I didn’t get a chance yesterday to mark the death of Floyd Patterson, who was heavyweight champion of the world from 1956-1959, and then again from 1960 -1962. He was the first man to regain the title after losing it – which is a lot easier to do today with all the phony title belts floating around, and multiple champions in every division.
He was an incredibly soft-spoken and gentle man, and he carried with him, often right on the surface, a psychic fragility that would have destroyed lesser men. Most fighters are desperate to repress their vulnerability and fear, even though all of them have more of it than they’d like to admit. (Patterson, an expert on such topics, once opined that Muhammad Ali’s excessive boasting was mostly an effort to talk himself into confidence.) The press at one point dubbed Patterson Freudian Floyd, and he became infamous for leaving the arena in disguise after his humiliating defeats to Sonny Liston. But he also learned how to use fear to his advantage in the ring and, Liston excepted, face down his adversaries on even terms. He came from the rough streets of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he had a similar early life to Brownsville’s Mike Tyson, and they were trained by the same man – Cus D’Amato. But where Tyson progressed all the way to becoming a human beast, Patterson became a sportsman, a gentleman, and a citizen, beloved by his neighbors and fellow parishioners in his adopted hometown of New Paltz, New York.
Patterson may have been the most maligned champion in history. Undersized (he would have been a fabulous light heavyweight), with a very suspect chin, he was knocked down an astonishing 19 times in his career. But as he noted with his usual quiet pride: he got up 17 of those times. That may not have always translated into victory in the ring, but it sure says something about the man.