- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

On the morning of Sept. 25, 1962, while preparing to defend his heavyweight championship that evening against menacing Sonny Liston in Chicago, Floyd Patterson carefully packed his gym bag. Included were the usual pugilistic accoutrements — shorts, socks, shoes, supporter — and one extremely unusual accessory: a disguise.

Into that bag Patterson tucked a fake beard and mustache, the better to escape Comiskey Park hopefully unnoticed if he lost. And he did lose, of course, succumbing to the first of two one-round knockouts by Liston that forever after labeled him as a chump rather than a champ.

Heavyweight champions from Jack Dempsey to Lennox Lewis have advertised themselves as fearless flailers afraid of no opponent. Patterson did not fit the mold. Perhaps, considering his sensitive nature, he would have been better cast as an artist, musician or — heaven forbid! — a sportswriter. But we all play the cards we are dealt, and Patterson had a bad hand.

After his twin debacles against Liston and a subsequent taunting and battering by Muhammad Ali, who resented Patterson’s insistence on calling him “Cassius Clay,” it was very easy to feel sorry for Floyd. And when he died yesterday at 71 following an eight-year struggle with Alzheimer’s, the memories came flooding back of a fine man who probably was too human for his lousy profession.

Physically as well as psychologically, Patterson was ill suited to mix it up with heavyweights. True, he had an advantage — as did Ali — of hand and foot speed, but a mere 182 pounds rested on his 6-foot frame. In fact, trainer Dan Florio said, “if we ever put him on a diet, we’d soon have a middleweight on our hands.”

Nonetheless, Patterson rose through the decimated heavyweight ranks steadily after turning pro at 17 in 1952. Fortunately, for his continued health, he never encountered Rocky Marciano while that estimable pug ruled the division. But Marciano retired undefeated in 1956, and by the time Patterson got a title shot later that year, he had only to beat the aged Archie Moore to become the youngest heavyweight champ ever at 21 years, 10 months and 26 days.

His manager was Cus D’Amato, the same gentle soul who later started Mike Tyson on the road to short-lived glory. D’Amato was much too smart to book a fight with Liston, so Patterson successfully defended against such nonentities as British bleeder Brian London, Texas cowpoke Roy Harris and even Pete Rademacher, who incredibly was fighting for the title in his first professional bout. Even back then, when some people still took boxing seriously, the sport was capable of smelling to high heaven.

Patterson — quiet, polite and non-threatening — somehow seemed above it all. But his world came crashing down in less than 10 minutes on June 26, 1959, at Yankee Stadium, when a heretofore undistinguished Swede named Ingemar Johansson applied his “toonder and lightning” to Floyd’s jaw emphatically enough to knock him down seven times and out in the third round.

So much for invincibility. Though Patterson regained a measure of respect by flattening Johansson in two subsequent meetings and becoming the first man to regain the heavyweight title, he was an underdog to Liston in most boxing circles when D’Amato no longer could keep Sonny on the back burner.

In their two abbreviated bouts, Patterson personified Good to Liston’s Evil in the minds of most fans, especially since the glowering, illiterate Sonny had done time. When Patterson met John F. Kennedy in December 1961, the president told him, “You’ve got to beat this guy.” Presumably, such pressure did nothing to bolster Patterson’s shaky psyche.

Floyd did not react well for a boxer to the specter and actuality of defeat. After losses to Joey Maxim in 1954 and Johansson in ‘59, he suffered from severe depression. Following the latter defeat, he sulked for weeks in his living room with the curtains drawn rather than snarling, as most fighters would, “I’ll moider da bum next time.”

Somehow Patterson earned a final title shot against WBA champion Jimmy Ellis in 1968, losing a 15-round decision. He was still plugging away four years later when Ali knocked him out in seven rounds, Patterson’s last fight. He finished with a record of 55-8-1 with 40 knockouts, but the irony is that his two losses to Liston are remembered far more than the victories.

In later years, Floyd did his best to contribute to his ailing sport. He served two terms as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission but was forced to resign in 1998 when his televised deposition in a lawsuit revealed that he couldn’t remember much about his own career — perhaps the first sign of the Alzheimer’s.

In many ways, Floyd Patterson had an unfortunate life. To his credit, he persevered under unfavorable conditions, and that’s not a bad legacy for anyone.

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