They called heavyweight boxing champ Floyd Patterson the Gentle Gladiator, because he was, oddly, so nice. Patterson could punch an opponent’s mouthpiece out, then back off mid-bout and stoop to help look for it. When he scored a knockout against nemesis Ingemar Johansson in their third match, he kissed the Swedish boxer on the cheek. “[I]t was my expression of admiration for a man who had fought me well,” Patterson said.
Make no mistake, though. Patterson pulverized guys. An Olympic gold-medal winner as a teenager in 1952, he became the youngest heavyweight champion in history four years later at 21. Patterson then would become the first to lose the title and win it back, in a masterful performance recounted with vigorous insight in W. K. Stratton’s “Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion.’’
Stratton spends most of this well-researched and engrossing biography walking readers from ringside to ringside, leaving no doubt as to why Patterson won or lost each bout; he has less
success in connecting the dots when it comes to the man.
The narrative sprints through Patterson’s early years: the family’s move from rural North Carolina to the mean streets of New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, early problems for the habitual truant and social misfit, minor brushes with the law, and enrollment at an upstate New York reform school where he discovers boxing.
Over time, Patterson proves a quick, powerful, and intelligent fighter, although plagued much of his life by the mental demons of his youth, including depression. Stratton charts his climb to the championship of the world in a rapid-fire series of vivid recollections of the bouts.
Along the way we learn little about Patterson’s wives and kids, but much about his boxing colleagues, beginning with the deeply strange Cus D’Amato, his on-again, off-again manager. And then the opponents: Archie Moore, whom Patterson floored with his shattering left hook in 1956 to become world heavyweight champ for the first time; “Ingo’’ Johansson, who took the title away; Sonny Liston, the so-called thug, who pummeled Patterson; and finally Muhammad Ali.
We are also treated to a virtual parade of the famous and powerful. Floyd Patterson came up in the golden age of boxing, when a heavyweight champion enjoyed the kind of celebrity that afforded him the opportunity to dine with presidents. Almost like Forrest Gump, he meandered through the last half of the 20th century, having frequent encounters with history makers: President Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, President Nixon, Pope John XXIII.
If Patterson has all but disappeared from the popular imagination, it’s because he was overshadowed by the larger-than-life champions of his time — especially Ali. Patterson was the fastest heavyweight in history when he first took the championship, but Ali was even faster. The soft-spoken Patterson was smart, but Ali showed the world what a media saavy, charismatic champion looked like.
And although Patterson was the first boxing star to demand that he fight only in integrated venues, his principled stance was quickly overtaken and forgotten amid the rapid social and political changes of his day. An early civil rights champion, he eventually was labeled an Uncle Tom as he embraced ever more conservative politics, including support for the US role in Vietnam.
After he stopped fighting, Patterson remained in the boxing world, and in the 1990s became chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. But like many fighters, he suffered dementia in his last years, likely the result of decades of punishing blows in the ring. “It broke my heart,” said the writer Gay Talese, “that someone I cared about that much did what he had to do for his career. He had the capacity to do any number of things.”
The unlikely champion passed away in 2006 at 71, with the respect and friendship of boxing insiders and most of his opponents. Stratton is right. He deserves to be better remembered than he is.Michael Warshaw can be reached at mwarshaw@