Floyd Patterson: Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champ

Lou Eisen / December 27, 2012 - 7:05pm

W.K. Stratton‘s new biography of former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, “The Fighting Life Of Boxing’s Invisible Champion,” is an insightful and honest look at an elite boxer who was never entirely comfortable with his own fame and riches. The main theme of the book is that Patterson’s toughest battles were always waged within his own mind rather than in the ring against an opponent. Stratton shows us the inner torment and angst that Patterson dealt with in both his professional and personal life on a daily basis.

This book is a very fun read and will inform as well as entertain readers. It is Stratton’s ability to deal with Patterson’s complex personality as well as his boxing career in such an honest and detailed manner that lends this book much of its personal appeal. Patterson is a very difficult figure to understand and appreciate because he was a very eccentric person for his era, or any era, for that matter. Patterson was an enigma in both his personal and professional life. For instance, Patterson would always pick up his knockout victims and carry them back to their corners. He would often kiss his vanquished opponents on the mouth, which is odd for any boxing era. Patterson was not a person who was considered book smart but that was because he had severe learning disabilities, which greatly hindered his ability to read and write. Patterson, from an early age and then throughout his adult life, always preferred action to words.

It is to Patterson’s lasting credit that he overcame his learning disabilities. Patterson was emotionally stunted from an early age and struggled with his inability to express himself to those he held most dear. He was a stranger to his own family. Patterson was born in 1935 in Waco, North Carolina. When Floyd was still very young, his family emigrated north to New York City in hopes of finding better employment and educational opportunities.

Floyd did miserably in public school until he finally stopped attending altogether. The constant ridicule from students and teachers alike was simply too much to face.

He spent his days roaming the streets of New York looking for trouble. Like any young, angry teenager, Patterson had no problem at all finding trouble. Patterson soon resorted to petty thievery and crime. One day he shoplifted a huge box containing a large TV set. The box was twice his size, and he knew he would be easily caught yet he stole it anyway and started running before he finally just dumped the box so he could continue running without the extra weight of the TV. A cop eventually caught him and arrested him.

In 1945, Floyd’s string of petty crimes caught up with him for good and he ended up in court where a forward thinking judge, with Floyd’s mother Annabelle’s consent, sent him to a school for wayward boys named The Wiltwyck School For Boys which was run by the government.  In a very real sense, the judge who sent him there saved Floyd’s life and put him on the road to boxing glory, fame and untold wealth. The school was situated in upstate New York in a pastoral setting and it didn’t take long for Floyd to flourish there with the encouragement of his various teachers. At the school Floyd found out that he was in fact very smart. It was his crippling shyness that prevented him from succeeding in class. With positive encouragement, Floyd began to do well academically at the school.

One afternoon, when a fight with another boy was broken up, Floyd was so angry at how the boy had treated him that he let out a scream and attacked the teacher who had stopped the fight, throwing thousands of punches. Patterson’s hand speed and accuracy was nothing short of mind-boggling. The teacher instantly realized the way to get through to Floyd was via boxing. They held regular boxing tournaments at the school and Floyd always finished first. A teacher at the school knew veteran boxing trainer and eccentric extraordinaire, Cus D’Amato. D’Amato took over Floyd’s burgeoning boxing career and began to enter him in the New York Golden Gloves tournaments as a middleweight, where he usually came home with a gold medal.

D’Amato entered Floyd into the U.S Olympic boxing program where he qualified to represent the United States as a middleweight at the 1952 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Floyd won the gold medal for his country and then flew home to embark on a pro career.

D’Amato wisely started Floyd off in the middleweight ranks as a pro because Floyd was still growing. He smartly let Floyd gain weight naturally as his body continued to grow. Floyd’s astonishing hand speed proved too much to handle for his opponents, regardless of their weight classes. Floyd quickly became a light heavyweight and then moved up to heavyweight because then, like today there is much more money in the heavyweight ranks than in the lower weight classes.

Floyd had a great start to his career and he used his blazing hand speed and brilliant footwork to overwhelm his opponents. Floyd had better than average power and was knocking out many of his foes as well. In boxing, it is the punches you don’t see that knock you out and with Floyd’s hand speed, very few of the men he faced ever saw his shots coming. Floyd lost his first fight ever to the venerable ex light heavyweight world champion Joey Maxim. However, he learned a lot from that fight and immediately put that new knowledge to good use.

Outside the ring Floyd was falling deeply in love with his teenage sweetheart Sandra, a staunch Catholic. In order to prove to Sandra that he was indeed sincere about the prospect of marriage, Floyd converted to Catholicism and the two were married. In the ring, Floyd was beginning to fight tougher opponents. In only his tenth pro fight, Patterson faced the tough French Canadian light-heavyweight, Yvon Durelle. Durelle was a much greater fighter than he was ever given credit for being. The fight was held in the famous Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn, New York on February 15, 1954.

According to Stratton and many local boxing writers in New York who attended the fight, Durelle gave Patterson a terrible beating in their match and was thought to have won a lopsided decision by the fans. However, the New York judges awarded the decision to Patterson. This would become a regular habit for the New York judges in years to come, as far as Patterson was concerned.

The biggest break of Patterson’s career occurred when Rocky Marciano retired unexpectedly as the undefeated world heavyweight champion. Patterson fought “Ancient” Archie Moore for the title and had no problem outclassing his elder to capture the world heavyweight title in 5 rounds at Chicago Stadium on November 30, 1956. With this victory, Patterson became the youngest man ever to win the world heavyweight title, at least until Mike Tyson came along, some 32 years later.

Author Stratton muses that Marciano retired because he was afraid to face Patterson and his incredible hand speed. This is factually incorrect. Marciano retired because of an ongoing financial dispute with his duplicitous manager (and Mob shill) Al Weill. Weill was a bagman for the mob. When he first signed Rocky to a contract it called for a 50-50 split of all purses and monies accrued from boxing. After Rocky won the title, he begged Weill often to tear up their original contract in order to give him a more financially equitable deal.

When Weill refused yet again to redo the deal after the Archie Moore fight, Rocky quit boxing, shocking everybody in boxing and costing Weill his job and position in boxing. Rocky’s retirement was financially based and had nothing to do with Patterson’s skill as a prizefighter.

Patterson held his title for six years. Actually, he lost it briefly after three years to Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson, taking a terrible beating in the process. Patterson became the first heavyweight champion ever to win the title back when he kayoed Johansson in their epic rematch. Patterson finally lost the title for good to the menacing Sonny Liston. Liston knocked out Patterson in one minute to win the title and repeated the feat one year later in their rematch, although it took him four seconds longer to vanquish Patterson the second time around.

Patterson went on to have an epic match with Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo in 1965, which was voted by Ring Magazine as their Fight of the Year. Author Stratton states that most everyone in attendance, save for the judges, gave the fight to Chuvalo by a fairly substantial margin. However, in what had become a familiar pattern, the New York judges awarded the fight to Patterson, a New York-based fighter.

Patterson fought on until 1972, when he retired after losing his second fight with Muhammad Ali. His final record was 55 wins with 40 of those victories coming by way of knockout, along with 8 losses and 1 draw. He died at the age of 71, on May 11, 2006, with his children and his second wife Janet by his side. Patterson was unanimously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a fitting home for a true champion.