Floyd Patterson, who turned his troubled young life around with boxing and became, despite a gentle disposition, the world heavyweight champion, died today in New Paltz, N.Y. He was 71.
Floyd Patterson in 1962
He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for about eight years and also had prostate cancer, said his nephew Sherman Patterson, according to The Associated Press.
In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Patterson won the middleweight gold medal with five knockouts in five bouts. Then, in a 20-year professional career, he won 55 bouts, lost 8 and fought to 1 draw. His total purses reached $8 million, a record then.
He won the heavyweight title twice, knocking out Archie Moore and Ingemar Johansson. He lost it twice, defended it successfully seven times and failed three times to regain it. He generally weighed little more than 180 pounds, light for a heavyweight, but he made the most of mobility, fast hands and fast reflexes.
He was a good guy in the bad world of boxing. He was mild, sweet, retiring, reclusive, impassive and ascetic. He spoke softly and never lost his boyhood shyness. Constantine (Cus) D'Amato, who died in 1985, trained Patterson throughout his professional career and called him "a kind of a stranger." Red Smith, The New York Times sports columnist, called him "the man of peace who loves to fight."
Patterson acknowledged his sensitivity.
"You can hit me and I won't think much of it," he once said, "but you can say something and hurt me very much."
W. C. Heinz, the boxing columnist, found a fundamental difference between Patterson the fighter and Patterson the person.
"In expressing himself as a fighter," Heinz wrote, "Patterson knows almost complete security. Outside the ring, he knows no such security. A shy, sensitive soul-searcher, he volunteers little. He might be called a conversational counterpuncher. When he does speak out, however, it is with a purity reminiscent of Joe Louis."
Floyd Patterson was born Jan. 4, 1935, in a cabin in Waco, N.C., the third eldest of 11 children. His father, Thomas, was a manual laborer and his mother, Annabelle, was a domestic who later worked in a bottling plant until the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Above the youngster's bed was a picture of him with two older brothers and an uncle, all boxers. He often told his mother, "I don't like that boy," and once he scratched three large X's over his face in the picture.
He became a frequent truant who fell behind in school. At age 11, he could not read or write. He would not talk, and when someone talked to him he refused to look the person in the face.
His mother had him committed to Wiltwyck School, a school in upstate New York for emotionally disturbed boys. His new teachers helped him learn to read and encouraged him to take up boxing there, which he did.
A year and a half later, Patterson returned home. He attended Public School 614 for maladjusted children and then spent one term at Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School before quitting to help support his family.
At 14, he started working out at the Gramercy Gym on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a battered gym owned and run by the iconoclastic D'Amato. In 1950, he also started boxing as an amateur. In 1951, he won the New York Golden Gloves open middleweight title. In 1952, after his Olympic success, he turned professional.
His first pro bout earned him only $300, but by 1956 he had become a leading heavyweight. When Rocky Marciano retired that year as the undefeated champion, Patterson was matched against Moore, the light-heavyweight champion, for the heavyweight title.
For the fight on Nov. 30 in Chicago Stadium, Patterson rode to the stadium with Sam Taub, the veteran broadcaster and reporter. As Taub recalled, "He sat there gazing out of the window like he was going to the movies."
When they arrived, Patterson put on his trunks, socks, boxing shoes and robe, stretched out on a rubbing table and went to sleep. A few hours later, he stopped Moore in five rounds and at 21 became the youngest heavyweight champion to that point.
Patterson defended the title willingly but uncomfortably. In 1957, he knocked out Pete Rademacher in six rounds in Seattle and in 1958 he stopped Roy (Cut 'n' Shoot) Harris in 12 rounds in Los Angeles after both had knocked him down.
On June 26, 1959, at Yankee Stadium, Patterson lost the title when Johansson knocked him down seven times before the referee stopped the bout in the third round. On June 20, 1960, at the Polo Grounds, Patterson knocked out Johansson in the fifth round and became the first to regain the heavyweight title.
"It was worth losing the title for this," Patterson said. "This is easily the most gratifying moment of my life. I'm champ again, a real champ this time."
The glory days ended with Patterson's two title fights against Charles (Sonny) Liston. On Sept. 25, 1962, in Chicago, Liston knocked out Patterson in the first round and became the champion, and an embarrassed Patterson drove home wearing dark glasses, a mustache and a beard. But he insisted on a return bout because, he said, "If I stopped now, that would be running away. I did that when I was a kid. I've grown out of that."
The return bout came on July 22, 1963, in Las Vegas, and the result was the same, Liston by a knockout in the first round. Patterson kept fighting after that, but never at his championship level.
In 1965 in Las Vegas, with Patterson hiding a back injury, Muhammad Ali all but tortured him before winning in 12 rounds. In 1970 in Madison Square Garden, Ali opened a seven-stitch cut over Patterson's left eye and beat him in seven rounds.
Patterson persevered. He did not need the money, but he liked to fight. As Arthur Daley observed, "His was the sad and touching fate of the born loser."
After Patterson retired in 1972, he became a respected front man for his sport. In 1983, he told a Congressional subcommittee: "I would not like to see boxing abolished. I come from a ghetto, and boxing is a way out. It would be pitiful to abolish boxing because you would be taking away the one way out."
From 1977 to 1984 he was a member and from 1995 to 1998 the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which supervised boxing in the state. He led a successful campaign to have the state mandate thumbless gloves and thus reduce eye injuries.
In April 1998, while giving a deposition, his short-term memory failed. He could not remember the names of his two fellow commission members or his secretary or office routines. He resigned the next day.
Patterson was voted into the United States Olympic Committee Hall of Fame in 1987 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. The public loved him. As Dave Anderson wrote in 1972 in The New York Times:
"He projects the incongruous image of a gentle gladiator, a martyr persecuted by the demons of his profession. But his mystique also contains a morbid curiosity. Any boxing fan worth his weight in The Ring record books wants to be there for Floyd's last stand. Until then, Floyd Patterson keeps boxing, the windmills of his mind turned by his own breezes."