Tonight, 40-year-old Bernard Hopkins will try to regain his middleweight championship in a rematch against Jermain Taylor in Las Vegas.
But before Hopkins and Taylor meet tonight in the ring, there likely will be a 10-bell count honoring the memory of the greatest boxing writer of his time, Pat Putnam, who passed away Sunday at the age of 75 from complications after stomach surgery.
In the golden age of boxing, Putnam was the gold standard, covering boxing for Sports Illustrated from 1968 to 1995. He started covering boxing in 1960 for the Miami Herald, where he broke the story Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He traveled around the world for Sports Illustrated to places like Zaire and Manila, covering the heavyweight and his remarkable career.
They met in the legendary Fifth Street Gym on Miami Beach, on which Putnam wrote a Sports Illustrated article about its closing: “Chris Dundee’s gym on Miami Beach’s southern tip was nine years old when Ali and I arrived for the first time on nearly the same day in 1960, he from the Rome Olympics and me from the Miami Herald. As students with vastly different curriculums, we climbed the 15 stairs to the second floor loft a few thousand times. Willie Pastrano, who left the gym a 20-to-1 underdog and returned with the light heavyweight championship in 1963, despised those wide linoleum covered steps. ‘I’m on my way to [heck],’ he’d grumble, as he’d shuffle heavily upward each day at noon.”
Putnam was a great writer and an American original with heart, humor, brilliance and courage. He served two tours of duty in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War and won four Purple Hearts and the Navy Cross. He spent 17 months as a prisoner of war in Manchuria and carried pain and scars from that experience until the day he died. But he carried them deep inside, never putting them out for show or talking about the price he paid for his country.
In fact, within 10 seconds of a greeting from Putnam, you likely would hear a joke. His sense of humor was as renowned as his writing. Once before a fight in Reno, when Michael Buffer was in the ring introducing celebrities in the audience, Putnam, sitting ringside, shouted to Buffer, “Don’t forget Joe DiMaggio.” So Buffer, excited about the prospect of introducing the great DiMaggio, launches into this elaborate introduction, along the lines of, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a big Reno welcome for one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a member of the Hall of Fame who 50 years ago hit in 56 straight games. Let’s hear it for the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.” The crowd went wild, standing up to get a look at DiMaggio.
Of course, DiMaggio was nowhere near Reno that day.
Once, in the week leading up to the Larry Holmes-Ossie Ocasio heavyweight fight in Las Vegas in 1979, Putnam and Holmes’ trainer, Richie Giachetti, covered fellow boxing writer Michael Katz, who was sleeping by the hotel pool in a lounge chair, with newspapers. Then Putnam set the papers on fire. His story was that he had just read a book about the Norsemen and he wanted to see a Viking funeral.
Putnam, by the way, was the godfather to Katz’s daughter.
I always will remember the night I met Putnam. I came to The Washington Times sports staff in 1992 after covering news for the first 15 years of my newspaper career. I somehow had talked my way into the boxing beat and covered my first fight, Holmes challenging heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, in Las Vegas in June 1992. I had long heard of the Flame, the Las Vegas steak house that was the hangout for boxing writers and others in the business, and couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
When I got there, at the other end of the bar were Putnam; Katz, who covered boxing for the New York Daily News; and Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler. If you grew up reading about boxing, these were the writers you read. For me, it was like a baseball rookie meeting Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider at one time. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they welcomed me, and I survived the night — without being set on fire.
I learned from these men what to listen for and what to ignore, what was important and what was fluff and how to cut through the hypocrisy and get to the bone of the most colorful and corrupt sport on the landscape. But while I may have learned it, I have never come close to doing it as well as Pat Putnam.
Katz has since left the newspaper business and writes some of the most entertaining stories anywhere on the Internet at Maxboxing.com. Schuyler retired from AP and still writes articles for another Web site, thesweetscience.com. Putnam wrote for the same Web site, and you can find some of his old Sports Illustrated pieces, along with other articles he has done, on thesweetscience.com, such as his four-part meticulously researched series about the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight.
He wrote: “Johnson was the champion, but he only shrugged when they told him Jeffries had demanded to enter the ring last. With his patented smile firmly in place, and wearing a gray silk robe and royal blue tights held up by an American-flag belt, Johnson was first into the ring. There was only one shady corner and Johnson laid claim to it. When it was Jeffries’ turn, he entered wearing a gray business suit and gray golf cap, which he quickly shed, revealing a pair of natty purple trunks and an American-flag belt. Their gloves were skintight leather and weighed four ounces each. By the time both men were in the huge 28-foot ring, it was estimated that the day’s temperature had hit 110 degrees. After Jeffries made his grand entrance, he went to Johnson and asked if he would mind tossing a coin to see which got the shady corner. Johnson declined to toss, but then he graciously offered the corner to Jeffries, who quickly took it. By agreement, the two men did not shake hands.”
As the sport continues to fade into oblivion, people will crave stories about the days when boxing was a spectacle that captured the country. They will be able to go back to those times and relive them in detail because of writers like Pat Putnam, who left behind a legacy of words the likes of which we may never see again.