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Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson: An Unlikely Trilogy

Floyd Patterson (R) in action against Ingemar Johansson (L) at Convention Hall, Miami, Florida 3/13/1961 (Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Steve Hunt tells the story of the great Patterson-Johansson rivalry

TRULY great trilogies in boxing are rare. In the heavyweight division, even more so. More than 60 years ago, however, Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson gave us one of the very best. Those three ring battles encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of Patterson; a heavyweight champion who is too often remembered for his defeats to Sonny Liston.

Boxing fans today are used to many professional fighters launching their careers following a successful Olympic campaign. The 1952 Helsinki Games was that launchpad for Floyd. He was part of a remarkable US boxing team. Five of the team reached the finals, and all five won gold medals. All five were also African American, another historic achievement.

Floyd completed as a middleweight in the Games. The final marked his 45th contest as an amateur and he won the fight in just 20 seconds. At just 17, he was an Olympic gold medallist and ready to turn professional.

Johansson competed at the same Games, but his experience was altogether different. He was disqualified in the heavyweight final, against Ed Sanders, for ‘not giving his best.’ A losing finalist would, of course, normally be awarded the silver medal, but due to the nature of the loss, this was not granted to him. Though he would eventually get that medal, 30 years later in 1982, it was a humiliation at the time.

Floyd famously became the youngest ever heavyweight world champion at just 21. His early professional fights were contested at light-heavyweight.  However, guided by Cus D’Amato, the decision was made for Patterson to aim for the heavyweight title. In the wake of Rocky Marciano’s decision to retire as undefeated champion, Floyd secured a shot at the vacant crown against Archie Moore.

“Ancient” Archie – the great light-heavyweight king – was the bookmakers favourite going into the Patterson match. He had been fighting professionally since before Floyd was born and had dropped Marciano in Rocky’s last fight. The contest would have the unusual distinction of crowning either the oldest or the youngest world heavyweight champion.

Two knockdowns in the fifth round secured a stoppage win for Floyd. The new world heavyweight champion decided against attending a victory party, instead heading back to see his wife and new baby daughter, born earlier that day.

Defences followed against Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, professional debutant Pete Rademacher, Roy Harris and Brian London. If Floyd’s stock was high after his victory over Moore, the goodwill drained with each passing defence. Although all were won by stoppage victory, it was often felt that these less than stellar opponents took Patterson further than they should have been allowed to. Patterson was also knocked down in both the Rademacher and Harris fights, suggesting a fragility that could come back to haunt him against bigger punchers later. Furthermore, it seemed that more worthwhile challengers were being overlooked.

By the tail end of 1959, unbeaten European champion, Johansson, was the highest ranked contender. He would become Floyd’s fifth challenger, in a fight that took place at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1959. Johansson outweighed Patterson by 14lbs. Despite this, Floyd was a significant favourite with the bookmakers. Ingemar’s best weapon was widely known: his powerful right hand, variously known as his Toonder and Lightning, the Hammer of Thor, and Ingo’s Bingo. Regardless, it was absent – perhaps by design – when the press watched Johansson train. Unimpressed, 63 of 69 polled sportswriters favoured Patterson to retain his title.

Patterson wasn’t so sure. “I never have seen Johansson fight,” he said. “I don’t care whether he used the right hand in training or not. For all I know it’s his best punch. How soon it will end depends upon Johansson. If he lets me, I will end it early. If he doesn’t, he might even end it early.”

Patterson-Johansson was delayed a day by rain in New York. The city was in blackout as the poor weather continued the next day and only eased off shortly before the first fights of the evening were due to start. Yankee Stadium could seat 80,000 but the soggy conditions contributed to a crowd of only 18,215. Nat Fleischer, in A Pictorial History of Boxing, commented on the disappointing ticket sales that were boosted by more than $1 million revenue from closed circuit television. “This was the dawning of an age when money was to be made, not from the live audience, but from TV”. In the end, thanks to the closed circuit cash injection, Patterson was paid over $600,000, more than his predecessor Marciano had made in a single fight.

The first round was quiet. Johansson continually fired out jabs that kept Patterson at bay. The jab on its own was little more than an irritant, as Ingemar waited for the opportune moment to follow with the right hand. Patterson was reduced to bobbing and weaving. What little offence he threw was out of range. At the end of the round Johansson finally followed up a jab with a right hand which, despite exciting the television commentator, had little effect.

The second round was more of the same, although Johansson threw the right with greater regularity, suggesting he was growing in confidence. Patterson, seemingly frustrated by Ingemar’s jab, appeared to be relying on getting lucky with one of his leaping left hooks.

The third round, however, more than made up for a lack of action in the previous two, but it was catastrophic for Floyd. He was on the floor early as Ingo’s Bingo paid off. Floyd rose, appearing confused and, following the count, started to walk towards the corner, presumably thinking the round or the fight was over. As he walked away, Johansson moved in and connected with a left to the jaw and a right to the back of the head. Patterson went down again, and the fight was as good as over from here. Five more knockdowns followed, as a dazed and confused Patterson repeatedly crumpled to the floor and bravely rose, only to walk back into the fire. Following the seventh knockdown of the round, with Patterson’s legs and balance completely gone, referee Ruby Goldstein waved it off. Floyd was an ex-champion and Ingemar had become only the fourth undefeated fighter to win the world heavyweight title. Those who felt that Patterson was a protected and vulnerable champion felt vindicated. It was Floyd’s turn to feel humiliation.

The dark clouds that had surrounded Yankee Stadium in the hours before the main event continued to hang over Patterson long after the fight had ended. Always an introverted figure, he retreated deeper as he struggled to come to terms with defeat. In his biography of Patterson, author W. K.  Stratton quotes Milton Gross, the first reporter to visit Floyd after the fight, as saying that, “there was a subdued sadness in his eyes and in his voice.”

Ingemar Johansson (L) in action vs Floyd Patterson (R) at Polo Grounds, New York, NY 6/20/1960 (Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Years later, Patterson told Peter Heller, for his book, In This Corner, that the first Johansson fight had come too soon after his previous defence.

“I had fought 21 days before that, and I went right back into training. I only took two days off. By the time the fight came around, I just didn’t have that drive, that will.”

Floyd went on to tell Heller that an intervention from a former foe helped lift his spirits.

“Archie Moore sent me a beautiful letter indicating that this could be a blessing in disguise. In other words, in order to be the first to win it back, you’ve got to lose it.”

Over time the darkness lifted and almost exactly a year later, on June 20 1960, Johansson and Patterson would meet again, this time at the famed Polo Grounds.

Floyd was understandably an underdog going into the rematch, but there were some key differences going into the fight. First, it was the only time that Patterson admitted hating an opponent. He had a thirst for revenge. Secondly, trainer Dan Florio had decided that fundamental changes were needed to the peek-a-boo style that Patterson had used up to this point in his career. Cus D’Amato was also noticeable by his absence. Neither fighter employed a manager for the fight with Johansson being ‘advised’ by Edwin Ahlquist. Finally, Floyd would weigh in at 190lbs, his heaviest to that point.

The pattern of the fight was set in the first round, with Ingemar again trying again to establish his jab, but it was clear early on that Floyd would not be as passive in this encounter. He was more aggressive, again with leaping left hooks and often the two would fall into clinches, with Patterson seemingly the happier of the two when in close.

Despite some success in the first round for Floyd, Johansson landed the best punch of the fight thus far in the second round. It was a right hand again that got Floyd’s attention, causing him to back off and remain a little more cautious for the remainder of the session.

Rounds three and four were more of the same, with Floyd not allowing Johansson to dictate the fight with his jab. Early in the fifth round, Patterson landed a powerful right hand of his own up close, as he continued to close the distance. This was shortly followed by a sweet left hook that floored the champion. Johansson bravely got to his feet, but as the action commenced was clinging on as Patterson unleashed a barrage of punches. Floyd landed a lovely hook to the body which seemed to hurt Ingemar, then followed it with another left to the chin. Johansson went down again. The referee’s count was a formality, as the Swede remain motionless, other than one leg which trembled involuntarily.

Floyd was caught between trying to check on his fallen opponent and his corner team trying to celebrate with him and raise him aloft. Eight former heavyweight champions had previously tried to regain their crowns, and all had failed. Patterson, already the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, was now the first ever to regain the title.

This was the only time that Floyd acknowledged taking rage into the ring with him. Years later, Patterson spoke to W.C. Heinz about the emotion of going in against the man who had torn the title away from him. “I just hope that I’ll never be as vicious again.”

Floyd Patterson would not meet Sonny Liston to defend his heavyweight title until September 1962, but that was not the first time they shared a ring. In the moments before the rubber match between Patterson and Johansson, in Miami Beach on March 13 1961, Sonny was introduced to the crowd. He took a bow from the ring, along with former champions Max Schmeling, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano.

Both combatants weighed the heaviest of their careers, but whereas the extra weight perhaps strengthened Floyd, Johansson appeared too bulky.

Maybe Ingemar knew from the outset that he was not in condition to go 15 rounds, as he set off more aggressively than in the two previous meetings. Whereas he had used the right hand sparingly previously, on this night he was looking to land the Hammer of Thor early. It soon appeared to have paid off as halfway through the first round he floored the champion. Floyd regained his feet, but a flurry of punches had him down again. With still a minute to go Floyd was up but seemingly on the verge of another humiliating defeat. However, as Johansson went in for the finish, Patterson caught him with a stunning left hook to put him on the canvas. Johansson beat the count to end one of the great first rounds in heavyweight history.

Both men had moments of success over the next few rounds in what was a ragged performance from both boxers, with Floyd marginally establishing superiority as Johansson tired. Neither man had been the full 15 rounds in their respective careers, and it looked a safe bet they would not be going the distance on this evening.

Johansson sat breathing heavily on his stool prior to the sixth. Despite this, he started the round more brightly than Floyd. Midway through the round, Patterson seemed to start voluntarily retreating, as if feeling the effects of the pace or Ingemar’s punches. Any hopes of a turn in the tide for Johansson were quickly dispelled when, with less than a minute to go, a chopping right hand from the champion had the Swede on his knees. As he listened to referee, Bill Regan’s count, Ingemar slipped back onto the seat of his shorts, illustrating the extent of the trouble he was in. He attempted to beat the count, almost falling forward into the chest of the referee as he did so. Regan waved the fight off as his count reached ten, although boos from the crowd suggested that some felt it was a hasty ending. Ingemar, however, was a beaten and exhausted man and Patterson had brought a conclusive end to the trilogy at 2-46 of the sixth round.

Howard Cosell was quick to interview the victor. Patterson, forever honest, admitted to being “very groggy” and close to defeat in that sensational first round. Cosell then asked Floyd about the challenge of the man who would go on to cast a shadow over Patterson’s legacy. Would the champion be facing Sonny Liston next? It is hard to imagine any other champion other than the enigmatic Floyd coming back with this response.

“Sonny Liston is the number one contender, and I’ve always said that if there is another man out there that can very honestly beat me in a fair and square fight, as much as it hurts, I’d rather see him win the title than myself.”

Despite his win, the press were not impressed with Patterson as champion. He was too susceptible to right hands and too easily and frequently floored. A. J. Liebling considered him at that point, a second-rate heavyweight champion. He was not the only writer of the time who believed that both Patterson and Johansson were two of the poorest of all world heavyweight champions.

It is well known that Floyd tried to escape the scene of his defeat to Liston incognito, with the aid of a fake beard and moustache. He also had this disguise prepared prior to the second Johansson fight. Although not required on that occasion, it highlights his insecurities.

If Patterson holds the unenviable record for the most frequently floored heavyweight champion, then he must also hold the record for being the champion who most often got back to his feet to beat the count.

The three Patterson – Johansson fights, without question, are one of the legendary boxing trilogies from the sport’s golden age. The heavyweight title changing hands twice, multiple knockdowns, underdog victories, conclusive knockouts, contrasting characters, it had it all.

Despite recording some notable wins in the post-Liston phase of his career, the win in the return bout with Johansson, an immediate rematch following a crushing defeat, was likely the summit of his 20-year professional career.

Patterson was a man who preferred a life away from the spotlight, ironic given that what he achieved under the glare of the ring lights.

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