- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

The way it was

Over decades to come, Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson would be obscured in heavyweight boxing lore by the likes of Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. But in 1959 and 1960, they were the baddest men in the world's baddest sport.
Patterson was a beefed-up light heavyweight from Long Island whose grace and speed concealed for a time his lack of self-confidence and inability to take a punch. Johansson was a brute from Sweden with only one ring asset: a pulverizing right hand that he called "toonder and lightning."
They met twice in the waning days of June before great crowds in New York City. Before the first fight, on June 26, 1959, at Yankee Stadium, Patterson was considered likely to enjoy a long reign. A former Olympic champion, he had become at 21 the youngest man to win the heavyweight title when he knocked out the aged Archie Moore in November 1956. Four successful defenses followed against laughably mediocre opponents; one of them, Pete Rademacher, fought for boxing's most prestigious crown in his first bout as a pro.
Johansson, a 5-1 underdog, was not considered much of an upgrade, so the boxing world reeled along with the unexpected victim when the Swede cranked up and knocked down Patterson time and again before the referee stopped the fight in the third round.
Inexplicably, Patterson never used his speed to his advantage. Instead he stood there, as in a trance, and waited for Johansson to strike. After the first knockdown, Patterson arose and ambled dazedly toward his corner. Leaving a neutral corner and attacking from the champ's blind side, Johansson floored him again in an assault that resembled, author David Remnick was to write, an angry drunk splitting open another man's head with a beer bottle.
After the fourth knockdown, Patterson crawled about the canvas until his senses cleared and his eyes locked on those of actor John Wayne, sitting ringside. Patterson was to express embarrassment afterward that Wayne, a legendarily tough guy onscreen, should witness so inept a title defense in the House that Ruth Built.
Never had an ex-champion fled from humiliation as thoroughly as did Patterson. Leaving the ring, he borrowed a hat from one of his cornermen and attempted to hide under it a precursor disguise to the fake beard and mustache he donned several years later after being flattened in one round by Liston.
Early the next morning, Patterson recounts in his autobiography, "Victory Over Myself," his wife, Sandra, found him brooding in their den just before dawn. "Floyd," she said, "what good will it do sitting here in the dark thinking?"
Replied Patterson: "Will it do more good lying in bed in the dark?"
During the next three weeks, Patterson left his house twice, refused most phone calls and sank deeper into his depression. It lasted nearly a full year. Then it was time for him to regain his title and his pride the only way he could by smiting Johansson hip and thigh, among other areas.
The rematch was set for June 20, 1960, at New York's Polo Grounds across the Harlem River from the scene of Johansson's smashing victory 359 days earlier. No former heavyweight champion ever had regained his title, but this time the real Floyd Patterson showed up if it was possible to describe any of his complex and multiple personalities definitively. This time Patterson was angry, not only at the loss of his title and self-respect but at Johansson's injudicious bragging afterward. This time, perhaps, Patterson would allow his superior skills to prevail.
Not until the fifth round, however, did those skills bear significant fruit. Suddenly, Patterson was fetching Johansson two terrific left hooks, dropping him to one knee for a count of nine. When the Swede arose, wobbling, Patterson delivered one of his trademark leaping left hooks, and Johansson went down with a great crash. He lay there twitching, blood dribbling from his mouth and nose, as referee Arthur Mercante counted him out at 1:51 of the round.
Patterson, avenged, smiled at the crowd but when he turned back and saw Johansson still out cold, he was terrified that he had killed a man. When Johansson finally moved, Patterson knelt beside him, cradled his opponent's head in his arm and promised him a third fight possibly the last thing Johansson wanted to hear at that moment.
In his dressing room, Patterson admitted that he had brought the fake beard and mustache to the arena in case he lost. Then, presumably, he tucked the disguise away in a corner of both a drawer and his mind.
When he met Johansson for the last time nine months later in Miami Beach, Patterson knocked him out in the sixth round. Johansson was finished as a significant heavyweight, and Patterson would follow 18 months later with the first of his two devastating one-round knockouts by Liston.
Neither Patterson nor Johansson survives today as more than a blip on the heavyweight screen. Briefly, though, they commanded great interest among the sporting public at the end of the placid '50s and the beginning of the turbulent '60s.


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