This is the final installment in Carlos Acevedo’s After The Fall series looking at Floyd Patterson’s late career.
“Glass jaw? I’ve been beaten, but only by champs. I’m still around after 17 years. If I had a glass jaw, could I have lasted so long? I have never been counted out. Let’s say, if it will make some people happy, that I have a glass jaw. But I also have an iron will. I may go down, but I get up.”
He was thirty-one years old now, at the center of the tumultuous heavyweight division since the Eisenhower era, a man whom New York Times columnist Arthur Daley had once heartlessly called “a born loser,” but whose entire identity seemed wholly bound in the rituals of prizefighting: the monastic camps, the isolated runs up and down dirt trails under fading stars, the discipline of training, the long walk to the ring. “When I think about retiring, my feet get very hot,” Patterson said. “I get chills. No more gym, no more roadwork… I say to myself, ‘You know, Floyd, you’re not going to live forever.’ Why always one more time? Why? I enjoy training more than anything else. Walking in the country. Wipe that out of my life? I could build a gym in my home, but it’s not the same. I don’t train to keep my body in shape, I train to have my body beaten. I’ve got to retire sooner or later, but I prefer later.”
When Floyd Patterson announced that he would continue fighting after his raw humiliation at the hands of Muhammad Ali, he exposed himself to further ridicule from those who had viewed him as a punchline for nearly a decade. Worse, pursuing his hazardous trade led to a divorce from his first wife, Sandra, who moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, children in tow.
For Patterson, the loss of a few other personal relationships was not nearly as traumatizing. “The good days ended for me seven years ago after my second fight with Ingemar Johansson, but they began again after I was beaten by Clay in Las Vegas,” Patterson told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. “It’s a strange thing to say, but fortunately for me, I lost that fight. My phony friends thought I was washed up and there was nothing left they could get out of me. Like rats, they deserted the ship and now they are too embarrassed to come back.”
Less than a year after the debacle against Ali, Patterson was in Wembley, England, bloodying Henry Cooper en route to a knockout win. Two more tune-ups in early 1967 put Patterson in position for another headline event, this time against Jerry Quarry, a West Coast sensation with a cracking left hook. The two contenders were set to face off on June 6, 1967.
Once again Patterson found himself a sentimental favorite. Not only had oddsmakers tabbed him over Quarry—as a nostalgic gesture, perhaps—but fans attended his open workouts at the Hacienda Hotel in droves. After training sessions, an obliging Patterson would sign autograph after autograph for his admirers.
In California, Jerry Quarry, the handsome prospect whose Dust Bowl family rivaled the Conns for dysfunctionality, was as hot as The Doors or “Good Vibrations,” and his showdown against Patterson drew over 22,000 fans to the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. At ringside sat Don Rickles, Burt Lancaster, Ricardo Montalban, and Senator George Murphy.
Those who suspected Patterson was nothing but an aging patsy for the rising Quarry nodded calmly as Patterson hit the deck twice in the second round. But they were probably shocked to see Patterson regroup, draw first blood, and drive Quarry from corner to corner over the next few rounds. In the seventh, Patterson scored a debatable knockdown that tightened the scorecards, and he rumbled with Quarry until the final bell. After ten grueling rounds, the fight was ruled a draw, a decision that left the crowd befuddled. Certainly, Quarry, bleeding from his mouth, cut above his right eye, sporting multicolored bruises that suggested something from Matisse, did not resemble a winner. Disappointed, but still well-mannered, Patterson shared his Zen outlook in a post-fight interview. “The officials saw it as a draw,” he said. “That’s good enough for me. We gave the people a good fight. They got their money’s worth, didn’t they?” They would get that, and then some, a few months later, when Patterson would return to Tinseltown for revenge.
No sooner did Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali refuse to step forward during draft induction proceedings in April 1967 than the retrograde, reactionary WBA stripped him of his title for claiming conscientious objector status. A few weeks later, the sanctioning body announced an eight-man elimination tournament to fill the unjust title vacancy. Patterson and Quarry would square off again, this time as part of the opening bracket to determine a new heavyweight champion—with an asterisk.
On October 28, 1967, Patterson again survived two early knockdowns to push Quarry to the brink. After twelve back-and-forth rounds, Quarry emerged with another disputed decision, one the partisan crowd at the Olympic booed with zest before its discontent escalated into hurling cups and debris into the ring. If Cus D’Amato had protected Patterson from stiff competition during his heavyweight title run, then he also protected him, by extension, from the vicissitudes of boxing itself, including the whims of ringside judges.
Quarry would go on to lose to Jimmy Ellis in the finals of the tournament. An ex-sparring partner of Muhammad Ali, Ellis was now the WBA heavyweight champion, much to the amusement of the fight racket at large. (His counterpart, Joe Frazier, earned cheapjack recognition from the New York State Athletic Commission and a handful of other renegade states.)
To Patterson, who been stopped four times, a pair of hometown losses would hardly act as a spur to retirement. And when a title fight against Ellis came into view, Patterson seized his final chance at some version of heavyweight glory. Patterson and Ellis met on September 14, 1968, in Stockholm, Sweden, in a bout aired live on Wide World of Sports via Early Bird Satellite. As if to add to the surrealist air that had surrounded Patterson ever since he defended his title against debuting Pete Rademacher ten years earlier, the fight took place in an outdoor stadium in 50-degree weather. It is one of the few championship fights in history where the contestants fogged the air from bell to bell with their labored breathing. Patterson cut Ellis over the eye, broke his nose, and stormed after the defending champion in the late rounds. But he had also been wobbled in the third (when he seemed incapable of defending against uppercuts) and staggered by a combination in the seventh. Through most of the middle rounds, Ellis succeeded in establishing his spoiling style— forcing Patterson to box more—and muddling the proceedings with his mauling, Patterson seemed to land the more effective blows, and he pushed the pace in the thirteenth and fourteenth, but Ellis hung on until the bitter end. When the bell rang to end the fight, there remained one final oddity to endure. In Sweden, soon to ban boxing, the referee was the sole judge of the fight. Harold Valan, imported from Brooklyn for the occasion, declared Ellis the winner, and nearly 30,000 Swedes forgot their manners. Poor Valan needed a police escort from the ring, and Patterson could only play the thoughtful gentleman one more time, despite knowing that his championship dreams were now beyond resuscitation.
Two years passed before Patterson fought again, and when he did, it was to toil in less-than-marquee events. He hit the road as a nostalgic headliner in prizefighting boondocks such as Erie, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon, earning modest paychecks against washouts and second-raters. Just when that inexorable slide into anonymity (so common to boxers who chase the adrenaline rush long after it can no longer be produced), seemed all but guaranteed, a big-money opportunity arose. Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena, the obnoxious brawler still living off the afterglow of tussling with Muhammad Ali in 1970, signed to face Patterson at Madison Square Garden. These two men were box-office dynamite in New York City for opposite reasons—Bonavena was outrageous, and Patterson was serene. As far as promoters were concerned, this odd couple was a perfect matchup. Nearly 18,000 spectators jammed Madison Square Garden on February 11, 1972, to watch two men with limited futures swap punches. In a desultory fight, Patterson, whose father had died a few days earlier, recovered from a knockdown in the fourth round to score an unconvincing decision over Bonavena. It was enough, however, for Madison Square Garden to consider him for bigger events. And so, Patterson, at age thirty-seven, lured the most luminous name in sports for what would turn out to be a not-so-grand finale: Muhammad Ali.
Ali, who had tormented Patterson another lifetime ago, had agreed to an unnecessary rematch against the man he had once called an “Uncle Tom” for humanitarian reasons. Despite the millions he had earned throughout his tumultuous career, Patterson was struggling financially. On September 20, 1972, Madison Square Garden would be the scene of an unusual benefit.
An uncharacteristically subdued Ali praised Patterson at nearly every turn during the promotional buildup. “He’s what you call a White House boy.” All says. “He’s a good American, that’s all, a real good American Negro. He don’t bother nobody, just a nice fellow. But he’s way behind for a black man. He’s not wrapped up in no kind of black man’s freedom. He ain’t a bad fellow. He’s just neutral.”
Without the acerbic ramblings of the revolutionary-tinged era that spawned him, without the hijinks and capering, the rhyming and ranking, Ali betrayed his charitable mission going into this seemingly pointless rematch. Ali was still two years away from the miracle in Zaire, when he regained the heavyweight championship by stopping George Foreman, but his sideshow routine remained box-office gold, even if the fights themselves were sometimes less than tinplate. Against Patterson, Ali would sleepwalk through most of the night. Indeed, his limited energy was expended when he went into his “hold-me-back” routine after Joe Frazier had entered the ring during celebrity introductions.
Just as in their first fight, Ali opened on his toes and flitted around the ring while Patterson plodded after him. The difference this time was one of intent: Ali was in leisure mode—malice, animosity, and vindictiveness were nowhere to be found on Eighth Avenue. Patterson, however, did not seem privy to the rules of engagement. As Ali held back, Patterson landed several jarring left hooks and even a few right-hand leads.
In the fourth round, Ali began to mug, and the crowd, now less the cigar-chomping devotee than subscribers to Ramparts or Rolling Stone, or half the masthead of the Partisan Review, roared in anticipation of further antics. It took another round for Ali to get serious. In the sixth, for the first time in the fight, Ali opened up with purpose. A rapid-fire barrage shook Patterson to his boots and left him with a gaping wound above his left eye. Between rounds, Patterson seemed groggy, and the eye, bleeding profusely, began to swell. He barely survived another round of pinpoint combinations, and when he returned to his stool, the ringside physician and referee Arthur Mercante, Sr., combined to stop the fight. A dejected Patterson leaned his head onto the top rope, his fantasy of avenging his loss to Ali, even with minor stakes at play, was over. So was his career. Patterson, as quietly as most of his days on earth had been, simply disappeared from the fight game. At thirty-seven, he had finally retired, without a public announcement of any sort.
As heavyweight champion, Patterson drew the wrath of both insiders and outsiders for a title reign that too often resembled slapstick; as a cultural figure, he was passé during the quickstep late sixties, when his quiet civil rights deeds, endorsed by Martin Luther King, the NAACP, JFK, even Richard Nixon, were considered archaic compared to the insurrectionary flex of the Black Panthers in a teetering nation where cities burned to ashes during the long hot summers of the hellish Sixties. COINTELPRO had no interest in Floyd Patterson. Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, Muhammad Ali? To them, Patterson was straight out of the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
When the apocalyptic dust settled, when Baraka had moved on to voguish Marxism and comfy academia, when Eldridge Cleaver morphed into a hardcore Republican who stumped for Ronald Reagan, when Muhammad Ali became just another capitalist widget, hawking everything from action figures to D-con to Saturday morning cartoons, Floyd Patterson was toiling in a primitive gym out in New Paltz, New York, mentoring at-risk youth—most of them African American.
His second act as a prizefighter, when he was free of Cus D’Amato, is one of the most remarkable comebacks in boxing. After all, Patterson was considered spent at least twice in the 1960s, but he never failed to rebound against ranked heavyweights, and his record as a perennial contender surpassed that of his title run. From 1963, when he was atomized in his rematch against Sonny Liston, to 1972, Patterson defeated Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo, and Oscar Bonavena. It can be argued, persuasively, no less, that Patterson outpointed Jerry Quarry twice, and that he was denied the opportunity of being the WBA heavyweight champion when an appalling decision rendered on behalf of Jimmy Ellis drove even mild-mannered Swedes into a frenzy. Although Patterson ran hot-and-cold with the public in the 1950s, he was a top box-office draw post-Liston, exhausting turnstiles in New York City, Los Angeles, and Sweden.
Although Floyd Patterson will be remembered for his topsy-turvy reign as heavyweight champion, he will be honored, perhaps, for political contributions, his kindness in an industry often likened to a sewer, and his fanatical dedication to a sport that saved him from a certain future as one of the forgotten downtrodden, the numberless millions alienated from the American Dream.
The maladjusted child who could barely read or write, the truant who locked himself in a dark tool shed in a subway station, the budding juvenile delinquent who hotfooted away from store after store in Bed-Stuy, the institutionalized preadolescent who learned to cope with life at Wiltwyck School for Boys, the high school dropout looking to cobble together a living of sorts for his family, the timid scrapper who made his way, uncertainly, up the foreboding steps of the Gramercy Gym in the late 1940s. He was all these things once. Then, he was what he made himself, moment by moment, in the ring and out, something the Arthur Daleys of the world, with their Fordham University degrees and Pulitzer Prize filigree, would never understand: a winner.