Floyd Patterson: His Own Man

In the 30 years since he held the heavyweight title, the former champ has found serenity
May 31, 1992

Head Bowed, he sits in a Casino coffee shop in Las Vegas, oblivious of a keno game going on across the way, struggling to get through his lunch, when the fifth autograph seeker in the past two minutes approaches, a florid-faced, white-haired man with an accent that announces he is Boston Irish. "So how're they hanging, Floyd?" the man asks. "Any luck at the tables? What've you been doing with yourself?"

One waits for Floyd Patterson to bolt. The old Patterson, a moody, suspicious and withdrawn man, saw slights nearly everywhere. But this Patterson, seemingly dazed, is a slouching 57-year-old who, to his garrulous questioner, may or may not be—you can see the wheels of the ruddy man spinning in search of the truth—one more hard-luck Vegas story, one more ex-fighter turned melancholy player, struggling to stay solvent for another 24 hours.

"What're you doing with yourself, Floyd?" the white-haired man repeats. "How are ya?"

"Great," Patterson finally says, signing an autograph. Then, in a surprising torrent of speech, he brings the man up to date on his life. Patterson reports that all is well on his 17-acre spread in New Paltz, N.Y.; that he enjoys the dual challenges of being a fight trainer and a part-time Eucharistic minister for his Catholic parish; that his adopted son, Tracy, has a WBC junior featherweight title fight approaching on June 23; and that he is currently in Las Vegas to train heavyweight Razor Ruddock for a bout with journeyman Greg Page.

"Ah. Doing all that, huh?" Palpable relief shines in the fan's blue eyes. "Ruddock gonna get any better, Floyd?"

"He's got a lot to learn...but, hey, he's strong. That jab is as powerful as Lis...."

The voice trails off. Lis....

"Liston?" the fan gently prods.

"Uh-huh, yes." While Patterson utters "Sonny Liston" easily in private, a public setting can leave the conqueror's name twitching thickly on his tongue. The name resurrects memories of Patterson's two ignominious one-round defeats by Liston, the sneering faces on press row, the fake beard and mustache that Patterson wore while fleeing in shame from Comiskey Park and Chicago.

"A lot of people don't understand my father," Tracy Patterson, 27, says. "They think that because he goes quiet on them, he's staying a distance away from people, but it's the opposite. He's sensitive. I mean, real sensitive. He gets afraid before my fights. When things don't go good for people he knows, he gets upset. I think it reminds him of when things didn't go good for him. The first thing he thinks of is, I gotta talk to that guy."

The compulsion to seek out those who are hurting has taken Patterson, over the years, to unlikely places. Sitting ringside at a cramped arena in Lewiston, Maine, and watching Liston get knocked out in the first round of a rematch with Muhammad Ali in 1965. Patterson sensed that he had witnessed the destruction of his old nemesis's core, his soul and self-respect. Unable to reach the loser in his dressing room after the fight, Patterson went to Liston's hotel room 90 minutes later and found the fighter alone, already abandoned by his entourage. "What are you doin' here?" Liston asked.

Patterson said quickly, "Look, I'm really sorry about what happened. But sometimes things don't work out the way you'd like, Sonny. I fought you twice. Twice I was so miserable. But you'll come out of it. You'll see. It'll get better."

Liston said not a word. His baleful scowl had been replaced by a glazed softness; the dark eyes stared into nothingness. The man looked, thought Patterson, not there, as if he was thinking about the end. "I said a little more," Patterson remembers, "and he still hadn't said a damn thing. Then I started thinking, Maybe he doesn't appreciate this. Maybe I should get the hell out of here. Because Sonny did have a quick temper, you know. Truth is, you never knew with him. So I wished him the best of luck, turned around and headed for the door."

"Floyd," Liston called.

Patterson turned back and saw Liston smiling wanly. "Thanks, Floyd," Sonny mumbled, and Patterson walked into the night.

I remember that empty room as much as anything," he says. "I think about it when I talk to Tracy. I tell him, 'You need a couple people who will be there always.' I had that. I didn't have to worry about what fights to take, what contracts to sign, when to sleep, eat or train, or what to say to reporters. Cus took care of it all."

A latter-day Svengali with a bodybuilder's chest and a large, balding head set on square shoulders. Cus D'Amato could command the attention of street toughs. He spoke their language and offered them discipline and a chance at greatness. Some 30 years before he rescued a floundering 13-year-old delinquent named Mike Tyson, he discovered the 15-year-old Patterson, then a tough kid who had just returned home to Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood from a two-year stint in a state reform school. D'Amato first saw Patterson in 1949 at the gym where Floyd used to carry a bag for his older brother, who was training with Cus.

"I had no self-esteem, none at all," Patterson recalls. "There was not a person anywhere who was not better than me, in my mind. I was desperate to be taken apart, helped...shown something. Cus became like a father to me. He made me feel I mattered. Maybe he did that for Mike Tyson, too. I loved Cus. He really was like a dad. I put all my trust in him. He'd say something at a press conference, and I'd say, 'That's my answer too., He'd put something in front of me, I'd sign it. Total trust."

At 5'11" and 185 pounds, roughly his weight in the prime of his career, Patterson looks smaller than you might expect. "I fought big men a lot," he says. "Cus told me I had a real speed and reflex advantage on big men. Fear accelerates reflexes, you know? Cus proved it."

D'Amato sold Patterson on the improbable. In December 1955 the diffident protègè weighed a mere 179 pounds, yet a year later D'Amato guided his 21-year-old pupil to Rocky Marciano's vacated championship with a fifth-round knockout of 39-year-old Archie Moore. "I was the youngest heavyweight champion in history," Patterson says. "Then we started having trouble getting fights."

It was an era in which the sport was largely controlled by the tentacles of a promotional octopus called the International Boxing Club (IBC), headed by the late Jim Norris, a businessman with mob connections who held ironclad contracts with many of the major heavyweight contenders. When D'Amato, a one-man crusade, said no to any fight for Patterson involving the IBC, his young champion found himself relegated to defending his title against lackluster and hapless opponents. Meanwhile D'Amato, worried that the IBC might injure him or ruin his reputation as a means of getting control of Patterson, took to living the careful life. He refused to take the New York City subway, fearful that someone might push him into the path of a train. He had his pockets sewn shut, to keep anyone from planting a marijuana cigarette in them. At night he slept with his cot positioned across the door, and he was armed, rumor had it, with a gun or an ax.

"I'd ask him why he was sleeping that way," Patterson recalls, "and he'd say, 'To protect you.' As time went on, there'd be more doors locked and more lights left on. He was oversuspicious. You had to accept that, and I did, the same way any son would accept the strange things his father did. I loved him just the same."

The relationship endured through Patterson's disastrous knockout loss to Ingemar Johansson in 1959, and it survived his fifth-round destruction of the Swede a year later, when Patterson regained the heavyweight title. Many people think that the relationship began to crumble in 1961, following Patterson's second victory over Johansson, because Floyd had grown weary of D'Amato's paranoia. But D'Amato's battle with the IBC had little to do with Patterson's disillusionment. Not even D'Amato knew why he had been slowly cut loose.

"There was a man close to Cus who had taken money from me," Patterson reveals today. "So close that I knew it wouldn't do any good to tell Cus, that nothing good could come from telling him."

The man was Jimmy Jacobs, later to become, along with Bill Cayton, a co-manager of Mike Tyson. Best known in the early '60s as a national handball champion, Jacobs's passion for boxing had led to a deep friendship with D'Amato, with whom he roomed for 10 years. They had a relationship akin to that "of a very close uncle and his nephew," according to Cayton, who was then Jacobs's employer at Big Fights, Incorporated, a sports film production company. In 1962, with D'Amato's blessing, Jacobs sought a deal with Patterson to do a one-hour him retrospective on the fighter's career. Patterson would receive performance fees for taped interviews, along with a percentage of the profits from the film. Patterson says he agreed orally in D'Amato's presence, but after the one-hour special was aired on syndicated television, Patterson received nothing. "Expenses ate up all the profits, Floyd," Jacobs insisted, according to Patterson.

Since Jacobs died in 1988, only Cayton remains to address the charges. He says, "I'm not involved in any of this, but I believe Jim would have given Floyd a fair shake. I'm sure Floyd speaks to the best of his recollection, but it is my feeling that his memory of this is simply wrong.... The memory can play tricks. We have signed contracts from 1962, you see."

Curiously, the signed "contracts," two letters of agreement relinquishing the documentary film rights to Floyd Patterson's life story for the sum of one dollar, do not bear the fighter's signature, only Cus D'Amato's. A third letter of agreement, signed by Patterson himself in 1964, refers only to the use of excerpts from films of Patterson's fights, as part of a package chronicling famous knockouts by boxing greats.

"Cus couldn't give away those rights to my life, in 1962—only I could do that, or only I should've been able to do that," Patterson says. "And it wasn't what Jacobs promised me. No percentage of what the film made, no fees, nothing.... Who knows what that film made? Jacobs had the records."

"It's much fuss about nothing," says Cayton, who insists that the resulting film yielded no profits. "It took in only a little over $12,000.... Why did Floyd wait until just now to bring this up?" But a letter from Jacobs to Patterson indicates that the fighter sought copies of his contracts in 1977.

Whatever the truth of the Jacobs-Patterson agreement and however meager the money might have been relative to Patterson's ring earnings, the dispute doomed D'Amato and his fighter. "I couldn't come at Cus with the truth," Patterson says, his voice quavering. "So I just didn't have him handling my business affairs anymore. I booked my own fights. It wasn't like I could walk away instantly, completely. He still gave me advice; he never hesitated there."

One important piece of D'Amato advice: Don't fight Sonny Liston. But reporters began suggesting that Patterson was scared of the menacing challenger. And Liston taunted, "I know he won't wilt, 'cause I ain't even sure he'll get in the ring to look at me."

Liston was tainted; he had a criminal record that included time in a Missouri penitentiary for beating up a policeman, and a reputed association with mobsters. The New York State Athletic Commission refused to license Liston, and Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche joined the chorus of his critics. But Patterson rebuffed them and signed to fight Sonny in September 1962, in Chicago. "Liston served his time, paid his dues," Patterson says today. "But nobody gave him a chance. I grew to like him, maybe because everybody was against him.... If someone had to beat me, I'm glad it was him. I don't remember much of the fight, to be honest. The whole thing was so...tense."

Fueled by the sports press, the fight in Comiskey Park became a contest of Good vs. Evil. Evil was a 10-to-7 favorite; it was one of the rare times that a champion entered the ring as an underdog. "It was just too much pressure," Patterson recalls. "After I lost [knocked out at 2:06 of the first round], I drove back to my training camp by myself, wearing the beard and mustache. I felt small again for a while. It was hard for me to find peace as a fighter. I always had to live up to something, and the only way to do that was to win for everybody. These days I can be just me. But I wouldn't change a thing about my boxing days. It made me what I am. Cus showed me all that I could be. I owe him for that." Ten months later Patterson again met Liston and was decked in the first round in Las Vegas.

D'Amato would be gone for good after the Liston fights. In 1965 in Las Vegas, Patterson, who was suffering from a bad back, had an ill-fated bout against the taller, stronger and faster Ali, who taunted him ceaselessly—"Come on, white American...."—while administering a beating that the referee stopped in the 12th round. Patterson fought for seven more years before concluding his career in 1972 with another loss to Ali. After that he headed back home to New Paltz, where he lives with Janet, his wife of 27 years. He has since kept busy by training young fighters, providing volunteer assistance at a senior citizens' home and molding Tracy into a contender.

With time, Patterson's trips between New Paltz and D'Amato's home in Catskill, N.Y., 35 miles away, became more frequent, and some broken threads were mended, if never fully. "I never searched for answers with Cus," says Patterson. "He was a very strange person. He went by feelings and instinct with everything. I don't think our past entered into it."

In 1985 D'Amato lay on his deathbed in a New York City hospital. "I hung around, and we talked and talked," Patterson recalls, "but I didn't get up the nerve to tell him why I was really there. I left pretty down. A couple days later, I came back and leaned over the bed and said, 'I know you've always wondered why I walked away from you.' " Then Patterson told D'Amato of Jacobs and the film documentary and said, "I was angry. I thought you might know something about it, because you seemed to know everything.... It's not that I didn't ever want to be around you. It's that I didn't want to be around your friend."

"You don't have to explain," D'Amato said softly—looking relieved, thought Patterson. "It's all right, Floyd."

Patterson was not yet finished, however. He wanted to tell D'Amato one last thing. Hard as he tried, the words would not come, and D'Amato was dead by the week's end. "I'm sorry I didn't tell him I loved him," Patterson says. "I'll never make that mistake again. I tell Tracy now that he's everything to me, tell him before every fight that, win or lose, he'll always be my son and that I love him. I tell my wife. I tell my good friends that I care about them. I'm better with my feelings now. Being with Cus showed me a lot more than just boxing. I want to give like he did."

It's what made him think, in 1988, of Tyson, who had recently served his manager, Cayton, with a lawsuit, dismissed his longtime trainer Kevin Rooney and fallen into the arms of Don King. Patterson wanted to help the floundering young man, for whom D'Amato had been legal guardian. "I don't think most of Tyson's big problems would have happened if Cus had still been around," Patterson says. Through a reporter, he sent word to Tyson's people that he would be willing to train Tyson for free. Weeks passed. Patterson never heard from either Tyson or King.

"All the things I went through—the good, the bad, the defeats—they made me," Patterson says. "I felt small once, too. I learned some lessons. I'm happy with myself today. I like myself today. That's my great accomplishment."

At a table in the coffee shop, he sips from a glass of water, closes his eyes, then lifts his head to see a family of five beckoning for autographs. He obliges, and a man in the group tells him that he was there, ringside at the Las Vegas Convention Center, on the night in 1965 when Ali pummeled him. "I sure loved Muhammad." the man says, "but I certainly admired your sportsmanship, Floyd. You sure had a nice career. Ali was the greatest, wasn't he? Too much for you or anybody, huh?"

Floyd Patterson smiles. "There were a lot of tough ones," he answers. "And you're right, you're absolutely right—I had a nice career. Sometimes it takes you a while before you start realizing just how nice. It's been great.... Oh, did I tell everybody here about my son, Tracy? See, he's got this title fight...."

PHOTOCHRIS CARROLL/ONYXPatterson has been training his son, Tracy, for a shot at the junior featherweight title. PHOTOFRANCIS MILLERFor Patterson, just out of reform school, D'Amato was like a father. PHOTOAPWith his 1960 KO of Johansson, Patterson regained his old crown and was hailed once again as a local hero with this informal parade through Harlem. PHOTOLEE LOCKWOOD[See caption above.] PHOTOLEE BALTERMANAgainst D'Amato's advice, Patterson took on Liston in 1962 and suffered a first-round KO.

Michael Leahy, a writer in Santa Monica, Calif., has written several boxing stories for SI.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)