A champ at living a life of grace and dignity

May 13, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Record books show that former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who died Thursday in New York, was the first man to win the title twice. Actually, Patterson should have won it three times -- and would have won it three times, if it weren't for a referee in desperate need of cataract surgery.

The first came on Nov. 30, 1956, exactly 30 days before my 5th birthday. As a child born in the early 1950s, I remember Patterson most vividly as the first heavyweight champion whose name was mentioned by my elders. I don't remember the first time he lost his title -- to Ingemar Johansson in 1959 -- or when he regained it a year later. Those fights came on too late at night. My mom's strict bedtime rules didn't allow it.

The first Patterson fight I heard on radio was in the summer of 1963, when he tried to regain the title from champion Sonny Liston, who had dethroned him in September 1962. By then I was pushing 12, and my mom had relaxed her early bedtime rule just enough to let me stay up and listen to the fight.

I didn't listen long. Liston vanquished Patterson in two minutes and 10 seconds of the first round. Still, Patterson remained one of my favorite heavyweights, second only to Muhammad Ali, who dethroned Liston in early 1964.

Patterson was still my second-favorite in 1968, when he faced World Boxing Association champion Jimmy Ellis in Sweden. Ali had been stripped of his title and banished from boxing by then. Patterson was just an aging ex-champ still suffering the ignominy of being knocked out twice by Liston in the first round and being humiliated by Ali in a 12-round knockout.

For 15 rounds, Patterson must have forgotten all those critics who said he was only an average fighter, not a great one. He battered Ellis the entire bout. The referee gave the decision to Ellis. The crowd roared its disapproval. Objects were hurled at the referee. Those throwing the objects probably figured they were just checking the ref's vision: If he could see those things coming at him, why couldn't he see what everyone else saw?

That would have been Patterson winning the heavyweight title an unprecedented third time. He didn't get credit for it, but by that time, Patterson was probably used to that. He didn't get much credit, as either a fighter or a man, throughout much of his life.

Not a great fighter, Patterson's critics said. But he defeated a truly great one, Archie Moore, to win the heavyweight title the first time. And he dispatched Moore more easily and earlier than a man considered a truly great heavyweight: Rocky Marciano.

An "Uncle Tom," Ali called Patterson before and after their bout in November 1965. (It was a curious charge coming from Ali, whose entourage at the time included the black actor Stepin Fetchit, whom many considered a textbook Uncle Tom.) Patterson was, according to some news reports, a member of the NAACP. A member, but not an unquestioning follower who obeyed every NAACP directive.

It's been said for years that the NAACP didn't want Patterson to give Liston a title shot. (No fewer than seven stories in a LexisNexis search make that claim.) And for years there had been rumors -- now verified -- that the people backing Liston were mobsters. Liston was also an ex-convict, an image the NAACP thought would reflect negatively on black folks.

Patterson went against this kind of thinking. Liston, Patterson figured, deserved the title shot for no better reason than that he was the best fighter out there at the time, the No. 1 contender. He agreed to fight Liston, even though his manager, Cus D'Amato, supposedly told him, "You can't beat Sonny Liston."

That sounds like a man of integrity, not an Uncle Tom. It sounds like a man who would stand for what is right, not just what's convenient. That sounds like a man we should have more of these days.

It also sounds like a man completely in character with the one Howard Cosell described in his autobiography Cosell. The sports announcer devoted an entire chapter to Patterson in his book. At one point, Cosell recounted an anecdote about the time Patterson and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson went to a state in the Deep South during the civil rights struggle.

According to Cosell, Patterson went up to a water fountain marked "white only" and drank from it. Then he drank from a fountain marked "colored only." Then he turned to a group of whites watching the scene and proclaimed, "Tastes like the same water."

Patterson, like his one-time nemesis Ali, was one of the few figures whose lives intersected where sports meet the social sciences. That he handled himself differently from Ali at that intersection -- with quiet grace and humility -- is no surprise. In many ways, Ali, who began his pro career when Patterson was still champion, was the anti-Floyd.

But it wouldn't surprise me to learn that one of those saddest upon hearing the news of Patterson's passing is Ali. The famed Louisville Lip might not have appreciated the Rabbit when the two met in 1965.

But I'd wager Ali appreciates him now.


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