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Pete Rademacher, 1928-2020

Pete Rademacher
Matt Christie pays tribute to Pete Rademacher, a man who defied all odds simply by believing in himself

PETE RADEMACHER died last week at the age of 91 and will forever be remembered for losing the most audacious debut in boxing history. Armed with an Olympic gold medal and a bellyful of bravado, Washington’s Pete Rademacher decided he wanted to challenge for the world heavyweight title in his very first professional fight. The inevitable defeat that followed would define Rademacher’s career yet his desire to initiate the contest should say even more about the man he was.

He tore through the heavyweight field at the 1956 Games with such power and finesse that he saw no reason to hang around. Nine hours after Pete knocked out Russia’s Lev Moukhine inside a round to win gold in Melbourne, the heavyweight championship – vacant after Rocky Marciano’s retirement – was won by 21-year-old Floyd Patterson with a fifth-round win over the 39-year-old Archie Moore.

“I’d already decided that I wanted to fight the winner [of Patterson-Moore] before I fought in the final,” Rademacher later explained. “Moore was a great fighter but he was getting older and older and Patterson was just a young punk. I saw nothing in either of them to suggest they could beat me.”

Rademacher first persuaded sporting goods magnate Melchior Jennings to head a syndicate that backed him financially before convincing Patterson’s manager, Cus D’Amato, to agree to the fight. With a guaranteed $250,000 on the table, Patterson signed the contract. Floyd knew the bout would be ridiculed but saw even less sense in turning down such a monstrous sum to fight a debutant. Predictably, the 1957 contest, set for Sicks’ Stadium in Seattle on August 21, was roundly criticised.

The bookmakers – exhibiting far more sense than those who gave Conor McGregor half a chance against Floyd Mayweather sixty years later – refused to take any bets on the outcome. For the first and only time in a world heavyweight championship fight, the bout was deemed such a grotesque mismatch that no odds were posted.

Rademacher cared not a damn. Showing remarkable levels of confidence, and no shortage of unashamed naivety, he set about banging the promotional drum. The 16,000 fans he persuaded to buy tickets would be the only fans who watched the events unfold in real time; there was no live TV or radio.

By the time the first round began, Rademacher already felt like the winner. “The hard part was getting the fight done,” he later said. “The easy part was actually fighting.”

And so it proved… to a point. He won the opening round by boxing clever and then decked Patterson in the next. Rademacher later said: “I thought to myself when he went down, ‘He’s not getting up!’” But Patterson did get up. And it was at about that point, as Patterson dusted himself off, that Rademacher realised the utter madness of his plan.

“I saw him standing there and I’d hit him with my best punch. I knew I couldn’t go 15 rounds. I started to worry at that point.”

Rademacher was floored seven times before being stopped in the sixth round yet the challenger showed remarkable guts to keep rising. “He’s the most courageous fighter I have ever seen in a boxing ring,” said referee and former light-heavyweight king, Tommy Loughran.

Rademacher fought on. Almost as barmy as fighting Patterson in his debut was his decision to take on leading contender Zora Folley in his second bout. Though Rademacher had split two bouts with Folley in the amateur ranks, the stylist had progressed significantly since. Folley was ruthless while thrashing Rademacher in four rounds.

Most men would have stopped at that point: 0-2 and with 11 knockdowns scored against him, the writing was on the wall. But perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Pete Rademacher is that he ignored it.

After the most torrid of starts, he boxed on in very good company for four more years. Furthermore, though he would lose another five bouts – to Brian London, Archie Moore, Karl Mildenberger, Doug Jones and George Logan – he actually won 17. The likes of George Chuvalo, LaMar Clark and Bobo Olson were among Rademacher’s victims.

He went on to promote, judge and referee (he officiated the likes of Ray Leonard, Tim Witherspoon and Azumah Nelson) and the former Army officer also found success away from boxing as a president within the McNeil Corporation, as a shooting instructor and as a charity fundraiser.

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