Temple of Mystery: The Mind of Freudian Floyd
Why was Patterson so quiet? Why was he so private? Where was the dynamism of Jack Dempsey, the color of Rocky Marciano?
In June 1952, after failing to wrest the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim, Sugar Ray Robinson walked away from the fight game for nearly three years. Ray wanted to be an entertainer of a different kind. He wanted to be a dancer.
When Robinson traveled to Paris, he found a different world and felt like a man who had been liberated. He fell in love with the more liberal and diverse French culture, where it wasn’t a sin to be a black man.
In 1960, when heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson traveled to Sweden, he discovered a similarly understanding culture where it wasn’t a sin for any man to be quiet, reserved and dignified. That trip to Sweden, for nothing more than an exhibition match, was the beginning of Patterson’s curious transformation from a cheese champ in the eyes of many to a much loved cult figure. And of all the gin joints in all the world, it was the loud and urgent cauldron of New York that grew to love quiet Floyd the most. New York, the great and bustling city of larger-than-life Runyoneque characters, became the unlikely champion of a man who seemed afraid to say “boo” to a goose.
Patterson’s trip to Sweden must have jolted him in the most pleasant way and marked his second major boost of a fantastic year. Just a two months before, at the Polo Grounds in New York, his sudden rise to iconic status had begun when he became the first man in history to regain the heavyweight championship of the world. What’s more, he had achieved that feat with a shattering knockout of Sweden’s sporting idol, Ingemar Johansson. Floored seven times and crushed in the third round of their first fight a year before, Floyd fired back to become the comeback king with a scorching performance, topped off by what Jim Jacobs would describe as a ‘deep dish beauty’ of a left hook.
Did the Swedish people begrudge Patterson for knocking their man Johansson unconscious? On the contrary, they took Floyd to their hearts and treated him like a god. Some 40,000 attended his first exhibition in Stockholm, an event described by The Ring’s correspondent Ted Carroll as ‘unprecedented.’ Even the Polo Grounds hadn’t been able to pull in that many people for the Patterson-Johansson fight. It took Floyd an age to get out of the Stockholm ring and back to his dressing room as a surge of Swedish well-wishers handed him bouquets and cheered him excitedly.
Out on the street, Floyd was similarly mobbed by autograph hunters, many of whom were women who seemed captivated by his soft-spoken and gentle demeanor.
Patterson’s Stockholm appearance wasn’t just a one-off affair either. The enthusiasm didn’t wane a bit as he toured the country and staged similar exhibitions in Gothenburg, Malmo, Jonkoping, Karlstad and Gaule. In one small town, with an official population of 3,000, Floyd attracted a crowd of 12,000. His 22 exhibitions netted him $44,000 and he spent the lot in Sweden.
Patterson’s gentility and unstinting politeness proved to be a massive hit. But why oh why wasn’t it the same back home in America? In his homeland, these same attributes were greeted by puzzlement. Why was Patterson so quiet? Why was he so private? Where was the dynamism of Jack Dempsey, the color of Rocky Marciano? Jack, Rocky and Joe Louis were giants in the media’s eyes with a giant sense of presence. Patterson, by contrast, was a shrinking violet who wanted nothing more than to be alone.
Patterson’s private and puzzling mind constantly baffled the American audience. Perhaps even Floyd himself didn’t always understand it. Sigmund Freud would surely have regarded Patterson as an intriguing case for study and many a Freudian article was penned by boxing journalists who yearned to unravel and understand the labyrinth of cogs and wires in Floyd’s head.
The Patterson persona didn’t blend well with the voracious and inquisitive American press. Why would you hold the front page for Floyd? Where were the fireworks? Where were the authoritative statements of intent? There was nothing juicy or mildly controversial. Cossetted and overprotected by his manager Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s first reign as heavyweight champion had been a tiptoe through the tulips against a string of questionable challengers. Then Johansson all but killed the quiet man in a seven-knockdown slaughter at Yankee Stadium. It seemed there was no way back for Floyd after that disaster, but his inner steel and determination was very much underestimated.
The revenge victory over Johansson at the Polo Grounds brought redemption and a quite incredible turn of the tide in the way Floyd was perceived. Suddenly he was the quiet man who had guts and heart and charisma after all, the reluctant sheriff who had finally pulled his guns with spectacular success.
Whilst the American media would continue to be perplexed by Floyd’s introverted nature and eccentricities, the public took him to their hearts and thereafter he was the good guy who could never be tarnished. But deep in his soul, the scars remained and took a long time to heal. Perhaps they never completely went away. Patterson was always faithful to Cus D’Amato, yet one always sensed that Floyd felt like a puppet and resented it. He acted like a man who was being slowly suffocated, in much the same way as Rocky Marciano bristled at Al Weill’s constant presence and Elvis Presley chafed under the iron rule of Colonel Tom Parker.
Had Floyd been his own man and broken free of D’Amato’s grip, would the champion have followed a different course after his historic victory over Archie Moore in 1956? That famous win in the fifth round, achieved with speed, movement and fast fists, made Patterson the youngest ever winner of the heavywewight championship at the age of 21. Much praise was heaped upon him, even though many felt that Moore had gone down tamely.
Had Floyd had his way, there is little doubt in this writer’s mind that he would have defended the championship against the best possible challengers and confronted the menace of Sonny Liston a lot sooner. Patterson was a fiercely proud man. Did he really relish knocking off the likes of Pete Rademacher, Brian London, Roy Harris and Tom McNeeley? Acutely sensitive, Floyd must have hated the criticism leveled at him for taking the easy route to riches. Why, the writers repeatedly asked, wouldn’t he fight Zora Folley, Eddie Machen or Cleveland (Big Cat) Williams?
At his best, I believe Floyd would have taken the measure of all three. As a former champion in 1964, Floyd returned to Sweden and boxed superbly to outpoint Machen. There is no reason to believe that result would have been any different four or five years earlier. Machen and Folley were classy operators but always fell sort of elite status. Cleveland Williams thrilled crowds with his big punching and might just have found a big punch to hang on Patterson’s fragile chin. But Williams was another who could never step up and command the stage. It is more likely that Patterson’s movement and his formidable left hook would have been the ideal recipe for taking down the Big Cat.
Just as Al Weill’s overbearing presence finally pushed Marciano into retirement and Colonel Tom Parker’s demands turned Presley into a comfort eater of gargantuan proportions, so D’Amato’s unpopular management strategy drove Patterson into the secure sanctuary of his own mind. Floyd couldn’t stop the world and get off. But he could keep the world out. The need for privacy and solace had always been there. As a shy youngster, he would walk the streets of Brooklyn at night and in the early hours of the morning, contemplating whatever, alone with his own thoughts.
By 1962, Sonny Liston had been the greatest threat to Patterson’s crown for a good three years. Even the thrilling Patterson-Johansson trilogy couldn’t shake the conviction of many seasoned boxing experts that Liston was the world champion in everything but name. A big man with a big punch and good boxing skill, Sonny had destroyed the field that D’Amato and Patterson had skirted. Liston had twice bashed Williams, knocked out Zora Folley and outboxed the slick and evasive Machen.
Sonny scared the pants off Middle America with his criminal history and his brooding presence, but few could dispute that he deserved his shot at the richest prize in sport. The tension in the air was palpable when the match with Patterson was finally made for Comiskey Park in Chicago. A fight for the heavyweight championship of the world became a sprawling soap opera of often ridiculous proportions. Liston, quite absurdly, was appointed Public Enemy Number one. Patterson was Gary Cooper, a man alone waiting for the clang of the incoming train. Staying in his office as the clock ticked, Floyd shunned and stunned an inquisitive public as he attempted to turn his already unconventional training camp into a haven of peace.
“I knew this was it,” said Patterson when co-trainer Buster Watson told him about the Marycrest Farms inter-racial campsite for orphan boys and girls outside Chicago. Floyd happily sent up camp on the serene 60-acres site of rolling farmland. The site comprised of a farmhouse, a row of cabins, a long dining room that doubled as Patterson’s gym and a honeymoon cottage to which Floyd could retreat and be on his own.
But the real world was too big to keep at bay and it kept knocking on Patterson’s door, often insidiously. The general air of pessimism around the camp must have eaten at Floyd. Nobody believed he could beat Liston, not even his own team. Cus D’Amato constantly presented the case for a Patterson victory, but never sounded convincing, while trainer Dan Florio looked consistently worried. Florio continued to be haunted by the quick and somewhat odious first round exit of his fighter Jersey Joe Walcott nine years previously against Rocky Marciano. That fight — if it could be called that — was also in Chicago.
Once again, Patterson niggled the expectant American media. His rare public workouts were attended by only a select group of writers, former champions and celebrities. All the while, the atmosphere at Marycrest Farms bordered on the surreal. It was as if everyone was thinking the same thing: “We know the result already, so why are we going through all this?”
Yet Patterson, for all his foibles, was such a damnably decent man that even his harshest critics found it difficult to go against him when it was finally time to pick the winner. A surprising number of writers took a deep swallow and nailed their colors to the Patterson mast. Floyd was in no way a media darling, but would they honestly get any more change out of the sullen Liston? At least Floyd mixed with the right people and didn’t go getting himself arrested.
It is so easy for all of us to be swayed by such emotions when the stakes are so high. For many, the question as to who was the better fighter went right out of the equation. The Patterson-Liston fight was a battle of the good guy against the bad guy, a replay of the Louis-Schmeling rematch on a domestic scale. What if the bad guy won? What then? Yet Floyd himself seemed to know from the very beginning how it would go at Comiskey Park on September 25, 1962. He parked his mysterious mind outside the stadium in the form of his Lincoln car which was amply stocked with food and drinks and a false beard and moustache. After his body had been bashed to defeat in two minutes and six seconds, Patterson climbed back into his own head and drove away. Not even his family and friends knew where was going.
Gary Cooper had been shot down, so there had to be questions and inquests. Had Floyd been pressured by evil forces and gone into the tank? Had he simply been scared of taking a longer and much more serious beating? The suggestion seemed absurd, yet The Ring Detective — a famous feature of the era written by Dan Daniel — was persuaded by Patterson supporters to examine the legitimacy of the result. Poor Dan Daniel himself sounded more than a little huffy at having to take this assignment seriously. He didn’t waste any time in rendering his verdict, with the headline, Patterson KO Authentic As Was Ever Seen.
Wrote Daniel: “It was not a barnie. It was as on-the-level a fight as the game has seen. Patterson tried his level best but Liston simply swarmed all over him and there was nothing the fallen title holder could do about it. Patterson is not one of the great fighters of all time. I did not rate him as such before the Liston scrap. But he is an earnest, honest, clean guy, jealous of his reputation, desperate in his effort to make the experts believe him to be a great technician.”
Then Daniel asked the big question that had puzzled so many. “How did so many of us go so wrong in picking Patterson?” He believed there were three reasons for this. First, and most simply, it is an age-old instinct to stick with the champion in any sport. Secondly, Patterson was very much overrated by most of his supporters, while Liston was sold short.
Daniel’s third reason was the most appropriate: “Most of those who picked Floyd judged the fighters with their hearts and not with their heads. They did not want to see Liston win because of his reputation as a cop fighter, union goon and other types of undesirable.”
Dan Daniel was a very knowledgeable boxing man and didn’t share the view of some that Patterson could repeat his Johansson trick and take Sonny in a return match. That return was cemented into the original contract. “Possibly in a return match Liston would not again stop Patterson in the first round. Floyd might keep away for as many as eight minutes. However, in the light of what we saw in Chicago, this has to be doubted. Patterson was trounced so decisively in such fast time that it is impossible for me to envisage a reversal like the one Floyd achieved in his second encounter with Johansson.
“This Liston guy is no Johansson and I am not demeaning the Swede with his new, spiffy Italian wardrobe.”
In July 1963, at the Convention Center in Las Vegas, Patterson didn’t stay away from Liston for as many as eight minutes. Floyd lasted just four seconds longer than he did in Chicago before being bombed out again.
It seemed that the ashes of Floyd Patterson’s boxing career had been scattered in that Las Vegas ring, yet there followed a gradual and outstanding renaissance in the form of a nine-year autumn that catapulted the quiet man right back into the thick of the heavyweight championship picture and made him a big favorite of the fans in various popularity polls.
Beginning with a TKO victory over Sante Amonti in Sweden, Floyd won five fights in a row including top quality victories over Eddie Machen and George Chuvalo. The Chuvalo victory came after a peach of a fight over 12 rounds at Madison Square Garden that was voted the fight of the year for 1965.
Patterson was back and later that year he bid for his old crown once more when he challenged Muhammad Ali. Floyd was outclassed and badly pummeled before the fight was belatedly stopped in the twelfth round, but a back injury sustained early in the bout won him a huge sympathy vote for courage and persistence.
The defeat was a bitter blow for Patterson. In the run-up to the fight, he had emerged from his shell and been uncharacteristically bullish. “No matter how great he is, I will knock Clay out,” Floyd proclaimed. He even opened up for the first time about Cus D’Amato, who was no longer a member of his tightly-knit entourage. Patterson, gentlemanly as ever, explained to writer Ed Brennan the reasons for the D’Amato break-up with patience and no sense of vindictiveness.
“Many serious things caused the break-up between me and Cus that I wouldn’t talk about now or ever,” said Floyd. “But there were a few minor things that I can talk about that helped the break-up. One of the things was that cloak and dagger stuff for my first fight with Ingemar Johansson. I was young and depended on Cus to do everything right for me.
“But all of a sudden I started reading in the newspapers about gangsters being in the background as promoters of the fight. I read that D’Amato was trying to get Johansson to leave his Swedish manager Edwin Alquist and sign with a friend of Cus. I tried to get some answers to these things from Cus, but all I got was a lot of nothing talk. Another thing was that Cus resented me getting educated by talking to writers like yourself all over the world.
“When I won the title I was only 21. Cus did all my thinking and talking for me. He even told me what to tell you writers. But like I said, I got educated travelling around the world meeting writers and successful businessmen. Cus also forgot I was getting older. I told him many times I wanted to think and talk for myself. But he wouldn’t listen to me. This caused arguments between us.
“These are only a couple of minor reasons why we broke up. The serious reasons you probably wouldn’t believe if I told you.”
Undeterred by his unsuccessful challenge against Ali, Floyd rolled on and came off a 10-month layoff to score an electrifying fourth round knockout over Henry Cooper in London in a tense and explosive battle of left hookers. Two exciting fights with Jerry Quarry won Patterson further plaudits, despite the fact that he drew the first and lost the second on a majority decision. There were a great many who believed Patterson had won both fights and a great many more who believed he was robbed in 1968 when he challenged Jimmy Ellis for the WBA crown in Sweden. Referee and sole arbiter Harold Valan gave Jimmy the fight by nine rounds to six, but the debate on who really won the bout is still discussed in boxing forums to this day.
Floyd didn’t protest the decision, winning even more support for his graciousness. Was his career finally over? Floyd certainly seemed to hammer a nail in his fistic coffin with a very Patterson-like response to the offer of a return match with Ellis from Madison Square Garden director, Harry Markson. The offer was accompanied by a $100,000 guarantee, but Floyd turned it down. He cited “mental unreadiness” as his reason.
He didn’t fight again for another two years, and when he did come back he seemed to drift with no great purpose. Wins over Charley Green, Levi Forte, Roger Russell, Terry Daniels, Charley Polite, Vic Brown and Charlie Harris did little more than pad Floyd’s record.
He was 53-7-1 when he finally landed another big fight and took on Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in February 1972. The Floyd faithful were treated to one last blast of vintage Patterson as the former champ shrugged off a fourth round knockdown to win a ten-rounds unanimous decision. It was another verdict that was strictly in the eye of the beholder. Those not romanced by Floyd’s now cult-like status felt that Ringo had done enough to get over the line.
A final career win over Pedro Agosto propelled Patterson into a second fight with Muhammad Ali, seven years after their first encounter. Nobody seriously expected the outcome to be any different and it wasn’t. But Floyd tried hard. All through his career, he tried hard and tried his best. He did well in the early going as Muhammad coasted with the air of a man who knew he was going to be the winner again. Judge Tony Castellano had the fight level going into the seventh round, but Ali’s sharp punching had left Floyd with a cut and a swollen face and the fight was stopped at the end of the seventh.
As ever, Floyd’s huge band of New York supporters had been only too happy to see their modest hero giving his all again. Locked in their memories were the glory days in the Old Fun City when Floyd left-hooked Johansson into dreamland and outslugged the tough Chuvalo in a rip-roaring thriller. Maybe, just maybe, their Floyd could turn back the years and do it all again. But they loved Floyd the sporting loser as much as they loved Floyd the winner. They didn’t know then that it would be the last time they would see him in the ring. Enigmatic and mysterious to the end, Patterson faded gently from the scene without officially announcing his retirement.
Mike Casey is a Boxing.com features writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).