Floyd Patterson; Heavyweight Champion Rose from Poverty

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship.
Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

Floyd Patterson, 71, a soft-spoken boxer who became the world heavyweight champion at age 21 after taking up the sport at a reform school for boys, died May 11 at his home in New Paltz, N.Y. He had Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer.

On Nov. 30, 1956, Mr. Patterson's knockout victory over light heavyweight champion Archie Moore in a fight at Chicago Stadium made him the youngest heavyweight champion in history. (Mike Tyson would later win the title at age 20.)

He suffered a brutal loss to Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1959, but regained the title a year later, knocking out Johansson at 1 minute 51 seconds of the fifth round.

"It was worth losing the title for this," Mr. Patterson told reporters after the fight. "This is easily the most gratifying moment of my life."

He held the title until the night of Sept. 25, 1962, in Chicago, when he stepped into the ring with a hulking ex-convict named Charles "Sonny" Liston. The challenger, who outweighed the 190-pound champ by 22 pounds, battered Mr. Patterson senseless in 2 minutes and 6 seconds of the first round. In a rematch a year later, Liston pummeled Mr. Patterson to the canvas three times before again knocking him out in the first round.

Mr. Patterson was 37 when he entered the ring for the last time, against Muhammad Ali on Sept. 20, 1972. He stayed even with Ali for the first four rounds, but a bad cut opened up over his right eye, and the ring doctor stopped the fight after the eighth round.

Floyd Patterson was born Jan. 4, 1935, in a cabin in rural Waco, N.C. One of 11 children, he was a small boy when his parents moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Growing up poor in Bed-Stuy, he was a chronic truant from school who rarely talked, couldn't read and was often involved in scrapes with the law. He was sent at age 11 to Wiltwyck School for Boys, an institution for emotionally disturbed youths in upstate New York. The school, and particularly a teacher named Vivien Costen, saved his life, Mr. Patterson said later.

At Wiltwyck, Mr. Patterson put on the gloves for the first time, and his interest in the sport continued to grow when he returned to Brooklyn in 1947. At 14, he began working out with his brothers at Gramercy Gym, a grimy, stench-ridden boxing club on New York's Lower East Side. The gym was owned by the legendary Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, who would later be Mr. Patterson's manager (and Tyson's).

At 16, Mr. Patterson won the New York Golden Gloves middleweight title at Madison Square Garden, one of 11 amateur championships he won in the Golden Gloves and the Amateur Athletic Union. He won a gold medal as a middleweight at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and turned pro later that year, at age 17.

The Washington Post in 1956 described him as "a quietly confident young man with a schoolboyish air who likes ice cream, sweet potatoes and cream-colored cars."

D'Amato brought him along carefully. On April 12, 1956, Rocky Marciano retired, leaving the heavyweight division without a champion, and D'Amato maneuvered his young fighter into contention. On June 8, he defeated Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, despite a broken hand that he had injured two weeks before the fight. He became heavyweight champion when he knocked out the 39-year-old Moore in the fifth round.

At six feet, weighing between 185 and 190 pounds, Mr. Patterson was small for a heavyweight. Longtime trainer Angelo Dundee said he used his size to slip under the guard of taller fighters.

"He was a hard guy to fight," Dundee said yesterday. "His technique was sensational."

Despite his meteoric rise, Mr. Patterson was slow to win the respect of boxing aficionados, who claimed he lacked the killer instinct. "He has been the absolute boss in the ring in his most recent fights, yet there are moments when the experts perceive more discretion than Patterson should show at this stage," columnist Milton Gross wrote in 1958.

The experts also grumbled that he avoided legitimate challengers. When he signed to fight Johansson in 1959, most observers saw yet another chump along the lines of previous challengers Brian London of England and Roy Harris, the pride of Cut 'n' Shoot, Tex., even though the Swedish champ was undefeated in 21 fights.

On that summer night in Yankee Stadium, after claiming for weeks that he had injured his right hand while sparring, Johannson unleashed his right-hand "toonder and lightning" to the side of the young champ's head, a blow that punctured his left eardrum and left him dazed the rest of the fight. Mr. Patterson hit the canvas seven times before the referee stopped the fight in the third round.

He won the title again a year later, on June 20, 1960, when he knocked out Johannson in the fifth round at New York's Polo Grounds. He fought Johansson a third time and won, despite being knocked down twice in the first round.

After Mr. Patterson lost his title to Liston in 1962, most observers figured his career was over, but he fought for another decade before losing to Ali for a second time.

"He was too little for Ali," Dundee said, "and Muhammad was quicker than he was."

Mr. Patterson retired with a record of 55-8-1, including 40 knockouts.

He stayed in boxing. Opening a gym in New Paltz, he took an interest in young boxers, just as D'Amato had taken an interest in him. One of them, an 11-year-old named Tracy Harris, reminded Mr. Patterson of himself as a boy. He eventually adopted the young man and also became his trainer and manager. The younger Patterson won the World Boxing Council junior featherweight championship in 1992.

In 1995, Floyd Patterson was named New York state athletic commissioner. Three years later, as rumors swirled that his memory was slipping, he resigned. He lived in retirement on his 17-acre farm near New Paltz.

Survivors include his wife, Janet Patterson of New Paltz; and his adopted son.

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