The Great Comeback: Floyd Patterson

By Mike Casey on April 11, 2012
The Great Comeback: Floyd Patterson
Why would we want to twist and distort the brave and honorable career of Floyd Patterson?

Patterson was a deeply sensitive man, the kind of rare soul who rarely uttered a derogatory word about others…

Somewhere within the dreadful fog that comes with Alzheimer’s Disease, I hope that Floyd Patterson considered that he had finally beaten his toughest opponent. Not Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali or Ingemar Johansson. Floyd’s greatest tormentor was a shy, gifted and sometimes brilliant man who never stopped feeling incomplete and frustrated by his genetic flaws. That man, of course, was Floyd Patterson.

In 1962, Patterson wrote a book called Victory Over Myself, which has since become something of a collector’s piece. It said everything about Floyd, who wrestled for most of his life with the notion that he didn’t quite belong in that special part of the stratosphere where he had aimed his ambitious rocket.

His 64-fight record, which embraces the famous ‘firsts’ of being the youngest man to win the heavyweight championship and the first to regain it, is nevertheless a tale of what might have been. He was crushed by Johansson. He was devastated by Liston. He was humiliated by Ali. Take those fights out of his record, people say, and we would now be putting Floyd up there with the greatest.

Well, we cannot rewrite history or pretend it never happened, and we all know it. Nor can we put a positive spin on emphatic calamities. Why, in any case, would we want to twist and distort the brave and honorable career of Floyd Patterson? Floyd was Floyd as much for his weaknesses as his strengths.

When the storms of his career lashed him and drove him to his knees, Patterson didn’t bore us with excuses that didn’t wash. He didn’t denigrate his conquerors. He didn’t rage about the injustices of a cruel sport. Most importantly of all, he didn’t quit.

Let me now tell you an uplifting story of courage and fortitude in the face of adversity.

Dedicated

Floyd Patterson, intensely proud and fiercely dedicated to his sport, was a puzzling figure from the beginning to the end of his boxing journey. He once said that pride and dignity were the greatest qualities a man could have. If you charted Floyd’s twenty-year professional career, you saw a fellow who was constantly plagued by the obsession of proving himself as a fighter and a man.

Patterson lost just eight fights in his career but regarded each as an affront to his very manhood. The feeling that he had failed himself often led to eccentric behavior as he sought a private place to heal himself. After Sonny Liston blitzed him in a single round at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1962, it was said that Floyd donned a disguise, jumped into his big Lincoln and drove through the night back home to New York.

The Lincoln had apparently been parked outside the Comiskey ballpark since 9:00 pm, stocked with food and drinks in case its owner had to make a quick escape.

One of the most poignant sequences of photographs in boxing’s archives is that of Floyd in his dressing room after the Liston defeat. Tired and confused and facing down the urgent questions of hustling reporters, Patterson struggled to clear his head and come to terms with what had happened to him. “I’m not hurt physically,” he confessed, “but inside I hurt.”

A year later, he had to re-live the nightmare as Liston again destroyed him inside a round.

But there had been another disastrous night, much more protracted and painful in its brutality. On June 26, 1959, at Yankee Stadium, Floyd made the fifth defense of his world championship against the lightly regarded Swedish challenger, Ingemar Johansson. Few believed that Patterson would lose to the handsome European playboy, who had a mighty right hand and a mighty taste for the kind of pleasures that aren’t found in the average boxing gym.

Yet there was always that underlying feeling of uncertainty about Johansson, that faintest whiff of imminent danger that the more astute members of the American fight fraternity picked up on immediately. Ingo’s method of training utterly bewildered those who look but fail to see. Purposely, the mysterious challenger had used his right hand sparingly and not to its full potential. That right hand was known as the Hammer of Thor and Johansson made a point of keeping it in mothballs as the gullible came to mock him. He was seen as a good time Charley who was riding a lucky streak and would be hugely found out by a fighter of Patterson’s caliber.

Ingo was unbeaten but who had he beaten? Respected but limited second tier operators like Joe Erskine, Joe Bygraves, Heinz Neuhaus and Franco Cavicchi. Journeymen like Archie McBride.

The one spanner in the works, the blistering statement of intent that had lifted Johansson into dark horse territory, was a one-round annihilation of top ranking Eddie Machen, who had been shockingly and violently smashed down by Thor’s hammer.

Tell it to the guys who know in Vegas. They made Ingo a 5 to 1 underdog and looked forward to the day when Patterson, wrapped in cotton wool by manager Cus D’Amato for so long, would finally fight a live one in that big brute, Sonny Liston.

Terrible

It was terrible to watch then and it is still terrible to watch now. Perhaps the third round of the Yankee Stadium slaughter came as such a shock because the preceding two rounds had been so gentle and uneventful. Then it happened—an almighty blast from Johansson’s almost mystical right fist. Patterson crashed onto his back and never recovered. Six more knockdowns followed as Floyd staggered drunkenly through the punishing nightmare.

At one point he turned away in his confusion, brushing his face with a glove, strolling casually in no man’s land as if convinced that he had found the exit and had entered a pleasant little park far from the madding crowd. Fighting instinct and inner courage kept making him clamber to his feet. Finally, referee Ruby Goldstein woke up to the dreadful reality and stopped the biggest heavyweight massacre since Dempsey’s battering of Willard forty years before.

On the surface, Johansson’s victory was awesome. It was a victory that fooled the world. Nat Fleischer, the late and legendary dean of boxing experts, hailed Ingo’s triumph as ‘a new era in boxing.’ Said Nat of Ingo, “He should have no trouble taking the measure of Floyd again and of any of the heavyweights now rated among the world’s top ten.”

In retrospect, it is easy to be smug and point to subsequent events. But in the summer of 1959, it seemed as if Johansson was force of nature in the footsteps of Dempsey, Louis and Marciano.

Ingo had wiped out Patterson with contemptuous ease. Few gave Floyd a chance of winning back his coveted crown when the return match was announced. Regaining the world heavyweight championship was a feat that had never been accomplished. Jeffries, Dempsey, Louis and others had all failed. Patterson, in his fragile state, seemed the unlikeliest of pioneers.

Floyd had never been a great champion. Overprotected by Cus D’Amato, Patterson was accused of dodging the top contenders like Liston, Machen and Zora Folley. Those men the champion had faced—Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, Pete Rademacher, Roy Harris and Brian London—had not been despatched with the authority and conviction expected of a thoroughbred champion.

What Floyd Patterson did possess was burning pride and the key assets of dedication and determination. Floyd had not lost his fighting spirit. To his eternal credit, he never did. Over the next year, he became a man with a mission as he committed himself to the seemingly impossible task of regaining the title. Gripped by self-doubt and insecurity, he knew that beating Johansson was the only way of exorcizing the demons and redeeming himself.

Patterson went into seclusion for a long period after the first fight, and it was some time before he could bring himself to watch the film of the Yankee Stadium nightmare. He continued to live the life of a monk as he embarked on his training program for the return contest. Throughout his time in camp, he pounded sparring partners and punching bags with uncharacteristic viciousness. Divorcing himself from the outside world was a tortuous but necessary part of his schedule, because honing the correct mental approach was every bit as important as drilling himself into perfect physical condition.

The often insensitive questions of an inquisitive press and public would have been distracting and damaging to his state of mind. Patterson was a deeply sensitive man, the kind of rare soul who rarely uttered a derogatory word about others. It puzzled him when confronted by those who did not share his simple and honest view of life. Alone, he could shut out the distractions and concentrate on cultivating an art that didn’t come easily to him: the art of being ruthless.

Revenge

Floyd’s master plan for revenge entailed a lot of hard work and a lot of lonely days and nights. But when the time came, he was ready to meet the greatest challenge of his life. The Floyd Patterson who fought Johansson at the Polo Grounds in the summer of 1960 was arguably the coldest and most single-minded version of Patterson we ever saw. There was a bloody job to be done, and boxing’s Dr. Jekyll handed the assignment to his to his brutal alter-ego, Mr. Hyde.

Floyd had the advantage over Ingo before either man even stepped into the ring. While Patterson was dedicated to becoming champion again, Johansson was dedicated to enjoying the spoils of being the reigning king. Ingo had been enjoying the attention lavished on him by a fascinated American public and had guest starred in a number of TV shows and movies.

The Swedish champion was a promoter’s dream. Handsome, colorful and loaded with charisma, Ingo looked the perfect athlete. His power of punch, that mighty and frightening right hand, was being compared to the great champions of the past. Ingo had come a long way since his failure at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he had been disqualified against the American, Ed Sanders. While the depressed Patterson had spent a year struggling to recapture his confidence, Johansson appeared relaxed, buoyant and self-assured.

The majority of boxing experts were convinced that a second Ingo victory was the safest bet in town and the gateway to lucrative matches against Liston and the other top contenders. Johansson himself seemed equally convinced. He had complete faith in himself and his ability, which undoubtedly contributed to his subsequent downfall. What Patterson lacked, Ingo possessed in too great an abundance. The champion even spoke of his Hammer of Thor as if the punch had a mind of its own and would always carry him through.

The first gentle vibes began to be felt. Perhaps, just perhaps, Johansson wasn’t such a sure thing after all. The more perceptive critics wondered if Ingo’s jet-set lifestyle was affecting his training. Even by his own relaxed standards, the champion’s lack of urgency and application was setting more than a few typewriters in clattering motion.

Nevertheless, Johansson came into the Polo Grounds ring as the firm favorite and in excellent shape, one and a quarter pounds lighter than he had been in the first fight at 194¾ lbs. It was Patterson’s weight that was the major surprise. At 190 lbs., Floyd was eight pounds heavier than he had been at Yankee Stadium. He looked superbly fit on it and the extra poundage would serve him well.

Executioner

To the naked eye, Johansson was still the same merciless executioner who had manhandled Patterson like a rag doll at the Yankee Stadium massacre. Ingo ceased to be that man as soon as the bell signalled the beginning of the second chapter.

The flame that had been burning inside Floyd for so long suddenly burst into a fire as the once hapless victim took charge and forced Ingo on the retreat. Johansson looked distinctly ill at ease as Patterson kept him off balance with stinging jabs and forceful left hooks. This wasn’t the way it was meant to be, and Ingo’s uncertain reactions to his opponent’s aggressive tactics clearly mirrored the champion’s confusion.

Ingo tried turning to one side in an effort to dodge the punches, but he was still being struck and he couldn’t steady himself to fire his own artillery. At times he bore the mildly astonished look of a man whose punching bag had suddenly started hitting him back.

Johansson’s supporters must have been disturbed by the early pattern of the fight. Their fears were briefly allayed in the second round, when their hesitant hero finally brought his right fist out of mothballs, crashing a heavy blow to the side of Floyd’s head.

The effects of that punch had a significant bearing on the rest of the fight. Patterson was stunned, but he didn’t go down and his positive reaction to a potential disaster added fuel to his new found fighting spirit. He backed off until his head had cleared and then coolly reverted to his battle plan.

Floyd’s principal aim was to retain the offensive role, so as to prevent Johansson from getting into his stride. His success in resisting Ingo’s first big punch of the night inspired Floyd to step up the pace in the next couple of rounds and increase his punching rate. Patterson’s snapping jabs jerked the champion’s head back with monotonous regularity, while Floyd’s famous leaping left hooks were portents of things to come. Some of them missed, but those that reached the target were solid and hurtful.

Johansson’s left eye was puffed and cut on one side and his wounds were repeatedly aggravated by each sharp punch that cut through his guard. Ingo wasn’t so much hurt as thoroughly bewildered, and he floundered awkwardly as he attempted to stem the flow and retaliate. But most of his punches were ineffectual jabs aimed at simply keeping Patterson away.

In the fourth round, Floyd turned up the pressure and pounded Johansson in close. Towards the end of the round, a right cross from Ingo snapped Floyd’s head back, but the old power was missing from Thor’s Hammer and the punch failed to check Patterson’s advance.

Floyd had passed through the barrier of vulnerability and reached that magical stage in a fight where an opponent’s punches no longer hurt. Coming out for the fifth round, Patterson was a tiger moving in for the kill, satisfied that his prey was ripe for the taking. Johansson, with his poor defence, had been courting disaster for too long and was now looking more susceptible than ever to a knockout punch. Battered and befuddled, he was leaving his legs wide apart and his chin woefully exposed.

Patterson set the time bomb ticking with a cracking right to the jaw that shook Ingo. Overeager, Floyd missed completely with his next punch, but then a flying left hook caught Johansson flush on the jaw and sent him down. With the dumbfounded look of a child who has just been told there is no Father Christmas, the champion found himself staring at referee Arthur Mercante and listening to the count.

Blood trickled from Ingo’s mouth and left eye as he made it to his feet at nine, but he needed more time and a place to hide.

Bombardment

The bombardment continued and Johansson was still desperately trying to escape when Patterson unleashed one of the most celebrated left hooks ever seen in a championship fight. The punch seemed to come from a mile back, but its arc was perfect and its timing immaculate as it crashed into Ingo’s face with Floyd’s full weight behind it. Jim Jacobs would later describe it as “a deep dish beauty.”

The blow was a strange and magnificent marriage of pure art and brute force, oddly complimented by Johansson’s fall. Ingo appeared to collapse almost in slow motion, one section of his body at a time. He came to rest flat on his back, blood running out of his mouth, one foot convulsively twitching, like an old gunslinger who had finally been beaten to the draw.

Referee Mercante’s count was a formality as the champion lay motionless, utterly oblivious to the commotion going on around him. Mercante removed Johansson’s mouthpiece and Patterson rushed over to assist the fallen king.

There had been a roar when that mighty left hook had cut Ingo down, but now the cheers were stifled as Johansson’s seconds and various ringside officials tried vainly to bring him round. Johansson needed a full eight minutes to sleep off the effects of the knockout punch, and he was still struggling to regain his senses when he was finally escorted to his stool.

Floyd Patterson, boxing’s quiet man, had won the most important battle of his life. For the first time since that black night at Yankee Stadium, he could look at himself in his shaving mirror without wanting to run away from what he saw.

That meant everything to Floyd, because if there was one man he wanted to beat more than Ingemar Johansson, it was Floyd Patterson.

Epilogue

What kind of man was Floyd? Several years later, after Sonny Liston’s aura of invincibility had been smashed by Muhammad Ali, Patterson visited the despondent Liston in his dressing room to offer him some words of consolation. It was a tough task. Liston just sat there, staring at the floor, brooding and silent. Patterson wished him luck anyway and was nearly out of the door when Liston’s distant voice mumbled two words: “Thanks, Floyd.”

Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

(www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/mike_casey)

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Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson I - June 26, 1959 - Rounds 1 & 2



Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson I - June 26, 1959 - Round 3



Ingemar Johansson vs Floyd Patterson II - June 20, 1960 - Rounds 1 - 3



Ingemar Johansson vs Floyd Patterson II - June 20, 1960 - Rounds 4 & 5



Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson III - March 13, 1961 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 6 & Interview



Patterson interview and liston



Interview with Floyd Patterson



Remembering Floyd Patterson



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  1. Mike Casey 08:49am, 04/01/2013

    Mike, thanks for your kind comments. I hadn’t checked back on this one for quite a while, so pardon my late reply.

  2. bikermike 04:13pm, 03/27/2013

    What Mike Casey’s essay pointed out…..is that a top ten contender..or a Champion can ...and was….and is still today…being protected by managers..promoters…

    When will Boxing fans get to see the best against the best…...like Tennis..for instance?
    There is a format to give fight fans….not promoters…the best the sport can give us..

    Exception….Pacquaio vs Marquez…...two top tuf guys going for the big one….as it should be
    last time…Ali Frazier…Ali Norton…

    good non titles…..Gatti Ward ...all of them..

    Promoters and managers don’t want to go ...ALL IN….as they used to

  3. bikermike 03:56pm, 03/27/2013

    HW Champion Floyd Patterson…(when there was one HW Champion on earth at the same time) had a property that not many fighters could claim…Then ..before and now…....CLASS

  4. bikermike 03:48pm, 03/27/2013

    Mike Casey….great read….lotsa facts and well written

  5. bikermike 03:42pm, 03/27/2013

    IF….if..if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle…..if i’d worn a contraceptive…I wouldn’t have given my wife the clap….if i woulda turned left ..I would never have crashed into that police car…if…if…

    IF Patterson would have stayed at Lt Hvy…..nobody would be talking about him today.;...or yesterday…

    Patterson came up ..in a time when steroids were not there….from a 160 lb Olympic winner…to a HW contender..then Champion…..TWICE

    You guys wanna see some good fights…Johannson…and Chuvalo….mid sixties

  6. bikermike 03:35pm, 03/27/2013

    Mike…
    lots to read here…maybe too much….but each and every word was true.

    Fight fans who never got to see Floyd Patterson….and his opponents…I say George Chuvalo vs Floyd Patterson ..1965///Fight of the Year…

    Remember ...Floyd Patterson was a Middleweight Olympic medal winner…
    That he could mess with HW and beat them..was a tribute to his talent

    I remember when the ‘ROASTS’ were being done ...Dean Martin…Don Rickles…even Sammy Davis Jr…etc…and Floyd Patterson was on the panel…to roast Muhammad Ali….

    Someone pointed out that it was Floyd Patterson who was the first HW Champion to win that Title Twice…...not Ali…..and he was correct…Floyd Patterson was a hell of a fighter….BIG TIME

  7. The Fight Film Collector 09:51am, 03/25/2013

    I’m certainly late in reading this outstanding article, but I can’t emphasize enough the injustice of the Ellis-Patterson decision.  Though the fight was competitive, Floyd was forcing and controlling the action from the middle rounds on, and essentially beat up a disfigured Ellis in the final three rounds.  Floyd had rarely looked better.  One cannot help but suspect the overseas hosting of this title fight, the single referee and judge, who didn’t know the difference between a knockdown and a slip (Ellis, as in the Quarry fight, tried to drag Patterson down with him in the 14th), gifted the fight to Ellis and rambled off excuses to a shocked Cosell including accusing Patterson of “posing” through much of the fight.  F’n fix.

  8. Gordon Marino 07:39pm, 04/20/2012

    Thanks so much for a wonderful piece. Floyd was my hero as a kid. Such a kind and strong man. Amazing that with all his demons he could accomplish what he did.

  9. mikecasey 08:58am, 04/16/2012

    Thanks Norm and Tex and all my good boxing brothers here.

  10. Norm Marcus 07:31am, 04/16/2012

    Mike: your article on Patterson really fleshes out the man. He was a troubled soul who deserved much better from the public. Always a good guy, a family man. He was a credit to the sport.
    Great read Mike, really enjoyed it!

  11. TEX HASSLER 01:20pm, 04/14/2012

    Floyd Patterson always acted like a man and was genuine nice guy. I personally feel that if Floyd had stayed at light heavyweight he might have been one of the greatest at that weight however the money was at heavyweight and Floyd did well financially. Mr. Patterson may be gone but he has a lot of fans. Great article Mr. Casey.

  12. Douglas E. Curran 09:31pm, 04/13/2012

    Great, wonderful article, one of the best ever on Floyd Patterson.  At age 12 read “Victory Over Myself” in the Fall of 1963, not long after both encounters with Liston and a few months before February 25, 1964 in Miami when the fighter then known as Cassius Clay upset the world.  In light of Patterson’s ups and downs, all well described in his autobiography (highly recommended),  even as a young teenager, one learns to be… philosophical.  But again, thank you for this rare, fine tribute.

  13. the thresher 10:00am, 04/13/2012

    I think FP beat Jimmy Ellis but I also think he got a gift draw agianst Quarry.


    Prime Ellis, FP, and Quarry were pretty darn near even guys.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:54pm, 04/12/2012

    Mike Casey-Your comment re: Ali’s reputation and refs and judges of that time is spot on. In my opinion this resulted in a prolongation of his career and the accumulation of ever greater physical damage.

  15. mike schmidt 09:53am, 04/12/2012

    Let us not forget he might have very well have had a “third” version of a heavy title- I think he got ripped big time in his fight with Ellis over in Ingo land- I think he won that fight fairly clearly. Your thoughts lads????

  16. mikecasey 08:17am, 04/12/2012

    Well, Joe, I would question whether Floyd got a ‘vicious whuppin’’ in the second Ali fight. I thought it was pretty even until Floyd’s facial injuries ruled him out. It certainly wasn’t 6-1 as Mercante had it. Muhammad’s reputation had swelled to ridiculous proportions by that time and a lot of refs and judges were being too easily swayed by it.

  17. the thresher 08:10am, 04/12/2012

    Floys was like Sara Lee, no one didn’t like him. He was a decent man who was unfornately identified with the wrong side when the turbulence of the 60s was brewing. He was, in retropsect, a tragice figure IMO.

  18. Joe 04:50am, 04/12/2012

    “The Rabbit” sure could take it - Ali gave him a vicious whuppin’ in my opinion in the first and second fight.  At least Sonny finished him quickly both times.

  19. john coiley 02:16am, 04/12/2012

    I was a child when this Patterson-Johansson exchange was the sporting news of the day. It scared me as an experience I’d never known. Reading of it now is like reliving the slaughter. Thanks, Mike, for keeping me awake this night…

  20. McGrain 12:53am, 04/12/2012

    Yes, the Machen fight especially is fascinating.  Machen was coming back from his nervous breakdwon, and Patterson was back on the title trail…i have some footage, it is a gratifying fight to be able to see.

  21. mikecasey 12:40am, 04/12/2012

    Matt, I think Floyd’s post-Liston career was very interesting and added to his stock. He scored a quality victory over Eddie Machen in Sweden, beat a very in-form George Chuvalo in an absolute classic at MSG and knocked out Henry Cooper in four rounds in London. I remember those last two fights from my childhood. Both were terrific. Floyd and Henry just kept teeing off on each other with big hooks and the sudden ending was electrifying.  I want to do one at some point on those autumn days of Floyd’s career. He also ran Jerry Quarry very close in two fights and many believe he beat Jimmy Ellis in ‘68.

  22. Matt McGrain 12:26am, 04/12/2012

    Love this.  But then I love Patterson.  It is telling to me that Patterson, upon being obliterated by Liston, managed a startling and interesting second act, whereas Liston, upon being destroyed by Ali, faded.  OK, there were circumstances to Sonny’s banishment, but there is some lesson concerned with being a man first and a fighter second there I think…very good read.

  23. mikecasey 12:02am, 04/12/2012

    Irish, you’re quite right - I remember that too!

  24. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:07pm, 04/11/2012

    Mike Casey—“I’m not physically…but inside I hurt”...says a lot about Floyd Patterson….I faintly recall what I believe was an interview years ago where Floyd described a street fight he witnessed in his very early days on the mean streets of New York. It was a very cold winter day and Floyd empathized deeply with one of the combatants who got punched in his very cold nose saying how much that particular punch must have hurt.

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