- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

Even in the moment of his greatest triumph, Floyd Patterson was afraid.

Afraid he had killed a man.

On the night of June 20, 1960, at New York’s ancient Polo Grounds, this most sensitive of prizefighters set out to avenge the stunning loss of his heavyweight championship to Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson nearly a year earlier. He succeeded with two monstrous left hooks in the fifth round. The first put the Swede down for a nine-count. The second, a leaping and terrifying swat, made Patterson the first ex-heavyweight champ to regain his title.

If Patterson did not hate Johansson — and such an emotion would have been very much out of character — he at least hated what “Ingo” had done. By knocking Patterson down seven times in the third round of their first fight, Johansson exposed the New Yorker as a fraud and then bragged about it.

Two subsequent one-round knockouts by Sonny Liston would prove Patterson a mediocre fighter against top opposition, but at the time many considered his beating by Johansson a fluke. By winning their rematch so emphatically, Floyd seemed to be re-establishing his credentials as a notable and perhaps eventually an outstanding champ six years after becoming the youngest heavyweight title-holder ever.

After being counted out by referee Arthur Mercante with 1:51 left in the round, Johansson lay on his back for several minutes, blood trickling from his mouth and his left foot vibrating as though he had suffered a seizure. When a beaten fighter fails to arise soon after the knockout, fear clutches at the heart of everyone at the scene. Over the decades, hundreds of boxers have died in the ring or soon after in this most brutal of sports.

As he watched Johansson take his extended sojourn in dreamland, Patterson’s satisfaction turned to fear. Breaking loose from his overjoyed cornermen, he knelt, cradled his victim’s head in his arms and possibly prayed. When Johansson showed signs of reviving, Patterson kissed him on the cheek — unbelievable though that sounds — and gently promised him a return match.

It is impossible to envision such humanitarian behavior by Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier or just about any other fighter whose name you care to summon.

Boxers can be, and often are, nice people forced into a mean profession because it is the only way they can earn a decent living. But the nature of the game demands a “get him before he gets you” mentality that does not encourage great compassion among participants.

But Patterson, who died last week at 71 after an eight-year battle against Alzheimer’s disease, was a man apart — one whose personality permitted none of the blather and braggadocio displayed by most of his peers. In fact, insecurities plagued him throughout his checkered career. Later Patterson admitted he had come to the Polo Grounds with a fake beard and mustache in his gym bag — the better to escape in relative anonymity if he lost. He did not need the disguise that night, but it served him well two years later after the first of his disappearing acts against Liston.

“Floyd lacks the killer instinct,” said Cus D’Amato, who managed both Patterson and Mike Tyson early in their careers. “He’s too tame, too nice to his opponents. I’ve tried all the psychology I can think of, but he just doesn’t have a zest for viciousness.”

Yet in his second encounter with Johansson, Patterson certainly had a zest for fighting. According to the New York Times, he “outboxed the Swede at every turn, withstood Johansson’s famed right hand, then showed power sufficient to bring him the triumph with two quick, sharp strokes.”

Or to put it more succinctly, Floyd beat his pants off. The Times reported Johansson “had a slow and staggering trip” from the ring to his dressing room where the New York Giants baseball team had been quartered before moving to San Francisco after the 1957 season.

As midnight approached, Johansson emerged from the dressing room sporting swollen lips and a blue welt under his left eye. He would not speak, his manager told reporters — maybe tomorrow. Really, what was there to say? After basking for 360 days in the accolades and attention the heavyweight champion used to command, he and his “Toonder and Lightning” right hand were mere laborers in the vineyard of fisticuffs.

We don’t really know how Patterson celebrated, if he did at all. In victory as well as defeat, Patterson remained an introspective man willing to be in the public’s eye only for the hour or less it took to conduct a fight.

The two met in the ring a third time nine months later, and this time Patterson dispatched Johansson in six rounds at Miami Beach. Perhaps the Swede disliked boxing as much as his rival. He fought just four more bouts, winning them all in 1962 and ‘63, before putting his gloves aside for good.

Unfortunately, Patterson kept on for a decade. He lost the two quickie championship fights to Liston. He lost another to Ali in which “The Greatest” proved anything but that by taunting Floyd as an “Uncle Tom” and propping him up for 12 rounds in order to administer a fearful beating. He lost a decision to WBA champion Jimmy Ellis. At the end of his career, the feeling was that he might lose to Tiny Tim if the two were to trade blows. (After all, anything is possible in boxing.)

But if Floyd Patterson’s lasting image is that of a loser, it’s only fair to recall a night when he proved, briefly, that he was the best heavyweight in the world.

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