This is the first installment in Carlos Acevedo’s After The Fall series looking at Floyd Patterson’s late career.
“How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout… Was I fooling these people all these years? …Was I ever the champion? … And then they lead you out of the ring …and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want to do is get to your dressing room, fast …but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made the wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end there was no dressing room there … and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, ‘Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room …’”
This time there would be no getaway disguise. Floyd Patterson, who had worn a prop mustache and beard combo—along with non-prescription glasses—to flee the madding crowd after being stopped by Sonny Liston in 1962, limited his escape plan for the rematch to flying a private plane out of Las Vegas. Although he faced the often-merciless newspaper reporters at a solemn press conference following his second kayo loss to Liston, Patterson was hoping to avoid milling in public. Unfortunately for Patterson, his Cessna overheated mid-flight and he was forced to turn back to the airport, where he sought refuge from accusatory looks in the nooks of a shadowy hangar while his co-pilot made new travel arrangements.
Few heavyweight champions had been so derided during their title reigns as Floyd Patterson. From farce to farce, newshawks mocked Patterson—despite their personal affinity for him—and lambasted his eccentric Svengali, Cus D’Amato, as a matter of reflex. Only Primo Carnera, the sad puppet whose fraying strings were pulled hither and thither by the mob, and Jack Sharkey, the Boston nudnik perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, compared to Patterson. As if to confirm the ridicule heaped on him over the years, Patterson was embarrassed by a seemingly nonchalant Liston in 130 seconds.
Ashamed and despairing, Patterson sequestered himself in his spartan Highland Mills training camp, where every switchback road might as well have led to a sign that read DEAD END. Or so it seemed. But Patterson could not walk away from the sport that had, essentially, saved his life. This is how Patterson once described what boxing meant to him: “When the bell rings, my No. 1 drive will be to partially repay a debt I owe to boxing. Who is to say what I would actually be if it wasn’t for boxing. A laborer? A truck driver? A bum? Surely, I had convict tendencies.” Patterson shunted aside thoughts of retirement and waited for his opportunity to return. When he did return to the ring, however, it would be without Cus D’Amato, whom Patterson had finally fired after years of deepening mistrust.
Because of his trilogy against Ingemar Johansson, Patterson had become something of a folk hero in Sweden, where his soft-spoken manner and overriding air of wholesomeness—a sharp contrast to the playboy philosophy of their own “Ingo”—marked him as a genuine sportsman. With the help of promoter Edward Ahlquist, Patterson was able to start his comeback away from the harsh scrutiny of the U.S. media.
On January 6, 1964, in his first start since being steamrolled by Liston, Patterson stopped an obscure Italian heavyweight named Santo Amonti in the 8th round in Stockholm. Although not much of a fight, it was a box-office blockbuster, and Patterson was ready to return to Sweden as soon as possible. The real surprise was that Patterson, freed from the short leash of D’Amato, would be facing a contender. Eddie Machen, as skilled as he was erratic, was a charter member of the Cus D’Amato Against Contenders Club. One of several ranked fighters D’Amato essentially blacklisted in the name of his mock holy war against the mafioso IBC (to D’Amato, of course, any big man with talent qualified as a de facto soldier of La Cosa Nostra), Machen would finally get a chance to glove up against the man who, as champion, had openly avoided him.
Lack of recognition, draining fights against other bypassed contenders, financial hardship—Machen suffered for years from being denied a shot at the championship. Even as the top contender to the heavyweight title, Machen was forced to moonlight as a bouncer in a nightclub. “The Number One challenger shouldn’t have to hold down a job,” Machen told the Saturday Evening Post. “That’s for when you’re on the way up. And it’s just asking for trouble–all those guys with a few belts in them thinking you don’t look so tough.” In 1962, Machen finally cracked from the stress and found himself interred in the psychiatric ward of Napa State Hospital. By the time Machen entered the ring against Patterson less than two years later, he was past his peak. For Machen, perhaps, it hardly mattered. His $75,000 payday, by far the biggest of his career, would compensate, to an extent, for some of the struggles of the past.
Patterson and Machen met on July 5, 1964, in Rasunda, Solna, Sweden. It was an uneventful fight, with Machen and Patterson mauling at close quarters, where Machen was unable to maximize his slick moves and counterpunching skills. Patterson, with his hand-speed and underrated defense still intact despite his violent tribulations against Liston, outworked Machen for a lopsided unanimous decision. Still, Machen was one of a handful of legitimate names Patterson had faced since turning pro in 1952.
(Although Patterson was revered in Sweden and paved the way for Muhammad Ali to profit from an exhibition tour later on and even opened the doors for Sonny Liston to mount his comeback in Stockholm, Sweden nonetheless outlawed boxing in 1970.)
With his win over a genuine threat, Patterson regained some of his fragile confidence and took aim at another formidable target. This time, Patterson focused on Canadian iron man George Chuvalo, whose reputation as a bruising warhorse had been cemented with a KO win over perennial contender Doug Jones in 1964.
The Patterson-Chuvalo showdown was not only a battle between ranked heavyweights, but it also allowed Muhammad Ali, between engagements with Sonny Liston and recuperating from surgery for a hernia, to enter the spotlight once again. In one of his milder stunts, Ali arrived at a workout Patterson had scheduled in Marlboro, New York, bearing a bag of lettuce and carrots, which he intended to give to Patterson, whom he had nicknamed “The Rabbit,” because of his timid nature. (Ali called Chuvalo “The Washerwoman.” In response to his nickname, Chuvalo interrupted his training in Miami to don a dress, a bonnet, and some haphazardly applied makeup, and stroll along Collins Avenue in Miami with a sign that read “Cautious Cassius Afraid to Fight This Old Washerwoman.”) On and on Ali taunted Patterson, who was not amused by antics he had never before encountered as a professional. But when Patterson, speaking from the ring to a glut of reporters, made the mistake of referring to Ali as “Cassius Clay,” things got uglier. An incensed Ali turned what had been a PR prank into something darker. “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he shouted. “I’m free. You got a slave name. You ain’t nothin’ but an Uncle Tom Negro. You Uncle Tom, I’ll jump right in there on you now.”
On February 1, 1965, Patterson and Chuvalo met in New York City in a grueling struggle that eventually was named Fight of the Year by The Ring. Madison Square Garden was sold out, a reflection not only of the solid promotional work done by Ali but also of just how popular Patterson remained to the general masses. Patterson may have been a mediocre champion, but his fights were unpredictable and often chaotic. His trilogy against Ingemar Johannson, for example, produced 13 knockdowns and none of his title fights had ever gone the distance. There was no telling what would happen when Patterson ducked through the ropes. To meet the demand of rabid New Yorkers, promoters released 700 S.R.O. tickets after traditional seating had been sold out, bringing the total attendance to 19,100.
No matter how poorly Chuvalo fared on the scorecards throughout his career (he was only stopped twice, and never floored, in ninety-three bouts), he succeeded, more often than not, at turning the ring into a crucible for his opponents. Patterson was no exception. Against the relentless Chuvalo, Patterson deviated from his pressing, bob-and-weave style, choosing to work more often from the outside, pumping his jab overtime and timing his offensive rushes. Whenever Chuvalo bore in close, Patterson would clinch to limit his offense. But Chuvalo would savagely bang away to the ribs and kidneys at every opportunity. In the late rounds, the two heavyweights, exhausted, opened fire on each other in desperate knockout bids. Remarkably, Patterson, who was shaken in the seventh and tenth rounds, remained vertical until the final bell.
After 12 bitter rounds, Paterson, who would see traces of blood in his urine for weeks to come, notched a hairpin unanimous decision in a fight Arthur Daley of The New York Times called “a shot of adrenalin to a dying sport.”
His improbable comeback now a proven success, Patterson looked forward to his new future, one that he had created himself. And that future was only a few feet away from him. At ringside, Muhammad Ali, providing commentary for the closed-circuit telecast, leaped to his feet, hands waving about, and bellowed: “I want you, Floyd Patterson!”