemed intent on joining Ellis on thefloor. It was not a knockdown, the referee ruled, just a slip. Floyd was notaware of the ruling, but there he was—good old Floyd—trying desperately to helpEllis to his feet.
The Swedes,without a doubt, love Patterson and they have all but put a statue of him inKungstradgarden. They admire his softness, they claim, but one guesses theSwedes understand and share the melancholy he exudes. One of the most advancedsocieties in the world, the social welfare state of Sweden may be paradise onearth to many, but the people do not seem to be terribly happy—not even thearmy of drunks who are forever falling off bicycles or stumbling around town."We think too much," said one Swede. "We sit in the parks all dayand think too much."
The Swedes alsohave a lot of foreign company in the parks these days. Many of the Americandraft evaders are there and they, too, are doing much thinking. Harold Conrad,the principal promotional figure in this fight and the one who swayed Pattersonaway from retirement, wanted to give the Americans tickets to the fight, butafter a session with his associates in Sports Action he was persuaded that thegesture might be "bad form." It was highly doubtful anyway that theAmericans could have been lured away from the park and the hashish.
"Are youinterested in the fight?" one was asked.
"DoesPatterson or Ellis turn on?" he wanted to know.
"What do youthink of Sweden?" he was then asked.
"Nosoul," he replied. "That's what we think. The people are nice, butcompletely spiritless. It makes you sad just being around them."
Floyd Patterson,then, always the wounded introspective, has meaning for the Swedes, but theextreme sympathy for him is really only sympathy for themselves. Floyd does notneed sympathy anymore. He has money and he no longer is, he says, engaged inlonely struggle with himself, no longer the kind of person who could get sotormented that he would have to get out of bed and write his thoughts down orgo into the gym at 3 o'clock in the morning and work out. Ahead is a possibleacting career and behind him—at long last—is a career that helped him conquerignorance and a weird childhood, a career that was often shattered and derided,and finally one that was at once sad, unbelievably comic and altogetherunreal.