EIGHT YEARS have passed since Floyd Patterson's last hurrah, when his career was abruptly kayoed in a fight with Muhammad Ali. Now May 1980 was fleeing, too, and Patterson was at home in New Paltz, N.Y., planning his departure for Ireland -- and partial farewell to the America he had both enriched and mystified -- perhaps weeks away.

"I've always wanted serenity of mind," Patterson, now 45, said wistfully, "but it was always so elusive. All I wanted was peace within myself; is that so much to ask? But I so seldom found it, at least not in the permanent basis all of us seek.

"In Ireland life is slow, relaxed, more intimate; if the public relations firm I've started with (singer) Carmel Quinn works out, we'll open our new office over there within the next few weeks. After that, my wife and I will buy a home and spend a considerable part of each year in a place we've both come to love."

"Maybe in Ireland," he continued, "life's identity and purpose will become clear -- ones that will last, that won't make one feel ashamed of being different."

Floyd Patterson has spent much of his lifetime seeking "identity and purpose." Sensitive and introspective, one of sport's most soft-spoken souls, he seemed wholly miscast among boxing's warring and barbaric figures.

Patterson admitted that history might never rank him among the great all-time heavyweights. His punching was too suspect, his performances too often marred, his record too spotty for him to be labeled a fighter of the elite. Critics sneered at his style, called him a paper tiger, a titleholder in name only, and said he was too gentle to dominate.

Patterson's career had once been marked by early and continuing success. Who could forget his 1960 flooring of champion Ingemar Johansson, or his 1956 pummeling of sainted Archie Moore, or the throngs in Helsinki cheering him wildly during his Olympic victories of 1952?

Who, even today, could not recall all the old Patterson trademarks -- the crouch, the speed, the combinations that came in rapidfire motion, the vaulting "kangaroo punch" he made so famous?

While these memories lingered, however, there were also others, and they remained undimmed as well. For only Patterson's defeats -- his brutal and haunting defeats -- had ever fully marked the measure of the man. Each Patterson setback unveiled a new and more moving dimension. America has always loved a gallant loser, and in the boxing arena, Patterson emerged as that and more.

In July 1959, a dazed and weary Patterson was knocked down seven times in the third round by Johansson, rising after each blow only to be shoved to the canvas again.

Next came the twin debacles of 1962, when he was twice hurt and humiliated, knocked out by Sonny Liston in the first two minutes of each fight. One hour after the second fiasco, Patterson left Chicago, disguised, into that never-never land which becomes the home of all former champions. Patterson then returned to his native New York -- he had no real home except where his wife was.

"Yes, I thought about retiring at the time," Patterson said, "but inevitably to myself -- and even then, not for long. I guess I loved boxing too much to give it up, though the shame was so hard to endure. But boxing is what I had done all my life; how could you say goodbye? How can you yield up your life?"

Shorn of his heavyweight title, stripped of respect and dignity, Patterson was held up for ridicule throughout much of the boxing world. Never once did he retreat. Still, what a field day Patterson's adversaries enjoyed. He was jeered and taunted, and dismissed by America's ring public, who called him the fighter with a "glass jaw," though it was really more a matter of erratic balance which plagued him during the early rounds of every fight.

Scorned and mocked by his opponents, Patterson refused to respond in kind. He gave out no taunts, no angry threats to injure or maim.

"They said I never had the killer instinct," Patterson said softly. "Well, it's something I never wanted. If it meant killing a guy, I didn't want any part of it. If I had to cripple someone, no thanks. I'd rather lose a fight than have a rival lose an eye. I thought there were other ways, even in the ring, that I could prove I was a man."

Like his comeback, for one.

For 10 years, Patterson sought to recover his heavyweight crown. Bruised and battered, often beaten but never disgraced -- back from the boxing dead he came. The road was ultimately doomed to fail. But, albeit belatedly, this country saw in Patterson a gentleman. Grace and courtesy, civility and self-deprecatory wit, all these qualities Floyd Patterson possessed.

As world titleholder, even during the sunshine years, Patterson's hold on America had been tenuous. Now, as an aging deposed champion, his stature curiously uplifted by defeat, he attracted a newly sympathetic cult.

Inexplicably, Patterson's popularity soared as the 1960s progressed. In 1965, there were 19,000 fans at Madison Square Garden to witness Patterson's first loss to Muhammad Ali. With a crippled Patterson enduring blow after blow, unable to fight and unwilling to quit, an injured back causing pain which equaled any punishment Ali could inflict, the crowd rose in vocal tribute, its applause testimony to a Patterson mystique.

The comeback continued through the decade. Patterson outpointed Oscar Bonavena, outslugged Henry Cooper, fought Jerry Quarry to a draw.

He changed with the passage of the years. Physically, Floyd was much the same -- the fine features, the slender build, the sheepish smile. But the private became more public, and the man opened up, and the 'new Patterson,' the real Patterson, emerged.

"The crowds that cheered me on, they did that I suppose because I'm me, and they knew I would never sell my soul," he said several years before. "I wasn't a hermit, as some writers said, but I never tried to substitute brutality for strength. People said maybe I was too meek. Well, maybe they were right, but I couldn't be other than myself. And perhaps this country could understand my trials, why I had to keep on fighting, why I had to keep trying to win back my title. Perhaps that's why they were with me."

Small matter, then, that Patterson never regained the heavyweight crown he so urgently sought.

"As long as you did all that you could, there's no shame in being ashamed," Patterson said. "I've been humbled, I've been attacked, but you rise from your tribulations and be proud of what you are. That much, at least, I've learned."