ONE thing fight fans probably never really forgave Floyd Patterson for was that, when he held the heavyweight title, he didn’t defend against either Eddie Machen or Zora Folley.
Machen and Folley were the two outstanding contenders. Instead of meeting them, Patterson defended against the likes of Roy Harris, Tom McNeeley, Pete Rademacher and Britain’s Brian London.
Patterson, now an official with the New York State Athletic Commission explained why he never gave Machen or Folley a chance in an interview show in two parts on Canada’s Global TV network.
He told interviewer Mike Anscombe on “Sports Probe” that Machen and Folley were “controlled” by the powerful International Boxing Club, which had a stranglehold on the US fight game in the 1950s until ordered to disband by a senate commission investigating monopolies.
“I didn’t fight Folley or Machen because the IBC didn’t let me,” he said. He was ridiculed by certain journalists for not fighting the top two contenders, but he said he did not want to be controlled by the IBC.
“The choice was to be ridiculed by the press or controlled by the IBC. People didn’t realise what was going on behind the scenes.
“But there’s one thing they can’t take away from me. I was the heavyweight champion.”
Patterson talked of his early life in Brooklyn. He was one of 11 children, the family moving from North Carolina where he was born. He had “no recollections” of the South.
“I just knew poverty and poverty,” he said. This, he felt, had a psychological effect on him as a youngster. At the age of “10 or 11” he was sent to a special school because “I’d done mischievous things, played hookey (truant) from school, ran away from home.”
“I became quiet. I figured if I didn’t speak I couldn’t say anything stupid. I was the dullest boy in class. I wouldn’t answer any questions, wouldn’t raise my hand.”
He remembered a woman teacher offering the class a bag of candy (sweets) for the boy who got a certain question right. Patterson said he knew the answer but didn’t raise his hand. He remembered bursting into tears and the teacher gave him the candy because she knew he’d know the answer.
His “incredible shyness,” as interviewer Mark Anscombe called it, was, said Floyd, because, “I always felt dumb, ignorant.”
He recalled going into assembly one morning wearing one of his father’s white shirts, as he didn’t have one of his won. The collar was far too big and, unbeknownst to Floyd, one side of it rose up and his necktie slipped down to produce a ludicrous effect that made his classmates burst into laughter.
He said, “There was a series of things that made me accept the fact that I wasn’t too bright.
“Once I stole a whole box of ice cream. I took it to the place I was hiding, way back of a subway (underground railway station) where the workmen took their tools. It was in the summer, and I was going to come back at night and eat the ice cream. But of course it melted.”
He said he used to walk the streets at night and sleep by day. He slept in parks in the summer and in the subway during winter. “I was always sort of wondering,” he said. “I would steal fruit from grocery stores just to eat, to survive.”
His parents worked hard, he said, and, with so many mouths to feed, Floyd “felt guilty, like a parasite” when he sat down to eat with his family. “At the age of nine I got the realisation of this,” he recalled. “I felt guilty just being there.” So he ran away from home.
He returned to boxing, he said, because “I found something in this life I could do as well as the next guy.”
Talking about the relationship with his manager Cus D’Amato, Floyd said never had a contract. “My word was my bond,” Floyd said.
He managed himself from 1962 to 1976. D’Amato was gifted with words and could do the talking for him. But as Floyd got greater self-assurance he found he could talk for himself.
Talking about his fights with Ingemar Johansson, Floyd said “a lot of weird things happened” in their first meeting on June 26, 1959.
“I didn’t have much respect for him,” Floyd recalled. “I went into the ring with the intentions of disposing of him right away.
“You never underestimate an opponent but I did underestimate Ingemar.
“When he knocked me down the first time I didn’t know I’d been down. All I know, I was standing there, I heard the referee say “three, four, five” so I assumed I’d knocked Ingemar down, so I went to walk to a neutral corner.
“That’s when Ingemar came from the back of the other side of me and knocked me down again and I still didn’t know I was down.
“When you come to, it’s weird. If you’re on your feet you don’t remember being down.”
The thing he vividly remembered about the fight was John Wayne (“my hero” said Floyd) sitting at ringside. “I was looking directly into his eyes,” said Floyd.
From the angle of Wayne’s head, Floyd said, he realised one of them must be down. “So I looked up and saw the referee counting and realised I must be down.”
He got up but Johansson dropped him five more times before the bout was halted.
“When it was all over,” Floyd said, “the most embarrassing thing was to walk back from the ring through the people to the dressing room. I wish there had been an underground tunnel so you could just drop out of sight and crawl back to the dressing room.”
Afterwards, the press were saying how good Johansson was (“a combination of Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey” as Floyd remembered one description) and what a poor champion Floyd had been.
“I went along with it,” said Floyd, “because if I did happen to beat Ingemar in our next fight, I might not be as good as Ingemar but they’d have to put me there somewhere.”
He said he went away into training camp for nine months, away from “the people, the public and the press. It was a bad year, the whole year.”
He agreed he was obsessed with beating Johansson, and beating him badly, in the return fight in June, 1960.
“Not because of what he did to me,” said Floyd. “Don’t misunderstand, physical abuse doesn’t mean that much to me. It was the mental anguish I went through.
“It was watching him (Johansson) on television, reading what he said about me. I had never met Ingemar Johansson before, but you’d think we’d been enemies for years by what he was saying about me.
“He was saying Floyd Patterson was a bad champion, he can’t box, he can’t punch. He never had one good word to say about me, everything was derogatory. Ingemar kept saying this about me the whole year.
“I built up so much hate in me I didn’t think of the title, that was secondary. I just want to hit him as hard as I could and as many times as I could, so that if they should raise his hand in a victory he would know he had been in a fight, that was all, and in the process I won.”
Patterson scored his greatest win when he knocked out Johansson in the fifth round, but he recalled, “When I saw Ingemar Johansson laying there on the canvas with his foot shivering, blood coming out of the side of his mouth, I was petrified. It hit me that maybe I’d killed him. Finally he sat up and they sat him on his stool and he was still groggy. I’ve never been so happy to see a man get up.”
Talking about the fight with Sonny Liston in Chicago in 1962, when Patterson lost the title on a knockout in round one, he said he wasn’t intimidated by the fighter people were calling indestructible and invincible.
“I felt sorry for him,” said Floyd. “The press never really gave him a break. They never let him forget that he was once a convict, they never really gave him the credit that was due to him.
“It wasn’t until he lost the crown and went to Las Vegas that you began to see pictures of Liston smiling. I think they treated him very poorly.
“I never had any personal contact with him but I felt if they didn’t criticise him so much I felt he would’ve been so different, he would have smiled a lot sooner.
“When I saw him get knocked out by Cassius Clay in Lewiston, Maine, I went back to his hotel. There weren’t many people at his hotel. They were all over at Clay’s hotel. I went up to his room and had a talk with him.
“I’d never had any conversation with him before but I explained to him that I knew how he felt, because I had experienced the same thing. I told him people who were with him before would still be with him and I told him not to go into hiding as I did, just go out and be yourself.”
He said he was confident of beating Liston, even though he took a disguise with him to the fight (a false moustache and beard) which he could done to slip away unnoticed in the event of defeat.
“I had that same moustache and beard for the George Chuvalo fight, the same moustache and beard for several fights,” said Floyd, “but I never had a chance to wear it because I was winning.
“Every fight I had fought with a tremendous amount of confidence, most fighters do, but you don’t always win. There’s still a reasonable doubt.”
He carried the moustache and beard because he felt ashamed to, as he put it, “let so many people down” if he was beaten.
“If I had to do it all again I wouldn’t wear the moustache and beard,” said Floyd, “but I’d be just as ashamed (to get beaten). We grow up but some of us grow up late.”
He was asked why he still called Muhammad Ali by Ali’s discarded name of Cassius Clay.
“Because his mother still calls him Cassius Clay,” answered Floyd. “She gave him the name when he was born and she still calls him that. When his mother calls him Muhammad Ali, I’ll call him that.
“Other people resent the fact that I called him Cassius Clay but yet they give him the right to call me The Rabbit. They say he is doing it just for publicity reasons, but we haven’t fought in goodness knows how long and when I saw him three months ago he still said “Hey, The Rabbit,” and I said, “Hey, Cassius.” He doesn’t resent it.
“This isn’t a right I’m asking for (to call Ali “Cassius Clay”), I’m taking it.”
“My body has been beaten many times and I hold the record (for a heavyweight champion) for going down, but I’ve never been counted out on the canvas.
“I’ve been beaten many times physically but never mentally and that’s important to me.”
He said he likes Ali and feels Ali likes him, too. “I just don’t agree with the things he belongs to, we lead different lifestyles altogether. But as a person I still like him.”
Patterson said he respected Ali and Ali respected him, despite Ali calling him The Rabbit. “He’s got names for all of his opponents and with Cassius you’ve got to expect something like that.”
Patterson said he entertained hopes of getting another shot at the heavyweight title up to three years ago. He said he would have like to have proved a point “not to the press or the people, just to me.”
He went on, “I went much further than I ever expected to. I never even expected to win the New York Golden Gloves, much less the Olympics, and if you told me about the heavyweight championship I’d say “forget about it” and being the first person to win it back and the youngest man to win it. It just wasn’t even in my dreams.”
Interviewer Anscombe reminded Floyd of a writer’s opinion that Patterson, because of his body structure, could have been the greatest light-heavyweight of all time had he chosen to box in that division.
“I still would rather just be the heavyweight champion,” Floyd said. “To me it’s the top division, there’s no other division like it, it’s world-wide. When you become world heavyweight champion everyone in the world know is, even Russia.
“I don’t have to be a great fighter, just to be heavyweight champion is enough. I’d sacrifice being the greatest light-heavyweight who ever lived just to be heavyweight champion.”
Patterson said he was “comfortable” preferring that word to wealthy. “I learned from by crooked lawyer and crooked business advisor just to do the opposite of what they told me and I’d come out on top.
“When I got rid of them in 1961-62 everything was different from that point on. I left everything up to the office because I figured they represented me, but they represented themselves. So I decided to do it myself, and I did.”
Floyd, a Roman Catholic, was reminded of a quote he once made, “If the Church bans boxing I would quit boxing immediately.” He was asked if he still held strong religious convictions, “Yes, they’re even stronger now than they were then,” said Floyd.
He’s been married twice but said, “I am in the process of which I have spoken to the Chancery and there is a slight possibility I can possibly get my first marriage annulled.
“I don’t feel the marriage was valid because we married when we were very young and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We finally did get married, we learned what we were doing, and we didn’t like it.
“I’d like to receive communion with my two daughters which I have now from this (his present) marriage. We go to church regularly but I can’t receive because I was married before.”
Another quote he made, back in 1957, was: “I have never been more than 70 per cent of myself. My ambition is to be 100 per cent.”
Floyd said he was still struggling to reach 100 per cent, to get as far ahead as he could. “One hundred per cent is a figure that we never reach, because once you reach it you stop trying.”
He was asked what he felt was the highest price he’d have to pay to boxing.
“That’s a very good question,” he answered. “I can only think in terms of what boxing did for me. I don’t think it owes me anything. I think that I owe it.”