At a time when the sports world is peppered with so many thugs and jerks, the loss of a positive role model hits particularly hard. The death of former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson of Alzheimer’s at 71 deprives the world of just such a role model, and it deprives me of a living hero.
Fascinated by boxing and taught to box by my father at age five, I worshipped Patterson growing up. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when I wrote an angry letter to a sports columnist who had criticized Patterson, and an excerpt was printed in the paper. I still work out on a heavy punching bag when the spirit moves me, and when I put on the gloves I’m Floyd Patterson in my mind.
It was in the 1950s, back in the days of the Friday-night fights on TV, when I was first attracted to Patterson, as many were, by his dizzying hand speed. His gloves moving so quickly they were a blur, he would often land five, six, or seven punches in beautiful combinations before his opponent could respond with one.
But what also captured my young heart were two other things about Patterson–his compelling life story and his humility.
One of 11 children, he was a petty thief on the streets of Brooklyn until he was sent away to reform school. Vowing to make something of his life and attracted to boxing, he wandered into the Gramercy Gym one day and met trainer and manager Cus D’Amato, a man who would not only guide Patterson’s career but would become a substitute father.
Under D’Amato’s tutelage, Patterson won the New York Golden Gloves championship and, in 1952, the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki in the middleweight division. He turned pro that same year, later moved up in weight class, and in 1956 became, at the age of 21, the youngest person ever to win the heavyweight championship.
Outside the ring Patterson was quiet spoken and mild mannered. He was unfailingly gracious and polite and never bragged about his accomplishments, in contrast to so many “in your face” modern athletes who chest-thump and preen. Even in a sport as genteel as golf, Tiger Woods, with his fist-pumping, club throwing, and swearing, could learn something from Patterson about humility.
One of Patterson’s darkest nights occurred in 1959 when he was knocked down seven times in the third round in losing his title to Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson. His humiliation was my pain. It was one of the few times, as a man or a boy, that the outcome of a sporting event made me weep.
Knowing there would be a rematch, but too much of a nice guy to work up sufficient resentment against his opponent on his own, Patterson watched a film of his knockout over and over again to help build up motivation. In 1961, in what is considered one of the greatest knockouts in boxing history, Patterson caught Johansson with a vicious left hook in their second fight, becoming the first boxer ever to recapture the heavyweight title.
I have a video of that fight, and when I need to be reminded that comebacks are possible, no matter how bad things seem at the time, I watch it for inspiration.
Patterson retired in 1972 with a record of 55 wins, including 40 by knockout, eight losses, and one draw. Two of his losses were to Muhammad Ali. Patterson later twice served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and counseled troubled children.
My hero once said something that can be applied to the life of a person or, in these troubled times, to the life of a country. “They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most, but I also got up the most.”
Patterson was not the greatest heavyweight champion. He might have been better if he had been meaner, like Sonny Liston, or if he had more confidence in himself, like Muhammad Ali. He was a gentle soul, someone who, outside the ring, would never be taken for a boxer.
But if not the greatest champ, he was a great man. He epitomized the words “role model,” and I’m sure the example he set influenced the lives of many from my era. I wish we had more like him.
–Doug Gamble, a former writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, writes for various politicians and corporate executives.