Subj: The BAWLI Papers No. 16
Date: 98-12-26 12:49:13 EST
The BAWLI Papers
(Boxing As We Liked It)
By J Michael Kenyon
Issue Number 16
Tuesday, December 29, 1998
New York City, New York, US of A
IN THIS ISSUE: FLOYD PATTERSON CAN'T GET THOSE OLD LOSSES OUT OF HIS MEMORY
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LOSSES STILL HAUNT FORMER CHAMP
(The Associated Press, Sunday, August 2, 1998)
Chin smashed, head spinning, the battered champion slumped against the ropes
and gazed into the crowd - directly into the eyes of John Wayne.
Thirty-nine years later, he still cringes at the memory.
"This famous American hero had come to watch me fight, and I was losing the
title to another country," Floyd Patterson says. "It was the most embarrassing
moment of my life."
KO'd in the third round by Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, Patterson drove home
in disgrace. For the next few months he brooded in seclusion, avoiding
friends, trainers, even members of his family.
"You have to understand what it is like to be champion of the world and then
not to be champion," he says.
But what hurt most of all was that nagging inner doubt that always seems to
strike when he is down, the feeling that somehow -- despite all the titles,
the trophies, the money and the glory --the great Floyd Patterson hasn't quite
He felt it as a child when he scratched X's across a photograph of himself,
telling his mother, "I don't like that boy."
He felt it after he was bludgeoned senseless by Sonny Liston in 126 seconds on
Sept. 25, 1962. Patterson slunk out of the stadium in a false beard and
And he felt it again on April 1, when he was forced to resign as chairman of
the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in the state.
Grilled for hours by lawyers for ultimate fighting - the no-holds-barred sport
that is banned in New York -- the ex-champ fumbled miserably. He couldn't
remember beating Archie Moore to become the youngest heavyweight champion of
the world in 1956. He couldn't remember his aide's name.
Patterson protested that he hadn't slept much the night before and that his
memory is never good when he is tired. But the headlines were unforgiving: On
The Ropes, Dazed and Confused. Their message was clear. The charismatic
"gentleman" of boxing, appointed by Gov. George Pataki in 1995 to put a fresh
face on the sport, to rebuild New York as boxing's Mecca, was too punch-drunk
to handle the $76,421 job.
Patterson refuses to discuss it, but his face crumples when the subject is
raised. Friends say what hurts the most is the feeling that he let the
He hasn't appeared at a fight since.
But he cannot stay away from the sport that made him king, that rescued him
from the poorest streets of Brooklyn and offered him the world.
"If it wasn't for boxing," Patterson says, "I would probably be behind bars or
This is his argument to those who say boxing is for brutes and gangsters. This
is his argument to those who say the sport should be banned. This is his
argument as he gazes around his living room, a virtual shrine to his past, the
walls draped with pictures of fighters and presidents and stars. Muhammad Ali.
Joe Louis. Joe Frazier. Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan. Frank Sinatra. John
Patterson has punched or shaken hands with them all. He has counted many as
In pride of place in one corner, a huge photograph of Patterson and John F.
Kennedy at the White House in 1962. The president gave the champion his tie-
pin and begged him not to fight Liston. Patterson's manager begged him, too.
Liston, with his prison record and alleged mob connections, was unfit to be
champion, they argued. Besides, they were terrified that the "hulking brute"
who outweighed Patterson by at least 25 pounds would kill their noble hero.
"I'm sorry, Mr. President," Patterson said. "The title is not worth anything
if the best fighters can't have a shot at it. And Liston deserves a shot."
Nine months later, Liston demolished him.
At 63, Patterson lives up to his reputation as a gentleman both in and out of
the ring. His polite friendliness and pompadour hairstyle give him a slightly
old-fashioned charm. He opens doors for women with a stiff little bow - and
says they have no place in the ring. The man who once wondered what he was
doing in the Hall of Fame ("Isn't that for guys like Joe Louis?") still seems
genuinely touched when asked for an autograph.
In person, Patterson appears smaller than he did in the ring, but he still has
those massive forearms and his fighting weight of 185 pounds. He looks fit
enough for a title fight.
"When I get up in the morning and I run and I work out in the gym it puts me
on a physical high that is so good I don't need any other drug," Patterson
says. "This is what boxing did for me, and for hundreds of kids that I've
trained. It steered them off alcohol and drugs and put them on a path of
physical fitness for the rest of their lives."
The speech is Patterson's mantra: He's been giving it for years. In one
afternoon, he repeats it four times.
The champion repeats himself a lot these days.
But boxing has given him far more than pride in his body. It made him a rich
man. Patterson won $13 million for 20 years of professional fighting that
included 64 fights, among them 40 knockout victories.
And boxing has given him this comfortable old farmhouse on 17 acres, about 75
miles north of New York City, where he lives with his wife, Janet. The fighter
raised his two youngest children here, daughters from his second marriage.
It's a beautiful place, wooded and quiet, just outside the town of New Paltz
at the base of Mohonk Mountain. Patterson fell in love with the area as a
teen-ager when he was dumped into a reform school a few miles away. It was the
first time the young truant had seen mountains and woods and deer. It was the
first time he didn't steal to eat.
"Until then, I thought everyone lived in rundown concrete buildings in
Brooklyn," he says in a soft tenor voice that seems to complement shy eyes. "I
promised myself that if I ever had enough money, I would buy a house here."
Actually, his first big purse went to buy a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., for
his parents and most of his 10 siblings. He was 21 at the time, a sensitive
kid with furious fists, who relied on his manager and mentor, Constantine
"Cus" D'Amato, to do most of his talking.
It was under D'Amato that Patterson perfected his unorthodox "peekaboo" style,
blocking punches by holding both gloves tight to his face, peeping at his
opponent, bobbing and weaving all the time.
"Cus did everything to protect the fighter," Patterson says, springing into
the peekaboo posture, his huge hands cupped to his face.
"In my case, it worked," he adds, grinning. "See, I don't have a flat chin or
cauliflower ears like other fighters."
Patterson throws combination punches at his imaginary opponent, scampering
across his living room floor with some of the speed - if not the stamina - of
the old days. Between grunts, he tells the story of D'Amato's Gramercy Park
gym, how he tagged along with his older brothers when he was about 14, how he
wanted to cry the first time he was hit, how three years later the crybaby was
Golden Gloves in 1951. Olympic gold in 1952. First professional fight the same
By the time he reached Chicago Stadium on Nov. 30, 1956, Patterson was
unstoppable. He sprang at Archie Moore with a fifth-round left hook and became
heavyweight champion of the world. He was 21.
Patterson made $114,257 for the fight, more money than he had ever dreamed.
His first child was born the same day. There were parties and parades and
speeches. Congratulations poured in from around the world.
All the new father could think about was how sorry he felt for Moore.
The fighter's killer instinct. The victor's remorse. Patterson's struggle to
reconcile the two has led some critics to question if "the gentle gladiator"
was too soft for blood sport. Too vulnerable.
"Floyd was probably too kind," says Jimmy Glenn, Patterson's corner man for
many years. "He's the kind of guy, you slap him on one cheek, he turns the
Glenn tells how Patterson once stooped to pick up an opponent's mouthpiece
during a fight. Others recall Patterson easing up on blows if his opponent was
hurting, helping Tom McNeeley to his feet in 1961 after knocking him down,
backing off Eddie Machen in a 1964 fight, knowing his opponent had suffered a
"The problem with my father," says his 29-year-old daughter, Jennifer, "is
that other men just never measure up."
Patterson shrugs off compliments, much as he shrugged off the critics all
these years, those who wrote that he was just a glorified middleweight, those
who said he had a glass chin.
"Floyd Patterson was unique in that he achieved something Mother Nature never
intended him to achieve," says boxing historian Hank Kaplan. "He didn't belong
fighting those monsters, and he wouldn't have lasted in today's fight. But he
had an awful lot of courage and an awful lot of determination."
True, Patterson lacked the dazzle of Ali, the brute force of Liston, the
athletic beauty of middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, his personal favorite. But
he had a heart that other boxers admired, a doggedness and intensity that won
over the critics.
"They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most," he says, "but I
also got up the most."
Proud as he is of his record, Patterson says he is just as proud of how far he
has come outside the ring. Today, the fighter - whose 1962 autobiography is
titled "Victory Over Myself" - can laugh about the disguises he once hid in
his locker room. Today he is more curious than embarrassed by the emotions he
felt winning and losing.
"The only thing I know is that victory means your opponent lost, defeat means
you lost," he says. "Either way, someone has got to leave the ring feeling
bad. I always thought I would be happy if it could just be a draw."
He smiles a bit sheepishly as he recites this sporting heresy.
"Don't get me wrong," he adds. "I love victory, but I've run into a lot of
nice guys in boxing. I just don't want to see anyone get hurt."
The nice guys include Johansson, the Swede who took away Patterson's
heavyweight title and, for a year, his pride. Patterson regained the title in
1960, the first heavyweight to do so, after a vengeful bout that left
Johansson comatose, his leg quivering. Bending over his opponent, Patterson
remembers the terror. He had spent a year as a recluse, hating this man,
training to kill him. What if he had succeeded?
Today Patterson and Johansson are friends. They have run marathons together.
They visit each other regularly in Sweden and New York. Johanns on jokes that
Patterson - who once owned a string of Swedish fast-food restaurants that
served "Floydburgers" - is more popular in Sweden than he is. He calls
Patterson, "a helluva champion, inside the ring and outside."
The nice guys include Ali, the irrepressible showman who launched his poetry
career with a rhyme about his boyhood idol:
"A lot of people say that Floyd couldn't fight
"But you should have seen him on that comeback night,
"He cut up his eyes and mussed up his face,
"And that last left hook knocked his head out of place!"
Patterson chuckles when Ali's name is mentioned and, eyes twinkling says, "You
mean Cassius Clay?" He has never called Ali by anything but "the name his
mother gave him." Ali, in return, insults Patterson by calling him "the
Their name-calling has mellowed over the years, since Ali hammered Patterson's
left eye shut in Madison Square Garden in 1972 and ended his professional
Ali, Patterson says, was a brilliant fighter, but he shouldn't have opened
himself up to so many blows, should have protected his head more.
"Not that he ever opened himself up to me," he quips, referring to his two
losses to Ali.
Patterson also lost twice to Liston, who was dethroned by Ali in 1964, one
year after Liston wiped the canvas with Patterson.
Patterson watched the Ali-Liston fight from a ringside seat. He remembered
John Wayne's eyes. After the fight, he made his way to Liston's hotel room and
knocked on the door. The loser was alone, his ego more bruised than his body.
"Sonny," Patterson told him, "You haven't really lost anything."
The two remained friends until Liston's death four years later, of an apparent
"The fights you lose," Patterson says, as though he is still consoling Liston
or coaching one of his students, "are the ones that teach you the most about
This is what D'Amato taught him, and what he passed on to his son: that boxing
leaves you naked to the world, in all your emotions, your strength and your
pain; that the blows outside the ring are the ones that hurt the most, they
are the ones that define a true champion.
Tracy Harris was 11 when he started hanging around Patterson's gym, doing odd
jobs just to watch the boxers. Patterson took pity on the fatherless boy, gave
him a pair of gloves and a place to sleep. Two years later, he gave him his
"I asked if I could adopt him and he said, 'sure' and jumped for joy,"
Patterson says, eyes shining at the memory. "I couldn't get over the fact that
anything would make him so pleased."
The boxer bows his head. The falling-out between father and son over money and
management a few years ago is well known. After winning the world super
bantamweight title in 1992 at age 27, Tracy cut out on his own, much as
Patterson had left D'Amato years earlier. For a time, Patterson couldn't talk
about Tracy without crying.
The healing began on the day the news broke about Patterson's resignation.
Tracy, who lives in a nearby town, drove straight to New Paltz and told his
father he loved him.
"He listened to the wrong people," Patterson says, "But he's my son and I love
Beside her husband, Janet puffs on a cigarette and listens intently. Patterson
long ago gave up nagging his wife to stop smoking. She long ago gave up trying
to protect him from pain.
Not that she could do anything once he was in the ring, except throw a party
and pray. At other times, though, she's the fighter in the family, fiercely
guarding her husband's privacy and good name, screening his calls, prompting
him gently when he can't remember dates.
"Floyd is often too hard on himself," she says, "and too soft on everyone
It is Janet who proudly tells friends about Patterson's new job, counseling
troubled children for the state Office of Children and Family Services. It is
she who prods him into talking about his accomplishments on the commission:
promoting title fights in Madison Square Garden, pushing for a pension for old
boxers, supporting legislation against ultimate fighting. And it is Janet who
boasts how her husband is the hero of the local nursing home, where he spends
hours every Sunday serving communion.
"The eucharistic minister with the biggest hands," Patterson jokes, holding up
the fists that made him.
In a converted chicken coop behind the house he shows what those fists can do.
Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat, rat-ta-ta-tat.
The small black bag whizzes overhead, the sound as magical as the speed.
Patterson loses himself in its rhythm, its familiarity. His gloves become a
This is where the lawyers should come if they want to grill Floyd Patterson.
The champion doesn't slip up here, he doesn't forget. This musty little gym is
where his memories lie. They tumble out of the faded posters on the walls: of
the day Ali invaded his training camp, brandishing bunches of carrots and
crying "carrots for the rabbit"; of the hundreds of youngsters he trained in
this ring; of the day he met the sensitive kid with the furious fists who
reminded him of himself.
He walks over to the heavy bag and slams his fists into the layers of duct
tape that patch up the dents from the past.
"Sixty percent," Patterson says, rating his form the way he did in the old
days: 90 percent when he won against Johannson, zero percent against Liston.
"If you are 100 percent, you have nothing to aim for so you might as well give
Patterson pounds the heavy bag one more time. It swings back, low and fast and
the boxer embraces it in a bearhug. His smile is one of sheer joy.
The champion may not be 100 percent, but this is as close as it gets.