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Floyd Patterson: Boxing's Invisible Champion - W.K. Stratton

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Author: W.K Stratton / 336 pages / Publisher: Mainstream Publishing / Released: 1 Nov 2012

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      13.07.2013 19:12
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      Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion was written by WK Stratton and published in 2012. Patterson was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1956 to 1959 and again from 1960 to 1962. He won Gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics aged just 17 and when he beat Archie Moore in 1956 aged 21 he became the youngest world heavyweight champion in history. Patterson was also the first heavyweight champion to regain the title in the ring - a feat he accomplished by battering the happy-go-lucky Swede Ingemar Johansson in the second bout of their memorable trilogy in 1960. But Patterson was so plagued by self-doubt that writers dubbed him "Freud" Patterson. "I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness," Patterson told the writer Gay Talese of Esquire magazine in 1964. "It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you're alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word 'myself' is because... is because I am a coward." When Patterson lost his heavyweight championship to Sonny Liston he snuck out of his hotel after the fight alone wearing a fake beard and took a random flight to Madrid, wandering around the Spanish capital in disguise, too ashamed to show his face or return to America. The only thing he knew how to order in Spanish was soup so he had soup for dinner every night while he was there. No heavyweight champion's political (Patterson was a black public figure in race torn sixties America and so could not avoid politics even if he'd tried) and historical stock ever shifted around with such rapidity. To this day no one can still quite decide if Patterson was a great fighter or merely a decent one but as a person - and perhaps even as a political symbol - there are few doubts that, in his own very eccentric way, he was a great man.

      This is a welcome book about a fascinating figure who unavoidably suffered from living in the shadows cast by Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. The author tells us that Patterson grew up as one of eleven children in the rough and nightmarish Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn. He was a petty thief and truant who often had a powerful yearning desire to escape from the world and be alone, riding lonely subway trains for hours. He hated that his parents had to work hard for such small reward and would steal fruit and milk to smuggle home. The big turning point of his life came when he was sent to an upstate facility for troubled boys named Wiltwyck School at ten years old. He loved the fresh air and open spaces and - always shy, even later as an adult - began to come out of his shell in smaller classes. The young Patterson was also given boxing lessons and proved to be something of a natural. When he returned to the city he went to a boxing club with his brothers and ended up at Gramercy Park Gym where he began a long association and friendship with manager/trainer Cus D'Amato. D'Amato was one of those grizzled Runyonesque characters who could only have existed in the world of boxing. He was considered to be a crank and a flake by many but the Nietzsche reading sage was an endlessly quotable eccentric and a man of independent integrity who was loved by his boxers. D'Amato told Patterson that fear and doubt was not only normal for a boxer but essential. "Fear is natural. Fear is your friend. When a deer walks through the forest it has fear. This is nature's way of keeping the deer alert. Without fear we would not survive."

      D'Amato believed that the more you enjoyed life the more you feared death and so maintained a modest lifestyle. For D'Amato, money was only fit for "throwing off the back of trains." Decades later, when he was an old man near the end, D'Amato would discover another young teenage heavyweight prodigy in Mike Tyson. D'Amato adopted Tyson and, like Patterson, "Iron" Mike adored his wise mentor and hung on every word he uttered. It is often said that if D'Amato had lived longer then Tyson would not have self-destructed the way he did. Certainly, Patterson never had anything but kind words to say about D'Amato and the influence the trainer had on him. He felt the adult Tyson had missed what he got from D'Amato. When Cus died, Tyson was still a teenager. The author is pretty solid on the boxing side of Patterson's career. I love the details here like the "peek-a-boo" style that D'Amato always trained his fighters to use. Though hardly similar physical types (one was lean and plausible while the other was like a cross between Joe Frazier and a tank) and separated by different decades and eras, both Patterson and Tyson fought with the "peek-a-boo" stance. Gloves up high as if glued around the face for protection and the elbows dug in against the ribs to guard against body blows. D'Amato trained his boxers to use the left-hook as the primary offensive weapon from this style but it did help of course that Patterson and Tyson both had remarkable handspeed for heavyweights.

      The spin through Patterson's title reigns are nicely evoked by the author and take us back to an era when boxing was a much bigger deal than it is now. In the sixties and seventies everyone in the world knew who the heavyweight champion was. D'Amato was cagey and shrewd in selecting opponents, looking for the least amount of risk to extend Floyd's time as champion. Patterson was knocked down more than any heavyweight champion in history and regarded to have a "glass jaw" but as Floyd himself pointed out, he nearly always got back up again to win the fight so his heart was never in question. These title fights are fun to read about. The encounters with Johansson, a colorful Swede who spent more time chasing women than training but did have a very powerful right hand punch known as "Ingo's Bingo", and also the very strange match where Olympic champion Pete Rademacher challenged Floyd for the heavyweight championship of the world in his professional debut! This was more of an event (no surprise that the crafty Rademacher went on to become a successful businessman) than a fight but Rademacher did manage to knock Patterson down before his inevitable demise. The problem for matchmaker D'Amato was that a new contender was rising rapidly in the rankings and couldn't be ignored for much longer. Charles "Sonny" Liston was the most chilling heavyweight to emerge for decades, perhaps ever. A hulking ex-convict with ham like fists and a surly demeanor, it was apparent to most that Liston would surely demolish the much smaller Patterson if they fought. D'Amato avoided the fight for as long as he could on the grounds that Liston was a nasty piece of work with criminal convictions but it was Patterson who insisted on taking the fight in the end. He'd been given a second chance himself and reasoned that he couldn't deny Sonny the same opportunity.

      All of a sudden, Patterson, who America had been fairly ambivalent about, was now the public's darling, the hope of the "civilised" world. Liston was a scary looking former convict with mob connections. He was always in trouble. Drunk in public, speeding, disputes with the police, being sarcastic with reporters. No one wanted him to be heavyweight champion. Then there was Patterson. Humble, gentle disposition, quiet, intelligent, never in trouble. He even lived in a white neighbourhood. John F Kennedy met with Patterson and wished him luck. Eleanor Roosevelt was counting on him. The whole of liberal white America was counting on him. Most black folks were counting on him. And after two minutes in the ring with Liston the referee was counting on him, all the way to ten. Although he was only 27 after his two (why anyone thought the rematch would be any different or was necessary is something of a mystery to me) first round losses to Liston, it looked to be the end for Floyd. He was written off as a poor champion who had taken advantage of a brief fallow period between the retirement of Rocky Marciano and the arrival of Liston. But Patterson proved the doubters wrong by fighting his way back to a title shot - this time against Liston's conqueror Muhammad Ali. Ali may be one of the most beloved famous people in the world today but he was pretty much loathed by America in the sixties. Ali was seen as an irritating loudmouth and had become public enemy number one when he joined the Nation of Islam. Once again the unassuming Floyd had somehow become the standard bearer for "civilisation" and the establishment again, now confronting a man who belonged to a sinister organisation in the thrall of evil Svengali Malcom X. That was the general simplification.

      To say that Patterson and Ali did not get on would be something of an understatement. Ali depicted Patterson as an anachronism, an Uncle Tom. A beneficiary of the sort of faux liberalism which approved the advancement of black people but only a certain kind - not the outspoken and uppity types like Ali. For his part, Floyd was appalled by the separatist policy of the Nation of Islam and said Ali might as well have joined the KKK. Patterson always insisted on non-segregated arenas at his fights and had risked his life standing alongside Martin Luthor King at public meetings and speeches. He believed in civil rights and all people living together. To him, the Black Muslims were dangerous and weird. Patterson infuriated Ali by refusing to acknowledge his Muslim name, always referring to him as "Clay" instead. "That's the name his parents gave to him," he offered by way of explanation. It was one of the few times that Floyd had lacked class and his opponent was determined to punish him. Ali treated Patterson with utter disdain in the ring when they fought in 1965. Patterson had fast hands but the heavyweight division had never seen anyone as fast as Ali. The new champion picked apart Patterson with ease until the fight was stopped in the twelfth round. Patterson might have lost but he came out with a lot of credit for the way he stood up to the much bigger and faster Ali in the ring. In the eyes of many, Patterson even deserved to win back a portion of the heavyweight title a few years later in 1968 but came away the victim of an unpopular majority decision in his fight with Jimmy Ellis for the vacant WBA title. Patterson fought on until 1972 (his last fight was actually a spirited rematch with Ali, Patterson being stopped on cuts in seven rounds) and posted a final record of 55 wins against eight losses. Despite staying in fighting shape for many years after, he never made a comeback out of respect for his second wife. It was time to give his family the attention he'd previously given to boxing.

      The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion clearly has a great story to tell and Stratton does it well for the most part. This is a fascinating period for both America and boxing and to travel back here is often compelling. The fights, characters, politics etc. Even if Patterson still somehow remains vaguely elusive after all these decades and several years after his death. Stratton is not Norman Mailer or David Remnick but he has produced a solid and likeable book about this interesting and somewhat forgotten heavyweight champion. Quibbles? I felt the book could have been longer and maybe given us more insight into Patterson's private life and it's a shame that it only concentrates on his boxing years in a way. In later years, Patterson became chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission for a time, campaigned tirelessly to advance awareness and equality for HIV/Aids, worked as a counsellor, and also trained boxers. In the 1980s a boy used to constantly turn up at his family house where his gym was based but be too shy to come in. Patterson, who made a point of declaring that his door was always open to anyone in trouble, learned the boy was from a broken home and saw a lot of himself in the youngster. He started training him and later adopted him. The boy grew up and became a two time world champion as Tracy Harris Patterson. So many great stories about his later life so one does unavoidably wish we could have got some of this. What did Floyd make of fellow D'Amato student Mike Tyson's turmoil and self-destructive behaviour? It would have been interesting to get a detailed view.

      These grumbles aside, I enjoyed this book a lot and breezed through in a couple of days. Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion is about £8 for a hardback copy at the moment and a bit expensive for what you get but I'd certainly recommend this when the price comes down or if you find a much better deal.

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