This is the second installment in Carlos Acevedo’s After The Fall series looking at Floyd Patterson’s late career.
“He could have knocked Patterson out whenever he wanted, but let’s face it, Clay is selfish and cruel.” —Joe Louis
In Muhammad Ali, fresh off his Lewiston Stinkeroo, boxing now had a roiling new megastar, whose propulsion was fueled by equal parts hate and approbation, but whose talent was undeniable—even if his two boondoggles against Liston overshadowed it and kept cynical reporters railing between martinis. But the heavyweight division in 1965 was overrun by retreads. Some of them, including Eddie Machen, Zora Folley, and Cleveland Williams, were weathered holdovers from the Patterson era, when Cus D’Amato invoked his phony mafia war every time a contender with a pulse appeared on the scene.
By inserting himself into the Floyd Patterson-George Chuvalo promotion, Ali had succeeded in building up an opponent for his second title defense. And he had already earned the mellow wrath of Patterson, a timely feud that linked the two fighters in the public eye. When Ali announced his alliance with the Nation of Islam—colloquially known as the Black Muslims—Patterson spoke out against what he saw as an affront to the civil rights movement and the heavyweight championship of the world.
“Look, I don’t hate Cassius Clay but I dislike Cassius X and what he stands for,” Patterson told The New York Times in March 1964, less than a month after Ali had shocked Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. “I couldn’t hate Liston, because Liston only had a police record. So what’s a record? I had a record, too. Cassius X is part of a hate group in this country. He’s not a good example for Negroes. I’d like to fight him so much and feel determined because I’d like to get the championship away from the Black Muslims. I’ve hated the Muslims ever since that Malcolm X speech after President Kennedy’s death, the one about how the chickens must come home to roost.” Patterson even offered to fight Ali for free, with proceeds of the bout going to NAACP.
These words stung Ali, who shrugged them off at the time, but Patterson would not stop at the occasional newspaper quote. More than once, Patterson, with the help of his ghostwriter, Milton Gross, would expound, self-righteously, on his ideas concerning Ali and the NOI in the pages of Sports Illustrated. “I say it, and I say it flatly,” Patterson wrote, “that the image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation. Cassius Clay must be beaten and the Black Muslim’s scourge removed from boxing.”
Ali vowed that Patterson would pay for what he had written—in the ring. Now, Patterson was more than just a straight man, wide open for jokes about carrots and lettuce, more than just “The Rabbit.” To Ali, Patterson was now the symbolic embodiment of establishment America, the racist, imperialist state as channeled through a mild-mannered integrationist whom the ex-Cassius Clay would eventually label “The Black White Hope.”
Patterson, hoping to continue a miracle comeback that had the press and the public on his side for the first time in years, signed a contract to face Ali at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on November 25, 1965. Hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit TV viewers, intrigued by a matchup between an unpopular yet magnetic champion and a newly-esteemed challenger, gathered in theaters and arenas across the country to watch what turned out to be a live vivisection. Patterson was cruelly dismantled en route to a 12th-round TKO defeat.
As hagiography after hagiography about Ali has piled up, in volumes ranging from trade paperbacks to coffee table books to an outlandish $7,500 limited edition hardcover published by Taschen in 2003, it became less palatable to apply analytical thought to his actions—both inside and outside the ring. Ali has become a white-washed version of himself, immune to interpretation and, worse, criticism. Over the years, the fact that his bout with a virtually crippled Patterson was a manufactured torture session has been downplayed by revisionists holding fast to liberal mythology. But the fact remains that Ali had made it clear, repeatedly, that his showdown against Patterson was sparked by malice and that its endgame, stoppage via deliberate, drawn-out abuse, was planned from the moment the fight was signed. Indeed, perhaps even before Patterson had inked a contract.
In 1964 Ali was already looking ahead to a title defense against Patterson—and to the beating he would dole out, one punch at a time. “It’s going to be the first time I ever trained to develop myself a brutal killer instinct. I’ve never felt that way about nobody else. Fighting is just a sport, a game, to me. But Patterson I would want to beat to the floor for the way he rushed out of hiding after his last whipping, announcing that he wanted to fight me because no Muslim deserved to be champ. I never had no concern about his having the Catholic religion. But he was going to jump up to fight me to be the white man’s champion.”
Then, after Patterson had continued his public jihad in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Ali doubled-down on his hopes about the fight. “I want to see him cut, bruised, his ribs caved in, and then knocked out. I’m American, but he’s a deaf, dumb, and blind Negro who needs a spanking. You can play up that the fight is going to be a good one. I plan to make him an example to the world. I’m going to punish him for the things he’s said about me in magazines.”
To make sure that there was no misunderstanding about his objectives, Ali told reporters a few days before the opening bell: “I want to punish him. To cause him pain. You find out what a person don’t like, then give it to him. He don’t like to be embarrassed, because he has so much pride, so I’m going to make him ashamed. He is going to suffer serious chastisement.”
Indeed, Ali made his intentions clear in the opening round, when he did not throw a single meaningful punch at Patterson. There were some feints, a couple of straight-arms, and the occasional deliberate phantom blow (which, unlike in Lewiston, Maine, produced no knockdowns). This was Ali at his most meta, alerting the audience to his authorial control of the performance about to ensue. Like something out of Brecht, Ali inserted a self-reflexivity into his bouts that often brought them to the edge of post-modern theater. And where did Ali get the idea to “ghost” his opponent in the ring? Most likely, he got it from Floyd Patterson himself. In 1963, Gay Talese published his now-legendary profile on Patterson (“The Loser”) in Esquire. In it, Patterson fantasizes about what he would do in the ring to one of his fiercest celebrity critics, Anthony “Zorba” Quinn: “I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him. I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
After his Absurdist opening three minutes, Ali settled down to work behind his quicksilver jab. He also showed his unique ability as a flap-jaw, taunting Patterson throughout the fight and prompting Referee Harry Krause to admonish him for excessive chattering. “Come on, White America!” Ali growled through his mouthpiece.
Although Patterson had scored some of the best wins of his career while on the comeback trail, his chances against Ali, closing in on his dizzying physical prime, were nonexistent. To make matters worse, Patterson suffered from a herniated disc that flared-up during the fight, leaving him nearly defenseless after the fifth round. His back injury had limited his sparring during training, but Patterson insisted on going through with the fight. Certainly, he was aware that his slim odds against Ali were now narrower than ever, which is why, perhaps, Patterson had reportedly hired a hypnotist named Johnny Aladdin for some psychical support.
Reduced to throwing a single errant punch at a time, Patterson, twisted up in pain, could only use the long, long night as a showcase for his extraordinary courage and pride. In the sixth round, a barrage from Ali forced a groggy Patterson to take a knee, and after the eighth, Patterson could barely hobble back to his stool. Between the 9th and 10th rounds, the Patterson corner—led by Al Silvani and Buster Watson—became a lesson in chiropractic futility. Both men worked on Patterson throughout the fight.
Wounded and already weakened by the punishment he had received throughout the fight, Patterson was now a fighter on the edge of catastrophe. Finally, Referee Harry Krause stepped in to stop the massacre, with Ali ripping shots off at will. Patterson was disappointed in Krause for intervening. “I wanted to go down with something that would be worthy of a knockout,” Patterson would later tell Gay Talese.
After it was all over, after Ali had verbally and physically abused Patterson for more than half an hour, he revealed the unvarnished truth about his performance during a post-fight interview in the ring, just minutes after scoring the grisly stoppage: “I predicted that the way he’d been talking about me that I would give him a good whippin’ and I am so thankful that he did have the power to stand up like he did because that’s what he got—a good whippin’.” Later, Ali would walk back these remarks for an interview with Howard Cosell, but only the credulous could ignore the circumstances extant before, during, and after the fight.
The man with the best view of the action in the ring that night, Referee Harry Krause, seemed disgusted by the entire display. He told reporters what was obvious to most at the time but has since been downplayed by a potent combination of hero worship and identity politics. “From what I could see,” said Krause, “it was Clay’s intention to humiliate Patterson and to give him the worst possible beating without ending the fight.”
For the slumming literati—George Plimpton, say—or the radical chic set, in thrall to the Black Panthers and with pristine Grove Press editions of Frantz Fanon titles tucked in their sandalwood bookcases, or the pop culture vultures who have long confused doggerel with poetry, or worse, frivolous Gen Xers and Millenials, whose only exposure to boxing came from Ali television commercials or ESPN specials about “The Greatest” vis-à-vis hip-hop, professional comportment in a prize ring was an alien concept. Yet few fighters would knowingly shorten the career of an opponent, much less contribute to a potential diminished civilian life, the bleak future for numberless pugs, including Patterson, alas, and, ironically, Ali himself.
At a press conference the following day, Patterson, groggy after taking shots of xylocaine, revealed his essence as a fighter—and as a man: “I wanted to give all of you a much better fight. I hope I gave you some kind of showing.”