“A pair of emotionally entangled men with enough psychosis and neurosis to have fascinated Freud,” was the take of The New York Times…
When Floyd Patterson was just a toddler, he scratched his face from a family photograph in hatred of himself. As a teenager he hid his face from friends and strangers alike, dipping his head as though dodging blows, slipping something far more painful to him than punches in the eye-contact those around him tried to make. Aged twenty-five he became the first man in history to reclaim the world’s Heavyweight Championship. Before this, he became the youngest man ever to hold that title, his blazing speed as much a part of his legend as his seeming vulnerability. Floyd was the champion who helped felled opponents from the canvas, who was too shy to even speak to the newspapermen harassing him for a quote, who repeatedly took with him to title fights a disguise to be worn in the event that he should lose. In Gene Tunney the press and public had been forced to become accustomed to a champion who committed the heinous crime of presenting himself as an intellectual, but worse even than that, Patterson seemed fragile.
Former armed robber Eddie Machen seemed, at first, far more the natural heavyweight boxer. He brought with him a more familiar hard luck story to his pre-boxing days, rough-and-tumble, tough-guy-finds-direction, the type of story everyone associated with the sport understood. Patterson, who attended (and patronized for an entire career) The Wiltwyick School for Boys for the petty crime of stealing fizzy drinks, had become involved in a then ultra-liberal state-sponsored program unfamiliar to a 1950s audience. His beginnings seemed as inexplicable as his manner. Machen’s own graduation from prison-tough to ring-tough was far more appealing.
He also had all the natural ability in the world and it brought him to contendership quickly. First mooted as a possible opponent for Patterson in 1957 after back-to-back wins over Joey Maxim (then the only man to have beaten Floyd) and a sliding Bob Baker, Machen was amongst the men famously passed over for Pete Rademacher, a quiz question to this day for his being the only man to fight for the heavyweight title on his professional debut. But after brutalizing former Patterson opponent Tommy Jackson, things started to go sideways for the Californian. A tepid, badly received draw boxed with Zora Folley was something he could easily recover from, but five months later he would travel to Sweden for the first but not the last time in his career and a date with destiny.
After being stiffened by a Johansson uppercut only seconds into the first round, Machen somehow found his way to his feet but his sense had all but abandoned him. He lurched into Johansson’s follow up volley with his hands down, side on, as though he were about to pre-date Muhammad Ali’s prime by a number of years before being beaten into a deep squat. Referee Andrew Smyth watched cheerily as Machen was hit with ten flush punches to the face by one of boxing’s more destructive punchers and then happily counted the ten over what could literally have been a corpse whilst Eddie’s handlers rushed the ring, cradling his head, removing his gumshield. As brutal a knockout as can be seen on film, it was a career-threatening loss at a time when a title tilt seemed all but assured.
The title tilt now belonged to Johannson.
The Swede’s knockout of the champion was almost as destructive. Like Machen, Patterson found the heart to take to his feet again and again, and again and again he was deposited on the canvas by punches, seven times in all in a hellish third round.
Johansson, for all that his reign was short, was a popular and a white champion. He found his way into more film and television roles in the next year than Patterson had in the previous three as champion, all charisma where Patterson seemed confounded uncertainty. In the rush to anoint the winner it was missed by some that the now ex-champion had actually seemed utterly unbreakable in terms of both body and spirit, rising yet again as referee Ruby Goldstein stepped in to stop the action. After shipping enough punches to sink many supposedly more granite-chinned fighters, Patterson was still coming and still punching. A year later his reclamation of the title was greeted with the same surprise, not just because history was weighted against him, but because of the type of man he appeared to be. As Max Schmeling put it in the build-up to the fight, “There is a psychological influence…in the ring, Patterson seems a lonely man.” The psychological factor remained a non-issue as Patterson thrashed Johansson not once but twice, reclaiming and then defending his title.
Machen did not have such a direct road to redemption open to him but after six months off to recover from the astonishing concussion Johansson inflicted upon him, he stitched together seven wins in seven months before rematching Zora Folley who completely outboxed him in a fight that cost Machen $270, a financial disaster as well as a sporting one. The first obituaries for Eddie’s career began to appear in the newspapers after only his second loss, but once again he dusted himself off and put together another short unbeaten run before being matched with Sonny Liston. Reputedly hampered by an injury to his right arm, Machen managed to nick the first two rounds from Liston before going on the move and dropping a wide decision, but this result did him little harm. Whilst some did criticize Eddie for “running” others were lauded him for making the distance with Liston who was on a nine-fight knockout streak. As menacing as any fighter who had come before him, Sonny was regarded as champion-in-waiting in 1960, a destroyer of boxers. Machen had proven the ultimate ring bogeyman mere flesh and blood.
If only other terrors were so easily confronted.
Through the 1960s financial difficulties stalked Machen. A young family in need of clothes, shoes, braces, schooling and a style that didn’t overly endear him to fans left him struggling to make ends meet. A loss to Harold Johnson sandwiched between wins over Mike DeJohn kept him in diapers just as it kept him in the title picture, but alcoholism and depression were the chief heads to the terrible hydra that now beset him. Somehow, Eddie boxed to a draw with Cleveland Williams in July of 1962 despite back trouble and looming bankruptcy, and then the wheels came off. Unable to make a quick fight, Machen’s finances fell apart. Ring Magazine’s #3 contender to the world’s heavyweight title was discovered that December in a layby armed with both a gun and a suicide note. Eddie Machen was committed to a mental institution.
As Machen wrestled desperately with his demons, Patterson finally came to face his own in the shape of the man Eddie had boxed so hard in 1960, Sonny Liston. Repeat engagements with Johansson and a manager more nervous of Liston than Job of the angels had kept the #1 contender waiting—and Patterson, newly in control of his own destiny, determined to do the right thing. In 125 brutal seconds he was torn down, exposed as the fragile champion many had insisted he was. If Machen was a man set afire by the world, Patterson was one that burned within. The disguise he used to escape Comiskey Park in Chicago after the loss of his title is well known, but perhaps less well known is the disguise he wore to the airport and then to Madrid, escaping his country in an attempt to escape himself.
Earlier that year, Patterson’s autobiography had been released. The title, Victory Over Myself, does as much to explain who he was as the words written within it. James Baldwin said of the ex-champion that he was “quite probably the least likely fighter in the history of the sport,” a man who was “relentlessly and painfully shy.” He added that Patterson was “proud and beautiful” but “vulnerable – and looks it.”
He looked it now more than ever. Returning to the United States, Patterson, who had become associated with Jackie Robinson, traveled south to protest segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. When their flight landed, they were greeted with the news that specific death threats had been issued to each of them. During the visit, Patterson walked straight past the water fountain marked “colored” to the one marked “white” and drank deeply, telling the white men who watched him that it tasted, to him, no different. The next day he flew north to make the rematch with Sonny Liston.
It was Patterson that denigrated himself a coward despite the bravery he had shown in Birmingham, and it was Liston who had told reporters “I ain’t got no dog-proof ass” when asked if he would be attending the civil rights rally and in a movie, that would mean Patterson would win the rematch, but there are no fairytales in the prize-ring. Patterson was smashed out again, completely and utterly destroyed, the most fragile psyche, the most fragile fighter, in heavyweight history, taken to pieces before an audience of millions. All the talk was of Floyd’s retirement. “I’m not ready for the shelf,” Patterson offered, close to tears. “There are no beards or mustaches. Those things are gone for me now.”
It is impossible for me to understand the well of courage that Patterson discovered within himself that night not only to drag himself into the ring against a man that had so unmanned him a year ago, nor only to drag himself from the canvas twice and rejoin the battle, but also to decide that not only did he want to fight on but that he once again wanted to fight Sonny Liston. But perhaps, brave as he was, he was not as brave as Eddie Machen, who two months after Patterson’s devastating loss, stepped back into the ring.
When Machen was institutionalized he was the WBA’s #1 contender and in the mix to fight Liston for the title. The fight of his dreams that would have righted so many of the wrongs in his life was within his grasp and slipped through his fingers. Fred Aaronson’s announcement that “Machen’s situation” meant that the WBA was no hurdle to a rematch between Patterson and Liston would have been enough to drive anyone mad and as he literally fought with security staff leading to his being sedated and then placed in a straightjacket, Machen’s feelings can only be guessed at. So the newspapers guessed, reports described his paranoia, his blankness, his lack of education, his criminal past, screaming, berserk, began to appear. All agreed that as a fighter, he was done.
“He’ll be dropped from his ranking as the No.1 challenger for the world heavyweight boxing title,” wrote The Middlesboro Daily News on Christmas Eve. “There’s no chance he’ll ever be allowed in the ring again.”
The count was nine, and Eddie just stood up.
He was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, a diagnosis seemingly less specific then than now, and with depression. Transferred to a private clinic, the fighting with security stopped and the real fight began. Less than a year after being committed, Machen did the impossible and stepped back into the ring, stopping Ollie Wilson in six rounds. Wilson was no world beater, but it’s unlikely victory ever tasted so sweet to any fighter. Four more quick wins followed and Floyd Patterson, in something much more like headline news, dusted off the tough Santo Amonti over in Stockholm, Sweden. Patterson loved the Swedish as he was loved by them. The racial harmony in comparison to the United States stunned Floyd. Perhaps it was the right place for Machen, too.
“It took seven years,” wrote The Miami Herald, “and a twist of fate, but Eddie Machen has finally caught up to Floyd Patterson.”
“A fight between two question marks,” is how veteran promoter Jersey Jones put it.
“A pair of emotionally entangled men with enough psychosis and neurosis to have fascinated Freud,” was the take of The New York Times.
Patterson’s back trouble, which would dog him for the remainder of his career, began in earnest in the run up to this fight; newspapermen politely speculated upon what Machen “had left.” What nobody said was that these two had dragged themselves through more shit than almost any fighter of the post-television era to reach that ring in Solna, Sweden. After the fight it was written off as a dull affair, even in books and articles that appear about Patterson to this day. This is inaccurate and I’m delighted to say that below, in a Boxing.com exclusive, rare footage of the bout between these two is available for your consideration.
It is not a great fight, but nor is it dull. Nat Fleischer, one of the few American boxing men to see the fight ringside wrote that the astonishing 34,000 strong crowd were “well repaid with a hard fought, although not spectacular, hard-hitting engagement.”
The highlights show Patterson thumping out an excellent jab as Machen tries to snipe with his own, looking for the right uppercut as Patterson goes to the body double-handed. The nod at each other when Machen slips, and when Eddie rips into Floyd after the bell to end the eleventh—he hadn’t heard It—Patterson puts a consoling arm around his opponent’s shoulders as he stalks back to his corner. What is available seems to indicate that the ex-champion’s speed wins him the key battles on jab and defense, areas where both men excelled in their primes. According to Ring Magazine, referee Teddy Waltham scored the bout 10-1-1 for Patterson (Associated Press indicates he had it 9-1-2) and based upon what we see that seems unreasonable—I like Fleischer’s 7-3-2 card considerably more. Both men seemed satisfied with their efforts. Machen:
“I’m after security for my wife and children. I went into the Patterson fight as physically and mentally fit as in any I have appeared and I think Patterson can testify to that.”
This, Patterson did, before speaking of his own prospects.
“I was almost as good against Machen as I was in the majority of my best ring contests. I would like nothing better than to fight again for the title…[but] I prefer to fight Liston again, if it can be arranged, before he fights Clay.”
Bravery to the point of stupidity? Perhaps. Patterson wouldn’t have to fight Liston again, but he would fight for a piece of the title, not once but twice. His first effort was against the solid Jimmy Ellis in a fight regarded by some as a flat-out robbery and by others as a close fight gone awry. Regardless, Patterson gave a superb account of himself and likely deserved to be crowned as a champion. Also on the wrong end of a rather notorious decision against Jerry Quarry, he found time to add names such as Henry Cooper and Oscar Bonavena before, in his last contest, he got one more crack at the big one against none other than Muhammad Ali, who had bested him just over a year after his meeting with Machen.
“I thought he was finished,” offered a shockingly amiable Ali pre-fight. “But like a ghost, he keeps coming back. It’s something to see him still going like he is. He came back after Johansson, he came back after Liston, he came back after Quarry, he came back after me. Now he’s in the lights of Madison Square Garden again…Patterson is a great fighter.”
Nobody was surprised at the unflinching bravery of Patterson’s performance. He was rescued at the midway point with severe facial damage and retired with a final record of 55-8-1. He trained fighters for a while but his greatest delight was to work with youngsters, troubled youngsters, as he had once been. In 1992 his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, won the WBC super bantamweight title.
Floyd Patterson died on May 11, 2006.
Astonishingly, Machen too boxed for a sliver of the heavyweight crown before he was finished. A career’s best payday of $40,000 had taken him one step closer to his dream of providing financial security to the people he loved, but the great dream of becoming a heavyweight champion eluded him; he lost a drab decision to Ernie Terrell in his very next fight before going 3-5-1 and retiring with a final record of 50-11-3. He, too, put on some astonishingly brave performances in his final days, most notably against Joe Frazier whom he extended into the 10th and final round before succumbing after a first round nearly as devastating as the one he fought with Ingemar Johansson all those years ago.
Unfortunately there was no happy ending for Eddie. Marital, legal, financial and mental issues continued to dog him. On August the 8th, 1972 he was found dead in the car-park of his apartment complex. Machen, who was using sleeping pills to treat his insomnia and given to sleepwalking, apparently stepped over the protecting banister and to his death. Newspaper reports detailed the seven foot trail of blood that he left behind as he crawled for help, his instincts to get up and fight refusing to fail him even as his liver did, killing him.