Let’s be honest here; Floyd Patterson wasn’t really a heavyweight. Truth is, he wasn’t even a cruiserweight for most of his career. Floyd Patterson was a light-heavyweight. Patterson was outweighed in every single one of his heavyweight fights – and sometimes by a lot! I always thought he looked so little when I watched him fight. And he was.
But Floyd, and his manager, the legendary Cus D’Amato, knew there was no real money to be had in the light heavyweight division and the cruiserweight division wasn’t yet an option, so they decided that with his skills and speed, Floyd had a chance to capture the most valuable prize in sport, the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
In 1955, when Rocky Marciano retired, the International Boxing Club announced a six-fighter tournament to find his replacement. At the time, Floyd was ranked as the top light-heavyweight in the world. There was some reluctance on the part of the Club to include Floyd in the tournament, but The Ring Magazine forced its hand by moving Patterson into the heavyweight rankings at Number 5, so Floyd had to be included. Patterson ran through Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson before facing the near-ancient Archie Moore for the vacant title. Now Moore claimed he was 40-years-old going into the fight, but Moore was a hell of a lot better fighter than he was a counter and the truth is that nobody is entirely sure how old Archie Moore really was. Whatever his age, it became clear early on that he was too old for the dazzlingly fast Patterson and Floyd ended up stopping Archie in 5 to become the then-youngest heavyweight champion at only 21-years-old.
Floyd began his reign by beating a string of so-so fighters before he stepped into the ring with Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson in June of 1959. Now, even the best of fighters can have an off-day, or get caught by a punch; and that’s what happened to Floyd against Johansson. With all due respect to the Swede, he really wasn’t particularly good; but he was big, was strong, and could hit. Floyd got caught early by the big Swede and just never recovered. He suffered the ignominy of seven knockdowns before referee Ruby Goldstein called a halt to the proceedings in the 3rd round. Patterson was terribly embarrassed but went right back to work, determined to do something that had never been done up to that time – regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World!
And regain it he did! Just less than a year after he lost his title, the two men met again on the Polo Grounds in New York City, where Floyd would score an iconic knockout in the 5th round with a devastating left hook. The film of Johansson lying on the canvas with his left foot quivering uncontrollably, has become one of the most viewed knockouts in boxing history. It was all the more surprising because Floyd, as usual, was outweighed considerably by the much bigger Swede (183 lbs. to 197.) This would be a theme for Patterson’s entire heavyweight career.
Floyd would defeat Johansson again and then Tom McNeeley in my hometown of Toronto before facing Sonny Liston. Now for those of you who have never seen the films of his fights with Liston, I’ll tell you that they should probably come with some sort of parental warning. They are very hard to watch. I’m sure no member of Patterson’s family can bring themselves to view them. Floyd looked like a little kid next to Sonny. He was outweighed by 30lbs or so and that missing 30lbs looked to be all muscle. It was a giant vs a Lilliputian. Floyd would be the victim of two back-to-back, devastating, first-round knockouts at the hands of “The Bear.” He was annihilated.
But that’s not the real point of this writing. It’s Floyd’s courage that stood out to me above all else. Patterson had to know before the first fight that he was going to lose. I’m not sure he knew he would lose that badly. I’m not sure it would have made any difference; such was the courage of this man. By the time the second fight rolled around, Floyd couldn’t have had any doubt as to the eventual outcome. But he still showed up – many wondered why. Patterson knew he was going to be massacred; he had to know. Yet, there he was, answering the bell with dignity and courage. He was a lamb being led to slaughter. He went willingly.
After he lost his title, Floyd continued to toil away; coming up with some big victories too. He beat Eddie Machen in 1964 and the ridiculously tough Canadian, George Chuvalo, in 1965. He was stopped by Muhammad Ali later that same year but over the next few years, would fight people like Jimmy Ellis, Oscar Bonavena, and Jerry Quarry; with mixed results. In all of these fights, Floyd was the “little guy.” In all of these fights, Floyd gave it his all. Finally, in 1972, at age 37, Patterson would try unsuccessfully against Ali one last time before retiring for good. He ended at 55-8-1 and as the only two-time heavyweight champion of the world at the time. Patterson had a marvelous career and I always thought it borderline tragic that he is more remembered for his losses to Liston and Ali than for his many signature wins – all while fighting really big guys, while just a little guy himself. Patterson was bravery personified. Let’s try to remember him for that, if nothing else.
Photo courtesy: Materialscientist Wikimedia Commons