Monday, May 15, 2006

Floyd Patterson

I went through a boxing phase when I was growing up (I was obsessed with just about every sport at one time or another), and I memorized all of the heavyweight champions and their bios. During my short boxing obsession, I grew to really, really like Floyd Patterson. I couldn't really tell you why (just like I couldn't really tell you why I adopted the Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Dolphins, and Portland Trailblazers as my favorite pro teams...yeah, look at that list again and think about the fun I've had as a sports fan in the last 15 years). Maybe it was because he was little and therefore always seemed to be the underdog. Maybe it was because of his association with Cus D'Amato (Mike Tyson's mentor...and really, when you're a 12-year old boxing fan in 1990, is there anybody cooler than a pre-prison, pre-crazy Mike Tyson?). Who knows, but I liked him a lot.

Here is Lance Mannion's Saturday post regarding Floyd Patterson.

Mike Levine of the Times Herald-Record has a nice tribute to Patterson, who was one of his boyhood sports heroes. Before Patterson's first fight with Ali, the 12 year old Levine wrote Patterson a letter:

An over-the-hill Patterson signed to fight Muhammad Ali, whom Floyd unaccountably insisted on calling by his given name of Cassius Clay.

I was 12 years old, and I wrote to Patterson saying I liked them both and wished him well. To my astonishment, Patterson wrote me back. He said he wanted to "reciprocate" my good wishes. He wished his opponent well, too. "May the best man win."

Ali was bigger, faster, stronger. Patterson's back went out in the fourth round. Preferring to humiliate Patterson rather than end his misery, Ali taunted him for 12 rounds, screaming, "What's my name? What's my name?" until Patterson was a bent hunchback.

Turns out, Patterson lived nearby. He was Catholic and belonged to our parish. I never saw him at mass, although I don't know if I'd have recognized him if I had. I don't think he attended church in the whole time we've been living here, though. He had Alzheimer's.
Patterson grew up hard and he died hard. He was estranged from his son, the boxer Tracy Patterson, who was, to his father's joy, junior heavyweight champion. He was the first Olympic gold medalist to become heavyweight champion. He was the youngest fighter to win the title. He was sensitive. His defeats shamed him. He wore disguises to hide from the public when he was feeling that way.

Apparently though he was a gentleman, in and out of the ring. After he knocked out Johansson to win back his title his first move wasn't to celebrate. It was to go over to Johansson to see if he was all right.

A journalist once suggested to Patterson that he'd been knocked down more than any other champ, 21 times, 7 of those times in his first fight with Johansson.

Patterson said that might be true, "But I also got up the most."

Clicking on Levine's story, I found a strong, honest tribute.
Patterson continued to fight way past his prime, because that is what fighters do. He moved to Ulster County to get away from it all and discovered you didn't have to beat Sonny Liston to be liked here. We called him champ.

He showed up at community fund-raisers, bringing peace to Newburgh during 1970s street violence, talking gently in the nasal tone of the boxer's squashed nose. He opened a gym so kids would have a place to go. In walked an orphan named Tracy Harris. Floyd loved him so much he adopted him.

Tracy Harris Patterson became a junior lightweight champ, Floyd's happiest moment.

Then Tracy broke with Floyd. Who knows what goes on between fathers and sons? But it broke Floyd. Humiliated again, he stopped talking much to the press. He was given the job of state athletic commissioner because he was a nice guy, a recognizable name and a Pataki supporter. He wasn't that good at it.

No one had the heart to blow the whistle. But testifying in a legal proceeding, he appeared dazed, forgetful, confused. That was his last public shame. In 1998, on a slow news day, he ended up on the front page of the New York Post.

"HEAVYWEIGHT HEARTBREAK: Boxing legend Floyd Patterson can't remember career triumphs or secretary's name."

Patterson resigned that day, forever out of public view. His late dark rounds were marked by prostate cancer and Alzheimer's. He will be laid to rest in a private service. It couldn't have been any other way for Floyd Patterson.

Remember him as our good neighbor. That he gave generously to our community life. And in a world where humiliation is our "American Idol" titillation, remember that Floyd Patterson once wore the heavyweight crown with humble dignity.

He might have been the last athlete in America to say in all sincerity, "may the best man win." When he lost, he thought it said something about him as a man.

You hope in the end he knew he was wrong. You hope in the end he knew he was a champ.
Maybe another reason Patterson's story strikes me the way it does is because of the Alzheimer's. Having witnessed how Alzheimer's does its work, all I can say is I hope he was comfortable and at peace over the 6-8 years. For somebody with so much pride, Alzheimer's is just about the most humiliating way to lose yourself, and I deeply feel for him.