Floyd Patterson had an ego the size of a soybean, and, sandwiched between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali in the great scheme of boxing, he needed one that small. If getting knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston twice within a 10-month span wasn't enough, Patterson had to sit back and watch Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman -- the undisputed titans of the sport in the 1960s and '70s -- peck at and then whittle away and then eventually eclipse his legacy as a fighter.
When he died Thursday, at age 71, finally succumbing to the one-two of Alzheimer's and prostate cancer, he had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated exactly seven times, most recently (if that's the word) as a brooding, arms-crossed, scared-looking challenger before his ill-fated 1965 bout with Ali. In his 64 years, The Greatest has graced SI's cover 37 times.
Anyone who has seen the wonderfully satirical barbershop scene from Eddie Murphy's Coming to America (1988) can rightfully claim to know something about classic boxing. The four or five fixtures at the shop, almost all played by Murphy and by Arsenio Hall, argue back and forth about who was, and is, the “greatest boxer who ever lived.” You hear Joe Louis. Cassius Clay. And the white guy who – inevitably -- brings up Rocky Marciano. No Patterson, though, despite his obvious skill in the ring, his almost obsequious humility, his then-unprecedented feat of reclaiming the heavyweight title after briefly losing it to Ingemar Johansson in 1959. (Ali would match the accomplishment in 1974 and better it in 1978.)
Patterson was a bridge figure, like the minor-keyed third verse of any standard pop song. He was dark and brooding, and somewhat off. While not a minor boxer, he acted -- and often behaved as if he knew it -- as a mere placeholder between the pearls of Jack Johnson, Louis, and Ali on the strand of boxing history. But before boxing was a business, before Don King and all that jazz, there was Floyd Patterson, and that soybean-sized ego.
In King of the World, his short biography on Ali, New Yorker editor David Remnick calls Patterson the “Underground Man” and begins his discussion of him by bluntly stating, “On the morning of the [Patterson-Sonny Liston] fight, the Heavyweight Champion of the World packed a loser's suitcase. Floyd Patterson, for all his hand speed, for all the hours he put in at the gym, was the most doubt-addled titleholder in the history of the division.” Patterson would often pack a disguise in his suitcase so that, in case of defeat, he could quickly wend through the bowels of the arena to his car without being detected and, for him at least, humiliated all over again.
Patterson was boxing's King Edward VI, the suffering English monarch between the awe-inspiring reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Born slight and sickly, Edward VI entered Henry VIII's England, and he was too timid to recast it in his own image. Similarly, Patterson found himself stuck as champion in a boxing world still enamored of Joe Louis, unable to create a true environment in which he would be king. That task, of course, would fall to Ali -- as it did for Queen Elizabeth -- as the title of Remnick's book can attest.
Still, Floyd Patterson was something. His knockout punch against Johansson in their first rematch is considered by many to be one of boxing's greatest punches; upon his meeting with President John F. Kennedy before the first Liston fight, JFK didn't joke, didn't ask, but rather implored Patterson to beat the allegedly mob-tied ex-convict from St. Louis. Patterson lost in the first and had to carry the shame of letting down not just himself, but the President and his country, in the ring. Abiding by the old adage, Patterson tried again with Liston and met an almost identical first-round pasting. Still, unsettled by the increasing commercialization and garishness of the sport (which he felt was perfectly personified by Ali), Patterson took to the ring again in 1965 to fight Ali.
And it was ugly. While never evoking the epic “Radical versus Establishment” frenzy that Ali's three fights with Frazier uncorked, the bout revealed much about the guts, the fibers, and filaments that each fighter had ridden to reach the peak of his profession. Patterson had been a Brooklyn hood headed for reform school until Cus D'Amato discovered him and brought him to his gym. Ali, of course, had rocketed to the top with brashness, arrogance, and a bilious attitude toward other fighters. Mark Kram, who wrote about boxing for SI in the 1970s, explained that Ali's pride was really self-righteous anger. “When [Ali] became champ, he accelerated the contempt that shames and humiliates, especially against those he saw as threats to his superiority and rank among blacks, particularly the much-loved Floyd Patterson and later the implacable challenge of [Joe] Frazier.” In one of his less-than-great moments, Ali “Swift-Boated” Patterson with unnecessary ridicule and vitriol, turning what should have been an easy romp into an exhibition of his own superiority. Ali, of course, was no blacker than Patterson, no more a prisoner of his skin than his opponent. Years earlier, leaders of the NAACP had called Patterson “a civil-rights man, an integrationist, a reform-minded gentleman.” Ali, of course, was a member of the Nation of Islam, a segregationist, and -- at that time, at least -- not fighting the U.S. government over the right to conscientiously object to the Vietnam War. After his conviction for draft dodging in 1967, Ali would become a hero at least to anti-establishment Americans, but at the time of -- certainly on the night of -- the Patterson fight, he was a charlatan (albeit a supremely talented charlatan), a black fighter belittling Floyd Patterson merely for being Floyd Patterson.
Patterson, called “Uncle Tom” by Ali for insisting on addressing the champion as “Cassius Clay,” was bullied, tormented, and mocked for 12 rounds by a vastly superior opponent. Patterson had once cradled Johansson's KO'd head as if he were horrified by the shellacking he had just subjected it to; now, he was getting upstaged and, ironically, outclassed, by the brash new champ. Exactly two years after Kennedy died, Patterson-as-fighter did, too, forever a prince in the realm of kings.
It's rare to find a champion unconcerned with who knows -- who thinks, even --that he's the champion. Sports would be lucky to have another Floyd Patterson.
Simon Maxwell Apter, a former Prospect intern, is a Spring 2006 intern at The Nation.