No More Mr. Nice Guy

Too introspective and too small for the heavyweight game, Floyd Patterson was a proxy for the rest of us
May 21, 2006

Floyd Pattersonhad a middleweight body, a welterweight chin and a flyweight psyche. It was nota complete package, even for the boxing doldrums bracketed by Rocky Marcianoand Muhammad Ali. Consequently, over the course of a 20-year career as aheavyweight boxer, he was obliged to suffer devastating and humiliating defeatsin the pursuit of only rare and paltry triumphs. And yet he became an unwittingicon all the same, remembered for a humanity that never seemed appropriate tohis trade. To this day, to think of Patterson is to think of someone who wasalways frightened, easily shamed and mostly overmatched and who would stillenter the ring, get back up and always return.

Patterson, whodied last week of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (he also suffered fromAlzheimer's the last eight years), was hardly a great champion, even by his ownadmission. But at least he was champion early (at 21, four years removed fromhis 1952 gold medal in Helsinki, he knocked out an aging Archie Moore) andtwice (he avenged a savage beating by Ingemar Johansson to regain thechampionship a year later, in 1960). Mostly, of course, he was an ex-champion,losing his title again, and for good, to Sonny Liston in 1962.

This is not thepreferred office of heavyweight fighters, but nobody put it to more instructiveuse than Patterson. He was far too sensitive to enjoy the destruction of hisopponent, too vulnerable to withstand the mortification of defeat and toointrospective to ignore the brutal requirements of his sport. And so he becamean ideal proxy for the rest of us. Patterson was our doomed road traveler,forced again and again into the wilderness of disgrace, occasionally returningto report his findings.

Not that hecouldn't fight. He had, according to Red Smith, "faster paws than a subwaypickpocket," and his lunging left hook was top of the line. And he knew thegame (he trained several fighters in his retirement--including his adopted son,Tracy, a bantamweight champ--and later served as chairman of the New York StateAthletic Commission). But he was always undersized (he rarely weighed more than180 pounds) and certainly of a baffling temperament. It was this last traitthat was most problematic, and interesting.

Patterson was oneof 11 children, brought up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Hewas so shy and quiet, and so affronted by turmoil, that his default reflex wasto disappear. He spent days in darkened movie theaters, riding aimlessly on thesubway, or holing up in a tool shed. "I'd spread papers on the floor, andI'd go to sleep and find peace," Patterson later told David Remnick, forhis book on Ali.

He was an unlikelyconvert to boxing. But then Cus D'Amato, the paranoid and psychoanalyzingproprietor of the Gramercy Gym, was an unlikely trainer. With D'Amato preachinghis principles of fear, and the management thereof (as he would later do withMike Tyson), Patterson became an accomplished contender, despite his size.Still, D'Amato was often puzzled. "He just doesn't have the zest forviciousness," he complained.

Much has been madeof Patterson's reaction to defeat. Even his anticipation of it. When Johanssondelivered his "toonder and lightning," dropping Patterson seven times,he was plunged into a yearlong depression, the loneliness of losing almost toomuch. And, for the Liston fight (which President Kennedy more or less orderedhim to win), Patterson packed a bag of disguises, just in case. When Listonflattened him in less than a round, Patterson availed himself of the fake beardand dark glasses, escaped Chicago's Comiskey Park and eventually flew toMadrid, where he affected a limp. As he explained to writer Gay Talese, "Iam a coward."

Less well knownwas his reluctant violence, far more fatal to a boxer than the reconciliationof defeat. In the early going, Patterson met a journeyman named ChesterMieszala and knocked his mouthpiece out. Patterson bent to the canvas to helpMieszala retrieve it. Even in his rematch with Johansson, when the Swededeserved the full fury of retribution, Patterson was unable to muster anysatisfaction. With Johansson quivering on the canvas after being knocked out inthe fifth, Patterson knelt down to cradle his head and to kiss him on thecheek.

Patterson knew toomuch of defeat, or else experienced its loneliness too profoundly, to enjoyvery much of victory, certainly of revenge. Years later, when it was Liston'sturn to sacrifice his dignity at the altar of entertainment, Ali havingdestroyed him for good in their rematch, Patterson visited him at his hotel, anempty room that spooked Patterson as much as the knockout. He told Listonthings would get better. Liston looked at him blankly for the longest time,until he recognized a fellow traveler, somebody who'd returned from disgracebut was miraculously still human. "Thanks," Liston finally said, justas Patterson was leaving the room, empty again.

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''A lot of people say Maris hit 61, but I'm the onlyone who ran for a midget." --JIM DELSING, FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 20

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

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)