Floyd Patterson’s name may not register with fight fans of the Floyd Mayweather generation, but Patterson was a groundbreaking heavyweight champion. He was the youngest man to win the title and then the first to regain it after losing it. From 1952, when he was a gold medalist on a historic U.S. Olympic boxing team, until his final professional fight 20 years later, Patterson made headlines in both the sports sections and front pages of newspapers across America.
Patterson’s support of the civil rights movement made him a controversial figure, never more so than on Nov. 22, 1965 -- two years to the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- when he challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown. Ali was in his prime, having surprised the boxing establishment 18 months earlier when he defeated the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston to become champ.
By embracing the Nation of Islam and forsaking his “slave” name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali became a polarizing figure. As Clay, he had not been popular with boxing fans, many of whom dismissed him as a loudmouth so deficient in the fundamentals that he didn’t even know how to keep his hands up in the ring. But as Muhammad Ali, he was widely despised by Americans who didn’t even follow boxing.
Many fans, including the likes of Frank Sinatra, therefore hoped that Patterson would defeat Ali and “win the title back for America.” The first Ali-Patterson fight became one of the most hyped in history, as well as one of the most misunderstood, according to author W.K. Stratton. In his new book, “Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion,” Stratton takes a fresh look at the relationship between Patterson and Ali. Stratton decided in part to write the book after learning that Ali ranked Patterson with Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier as the four best fighters he ever fought.
Sports on Earth contributor Alex Belth had the chance to speak to Stratton about Patterson’s legacy, and particularly his encounters with Ali, including the storied clash in 1965, one that Stratton says was not the grudge match that popular legend has made it out to be.
Q: Can you explain the two Ali fights, especially the first one, which is not remembered accurately?
A: Ali-Patterson I is one of the least understood major heavyweight fights. In the hagiography of Muhammad Ali, it is accepted as the fight in which Ali tortured the “Uncle Tom” Floyd Patterson for insisting on calling Ali by his slave name, Cassius Clay. It was much more complicated than that.
The relationship between Ali and Patterson goes back to the 1950s, when Ali was inspired by Patterson's example to dream about becoming heavyweight champ. Ali and Patterson were in each other’s company at the 1960 Rome Games, where Floyd visited the American boxing team as a former gold medalist and where Ali would win the gold medal himself as a light heavyweight. Patterson seemed to find Ali amusing. Ali composed a poem extolling Patterson.
Q: Of course, their politics were different.
A: As a civil rights activist, as someone who favored the desegregation of America, Patterson did not support the Nation of Islam. And he was chagrined when Ali announced his conversion shortly after winning the title from Sonny Liston. There was a genuine area of disagreement between two men, who otherwise respected each other. Now, you have to keep in mind, too, that one of Ali's mentors was the professional wrestler Gorgeous George, who advised him that he could make a lot more money as a villain than he could as a hero. So Ali, who had a genius for fight promotion, would play up his villainous role. He sidled up to Patterson before their fight and, essentially, said, “You want to make some money, Floyd? Play along.” Patterson understood the shtick.
Q: So it was showbiz.
A: Part of the deal was willing participation on both sides to build up the gate and the closed-circuit viewing audience. Floyd related shortly after the fight that the famous confrontation at Patterson's training camp at which Ali showed up with a bag of carrots and called Patterson "The Rabbit" was indeed a publicity stunt, something that Ali felt he had to do. About the name thing: Patterson told W.C. Heinz that it was difficult for him to pronounce the word Muhammad, and that's why he continued to call Ali “Cassius.” Maybe that's true. Remember, Floyd had difficulty as a child learning to speak. Perhaps some words did cause him problems. Maybe it was because it was a "Muslim" word. Shortly after the fight, Patterson asked Ali if it was all right if he called him Cassius. Ali smiled and said, "Anytime, Floyd." Seven years later, when they fought for the second time, Ali said something to the effect that, yes, Patterson still called him Cassius and Floyd was the only person he allowed to do so.
Q: Patterson was not in a good position heading into his first fight with Ali, was he?
A: Just weeks before the fight, Patterson’ trainer Dan Florio died unexpectedly. This was a huge blow to Patterson having any chance of winning. Patterson turned to Frank Sinatra for advice. Sinatra had invested himself emotionally in this fight. He hated Ali at the time and all he stood for, wanted Floyd to win the title back for America, whatever that might mean. Sinatra recommended Al Silvani as a replacement for Florio. Silvani was experienced, but he was a stranger to Patterson. Then, during training leading up to the fight, Patterson slipped a disk in his back. He should have postponed the fight, but he kept quiet about the injury and went into the ring.
Q: So it was a fight that shouldn’t have been, at least not at that moment.
A: Exactly. Ali went into his act, calling Patterson an Uncle Tom, The Rabbit, White America -- all those things. And those comments were not lost to anyone at ringside. But it quickly became apparent that Patterson was injured. Silvani and Buster Watson, another of Patterson's trainers, were trying to pop his back into place between rounds. As the fight progressed, Floyd became less mobile and it was clear that he was in a lot of pain. This was especially clear to Ali, who expected the referee to stop the fight.
I found a fascinating interview with Ali that Howard Cosell conducted shortly after the fight, in which Ali explained what was going on. He knew that Floyd was hurt, and to his way of thinking, it would bring him no pride to injure a man who was already hurt. So he essentially backed off, waiting for the fight to be stopped. But the ref let it go on. Patterson was perplexed. Floyd said later that he'd never been hit with such soft punches.
Q: That’s another fact that goes against the prevailing myth of that fight.
A: Patterson kept expecting the knockout to come because by the middle rounds he couldn't defend himself. Now this fight would come to be reported as a kind of torture session, a sickening spectacle. Here's how one story on ESPN.com put it: "Instead of scoring a quick KO, Ali mocked, humiliated and punished Patterson throughout before knocking him out in the 12th round."
Q: But that wasn’t the case at all.
A: Ali picked up things in the 12th because he felt like he had to in order to get the fight stopped. Floyd left the ring, again, having never felt such soft blows. But he was unmarked. And Ali's jabs could do real damage when he wanted them to. Remember Liston's face after the conclusion of the first Ali fight? Well, he could have done that to Patterson, but he didn't.
At the time, Patterson was widely criticized by boxing writers for not postponing the fight because of his back injury. But that doesn't fit into the hagiography of Muhammad Ali, does it? Patterson's back is almost never mentioned. Ali's interview with Cosell is forgotten. Unfortunately for Patterson, that Uncle Tom thing stuck in the minds of a lot of people, when clearly he was anything but an Uncle Tom. We sort of run into the “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” principle here, as far as most accounts of the fight go: When the truth conflicts with the legend, print the legend.
Q: And then they fought a second time, but it wasn’t the same kind of fight.
A: Ali-Patterson II was a ho-hum affair from the beginning, although a lot of people showed up at the Garden to cheer for Patterson, the hometown hero. But Floyd was in his late 30s, and while he never neglected his gym work and running, he was clearly nothing at all like the fighter he had been at the peak of his career. Ali was in a rough stretch of his own career. He'd been beaten convincingly by Joe Frazier 18 months earlier, and while he was on a run of defeating some pretty good heavyweights, just six months after he fought Floyd, Ken Norton would give him a solid beating, breaking his jaw in the process, and handing him his second defeat. And George Foreman was honing in on Frazier's title, and most knowledgeable boxing fans were thinking that Foreman, not Frazier, not Ali, was the best heavyweight around. So it was kind of an odd period.
Ali received some criticism for even making the match with Patterson, who was considered to be washed up. Cosell was the loudest critic, but he learned from Ali -- and had it confirmed by Bob Arum -- that Patterson was in some tax difficulties with the IRS and needed a payday. So Ali helped him out. Hardly something you would do to someone you once tortured for being an Uncle Tom, you know?
Q: What about that fight itself?
A: It wasn't much of a fight. Ali managed to get a big right hand through Floyd's defenses, cutting him. After six rounds, the fight was called because of the cut and swelling around it. Interesting to look at the scorecards, though. One judge had it 3-3, another had it 4-2 in favor of Ali. Referee Arthur Mercante, who would also score the fight, had all six rounds for Ali, but it was interesting that the other two judges had it much closer. It was Patterson's last fight, although, sort of famously in boxing circles, he never retired. He never announced that he was quitting. He just went back to New Paltz (N.Y.) and kept on training. Interesting to me is that Ali ended up with a record of 56-5 and Patterson ended up at 55-8-1. Fairly similar, although Patterson is lacking the big wins over guys like Liston, Foreman and Frazier.
Q: So even though his career is overshadowed by Ali’s -- and he was certainly not alone in this -- how would you rate Patterson as a heavyweight champion?
A: Was he a great champion? No. But he was one of the most important heavyweight champs of all time because of the records he set, because of the role he took as a political activist, because of the way he bridged eras in boxing, and because of the ways he changed the sport. His importance reached beyond boxing to other sports and to the world beyond sports. He was a terrific guy. He had one hell of a story -- a story that even after you know it, you still can’t figure it all out, and that’s always the best kind.
Alex Belth has operated Bronx Banter, a sports and culture site, since 2002. A contributor to Sports Illustrated and Deadspin, he is the editor of "The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan" and "Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories," as well as the author of "Stepping Up," a biography of Curt Flood. Belth's profile of the late boxing writer George Kimball will appear in "The Best Sports Writing 2012," due out next month.