Floyd Patterson

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2012-07-10
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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A two-time World Heavyweight Champion known as the Gentleman of Boxing, Floyd Patterson was the youngest man to win the titleat 21 years of age in 1956and then the first boxer ever to regain it after suffering its loss. In his prime, during what many have called The Golden Age of Boxing, he was a favorite subject of writers like Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and Budd Schulberg. In one breath, Muhammad Ali called him the most skilled fighter he ever faced, and in another, christened him an "Uncle Tom" for his stance on black radicals. In this first trade biography about Patterson, critically acclaimed author W. K. Stratton chronicles the life of one of American boxing's forgotten legends-- an athlete usually overshadowed by Ali's theatrics and Liston's fearsome reputation and a civil rights activist overlooked in the who's who of race politics. From humble beginnings in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy, to a reform school upstate often visited by Eleanor Roosevelt, to a scrappy gym in Gramercy Park, Patterson went on to win an Olympic gold medal at seventeen and begin a professional career soon after. Known initially for his unique "peek-a-boo" stance and his wildcard manager, Cus D'Amato, Patterson went on to fight Archie Moore (whom he defeated for the title), Rocky Marciano, Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Ingemar Johansson (the man to whom he lost and from whom he regained the championship), and many others.



Nothing Short of Miraculous

The thermometers in midtown Manhattan registered a near-record high as dusk approached, but heat was not the worst meteorological malady afflicting New Yorkers that September day. Sulfur-based clouds floated eerily down the streets. A peculiar set of weather conditions had combined with the ever-present smoke belching from chimneys and exhaust pipes—common in the days before widespread pollution control. Calls from panicked city dwellers, their eyes burning and throats scratchy, tied up phone lines to police stations and newspaper offices. But neither cops nor reporters knew what to do about the noxious air, though there was a new word to describe this troublesome phenomenon: smog. Officials recommended that people stay inside until the situation improved.
   That was not an option for seventeen-year-old Floyd Patterson. The newsreel announcers of the day might have pronounced Friday, September 12, 1952, as Patterson’s date with destiny. At the very least, it marked the beginning of the prizefighting career he had dreamed of since elementary school. No way would toxic billows set him back.
   Besides, the sulfurous air smelled sweet compared to what Floyd found inside the St. Nicholas Arena, where thick cigarette and cigar smoke all but obscured the boxing ring. Though not as famous as Madison Square Garden, St. Nick’s had hosted thousands of fights over the previous fifty years. In fact, privately staged matches were held there even before boxing could be legally presented as a public event in New York, and it had become a favorite venue for Manhattan fight fans. Novelist and boxing aficionado Budd Schulberg lovingly recalled it as a place where “Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls were all around ringside, and the balcony was full of blue-collar holler guys ready to fight themselves.”1 On this night, they were all out in force despite the smog, the swells, and the working stiffs sweating alike in the unseasonable heat, to watch Olympic phenom Floyd Patterson box professionally for the first time.

Patterson’s manager, Cus D’Amato, had matched Floyd against a nobody from Harlem named Eddie Godbold for this first fight. The newspaper writers scoffed at the choice. Lewis Burton, a longtime boxing writer at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American, dismissed Godbold as nothing more than a “sacrificial lamb,” a “guaranteed knockout.”2
   Still, Patterson was anything but confident before the fight. Earlier in the day, as he fretted about the outcome, his mother had tried calming him by listing all he’d accomplished as an amateur. But her efforts were to little avail. Floyd remained nervous as he ate his typical breakfast—a chocolate bar—at the subway station, and he grew even more anxious at the New York State Athletic Commission offices and the prefight weigh-in. There, gravel-voiced reporters lobbed questions while photographers aimed their cameras at him, flashbulbs popping like punctured balloons. Floyd hated it. He didn’t feel comfortable on public display like this, and he preferred having D’Amato answer questions for him. He was happy to flee when the weigh-in was over. Floyd ate lunch, and D’Amato checked him in to a hotel, which was blessedly cool. Despite his nerves, he napped for most of the afternoon before departing for St. Nick’s. He found it easy to fall asleep.

Floyd’s nap did nothing to relieve his prefight jitters. He continued to worry about how well he would perform in the ring as his trainer, Frank Lavelle, wrapped his hands and laced on his gloves. When it was time for his bout, Patterson climbed into the ring, wearing the robe he’d earned as a member of the US Olympic team. The scene could have come straight from a Warner Bros. film noir popular at the time. Sportswriters, press cards stuck in the bands of their fedoras, crowded around the platform. Photographers with their ever-present Graflexes jockeyed for position along the ring apron. Stocky made-men with their ladies of the moment lounged in the expensive seats just behind the press. In the smoky darkness beyond them were the shouting stevedores and longshoremen in the cheap seats.
   The bell rang, and Patterson delivered his first punches as a professional boxer, quickly making it clear that the prognosticators had been right. It was no contest. Godbold made it only to the fourth round before Floyd knocked him out. Patterson collected $300 for his night’s work. He cared about the money, but the important thing was that he was now in the books as a prizefighter. He sensed a whole world of possibilities opening up for him.

Virtually no one who stepped out of St. Nick’s into the foul vapors of that New York night could have fully known what had just been witnessed—the beginning of a two-decades-long career that would change sports in general and boxing in particular. A career that set records, earned Floyd Patterson millions of dollars, and made him one of the most famous people in the world, at least for a time. A career that thrust him to the forefront of the civil rights movement, gave him access to the most powerful American politicians of the day, and set the mold for athletes desiring to speak out about social causes. A career that would be wrapped in controversy, winning him both devoted fans and harsh critics.
   Young men on the bottom rungs of American society have long turned to boxing to climb toward a better life. No one had a greater distance to scale than Floyd, a troubled kid who befuddled even those closest to him. “He’s a kind of a stranger,” D’Amato had said.3 He was a walking contradiction. At times he was astonishingly well spoken, given his education. “Indeed, among contemporary boxers,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates once observed, “no one is so articulate as Floyd Patterson.”4 But mostly he was quiet, disengaged from what was occurring around him. Muhammad Ali, who would become one of his great rivals, listed Patterson with legends Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman as the best prizefighters he had battled. “Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer,” Ali would say.5 But Floyd also endured countless blows to the head over his long career, often winding up on the mat. No important boxing champ was knocked down more during vital contests than Patterson. Yet he possessed an extraordinary ability to get up after those knockdowns and battle on to claim victory.
   Patterson was an overachiever who bootstrapped his way to the top, an all-American success story. As happens with many, perhaps most, such American heroes, he fell from popular favor as his skills waned and the nation’s tastes changed. But on this smoggy New York night, he had no notion what fate awaited him. As he rode the subway home, he had money in his pocket and the prospect to make more, in a sport he loved. Such good fortune was beyond the fantasies of poor kids from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. For people who had known Floyd Patterson as an invisible ghetto child—a child indistinguishable from thousands of others trapped in urban poverty—his becoming a professional boxer was nothing short of miraculous. Just a few years earlier, it seemed unlikely he’d turn out to be anything at all.


I Don’t Like That Boy!

ONE THING YOU could always say about Thomas Patterson:1 he worked hard. People in Waco, North Carolina, bore witness to that fact as Thomas put in long, brutal hours on the Seaboard Air Line Railway line crew. But, like nearly all black Americans in the South, Thomas never saw much in return for his labor. In 1936 he had a growing family—including his one-year-old baby, Floyd, who had been born on January 4 of the previous year—and could have used some extra dollars. But there was not much opportunity to make money in Waco, a poor hamlet in a poor part of a nation suffering through the Great Depression. He and his wife, Annabelle,2 heard from relatives that things were better up north. So they decided to depart North Carolina, with its poverty and its segregation, and seek out a better life elsewhere.
   In the years following World War I, black Americans like the Pattersons began abandoning the rural South by the hundreds of thousands to flee racism and seek jobs in the industrialized Northeast and upper Midwest. Eventually, some seven million people took part in this Great Migration, forever changing the cultural landscape of the United States. American popular music would never be the same because of the demographic shift, nor would politics, cuisine, literature, fashion, or sports.
   Thomas chose the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn as the new home for his family. Although blacks had lived in Brooklyn for more than two hundred years, Bedford-Stuyvesant, with its graceful brownstones and tree-lined streets, had been off-limits to them for decades. But in the early 1900s blacks began moving into Bed-Stuy as New York’s burgeoning population forced the breakdown of old barriers. It became one of the first urban areas in the United States to experience white flight, as property speculators used the growing black population to convince whites to sell their homes at prices far below even the depressed market values of the 1930s. The once stately houses in Bed-Stuy were then gutted and reoutfitted as cheap apartment houses. In 1930 fewer than thirty thousand nonwhite residents lived in the neighborhood, but that changed quickly with wave after wave of black immigrants. Soon, Bed-Stuy was a large African American ghetto.
   What Thomas Patterson found for his family in Bed-Stuy was different from what he’d known in North Carolina, but it would be hard to make the case that it was much of an improvement, at least as far as the family’s livelihood was concerned. The Pattersons had simply traded small-town poverty for urban poverty. In Bed-Stuy, the sidewalks were crowded, and discarded newspapers took flight with each gust of wind. The buildings were dingy, rapidly falling into disrepair, and infested with roaches and other vermin. Crime was commonplace, and the family was forced to contend with street hustlers and gang members, something unheard of back in Waco. Yet Bed-Stuy was a place where blacks were free to speak much more openly than they could back in North Carolina. The Pattersons would have been exposed to the progressive concepts of W. E. B Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and to the street-corner preachments of radicalized followers of Marcus Garvey, something that would have been unheard of in the South of the 1930s and 1940s. However, the family’s struggle to keep a roof overhead and food on the table overshadowed the lofty idealism surrounding them.
   The Pattersons fell into a pattern of frequent moves within Bed-Stuy as the family grew larger. Floyd remembered six or seven apartments from his childhood, but there might have been more. All were four- or five-room dwellings known as railroad flats—apartments whose rooms are in a line with doors between them, not dissimilar to shotgun shacks in the South—with no running hot water, heated by coal or oil-fired stoves. “The only windows were in the rooms in the front and the back, and it was always too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and never big enough,” Patterson recalled in his autobiography,Victory over Myself.3
   To pay the rent on these shabby dwellings, Thomas Patterson worked long hours on construction crews, for the city sanitation department, as a longshoreman, and at the mob-controlled Fulton Fish Market on the East River waterfront in lower Manhattan. He was in his forties, and the harsh physical requirements of these jobs took everything out of him. He came home at night exhausted and frustrated. Sometimes he skipped dinner and went straight to the bedroom, where he collapsed into sleep, still wearing his work clothes. Every Friday he handed all his pay to Floyd’s mother for household expenses. But his workweek wasn’t over. He took odd jobs on weekends to bring in a little more cash. “I felt very, very sorry for my father,” Floyd remembered. “I’d see him go out to work at six in the morning and come home sometimes at one the next morning. Some days he’d take a drink when it was cold outside, after he got home. I was the one who would take off his shoes and clean his feet. I enjoyed it.”4
   Annabelle also worked, first as a maid, then later at a bottling plant. With both parents employed, the Patterson children were on their own for most of the day. They, like other neighborhood children, had plenty of opportunity for getting into trouble on the streets. Fights, often involving clubs and knives, were common. Fruit carts and stores provided temptation for shoplifting. But the young Floyd Patterson had problems beyond those of a typical ghetto kid, problems that mystified his parents, his teachers, and ultimately himself.

A photograph hanging on a wall in the Patterson home showed Floyd at age two, during a trip to the Bronx Zoo with his brothers Frank and Billy. As Floyd grew older, he frequently stared at the picture, silent rage building inside him. He would point to the photo and shout to his mother, “I don’t like that boy!” Annabelle Patterson had no idea what caused these outbursts. Her son’s obsession with the image eventually took a darker turn when Floyd carved an X over his face in the photo, shocking his mother, who could not understand what would provoke such a destructive act.
   Nor could she understand her son’s odd nighttime behavior. Nightmares and screaming fits were regular occurrences. He also began sleepwalking, sometimes strolling the busy sidewalk outside the apartment house in his pajamas. The sleepwalking alarmed his parents so much that they took Floyd to a doctor, something that would not have been undertaken lightly given the family finances. The doctor charged the office-visit fee but offered no remedy.
   When Floyd started elementary school, his troubles only increased. He was convinced the other kids were making fun of him. He saw himself as the perfect butt for jokes—a tall, skinny, gawky kid with a grimy face. His hand-me-down clothes were oversized: shoes too big for his feet, cuffed trousers with a waistband drawn tight with a belt to keep them from falling down, a shirt so large it flapped in the breeze. Beyond his appearance, Floyd knew there were other reasons for people to ridicule him. His social skills were all but nonexistent. He couldn’t bring himself to talk to other people, nor could he look anyone in the eye.
   Floyd quickly fell behind the other students. He went from one year to another without learning how to read or write, though later IQ tests showed him to be of average intelligence. Even when he knew the answer, Floyd did not raise his hand in class, not wanting to call attention to himself. Teachers had little opportunity to get to know him. He once estimated that he attended as many as ten Brooklyn elementary schools because of the family’s frequent address changes. “The schools he went to in the area,” Jimmy Breslin once wrote in his popular newspaper column, “have old, faded record cards showing he attended nine days in one of them, a couple of weeks in another. The rest of the time he ran the streets, a strange, illiterate kid who would stick his chin on his chest and look at the ground when anybody tried to talk to him.”5
   Floyd didn’t care about schoolwork or whether he was promoted to the next grade. At the same time, he despised himself for not caring. He sought out dark places to hide whenever he had the chance. Frequently he hid in the school’s cellar and stayed there until class was dismissed. The teachers became accustomed to his vacant desk. Eventually, he started skipping school altogether—especially Fridays, assembly day.
   School rules required him to wear a white shirt and tie on Fridays, and his only dress clothes were hand-me-downs from his father that were much too large for him. Floyd believed he looked like a character straight from a comic book. The other kids laughed at him, even more so than usual. Or so it seemed to Floyd. Plenty of Bed-Stuy kids had it just as tough as he did, but Floyd was blind to them. On those Fridays, he could see only the kids who were better off, and register humiliation because he was not among them.

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