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‘Good Guy, Bad World’

Floyd Patterson died, and now that’s mostly a reminder of a time when there weren’t three or four or seven world championships in every boxing weight class; in other words, a time when boxing was a marquee American sport and the heavyweight championship had an aura of importance about it. I remember my mom’s enthusiasm for Patterson, listening to his fights with Ingemar Johansson on the radio, her excitement when Patterson won back the title Johansson had taken from him. The New York Times’s obit of Patterson talks about his “sensitivity”:

“He was a good guy in the bad world of boxing. He was sweet-tempered and reclusive. He spoke softly and never lost his boyhood shyness. Cus D’Amato, who trained him throughout his professional career, called Patterson ‘a kind of a stranger.’ Red Smith, the New York Times sports columnist, called him ‘the man of peace who loves to fight.’ ”

How “shy” and “sensitive” was Patterson? David Remnick’s beautifully written “King of the World” recounts many of the Patterson anecdotes you’re likely to read in the obituaries and more than a few that go beyond the usual euphemisms. When he beat Johansson to take back the title, he helped his stricken foe back to his corner. In another fight, Patterson knocked his opponent’s mouthpiece out. The dazed fighter lowered his gloves and proceeded to search for the missing gear; Patterson stopped and helped him before going on to knock the guy out. Part of Patterson’s odd legend is that he sometimes carried a fake beard with him to his fights in case he lost and wanted to depart the arena incognito; in fact, he used it after losing the championship to Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in 1962.

But the Remnick passage that came to mind when I heard Patterson died is one that explores the depths of Patterson’s humiliation when he lost to Johansson:

“Patterson was a speed fighter, but against Johansson he never made his move. He froze, and Johansson, a burly Swede of modest talent, unloosed what his camp called, so annoyingly, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ After the first knockdown, Floyd got off the canvas and began walking dreamily toward his corner. Leaving the neutral corner, Johansson came in from Patterson’s blind side and struck him down again; the assault looked less like boxing than an angry drunk splitting open another man’s skull with a beer bottle. By around the fourth knockdown, as Patterson crawled around the canvas, staring through the ropes, his eyes locked on John Wayne, who was sitting at ringside, and, as he stared at the actor, Floyd felt embarrassed. Embarrassment was Patterson’s signature emotion, and never more so than now. The fight was not even over before he started to wonder if everything he had fought for — his title, his belonging to a world greater than the one he grew up in — if all that was now at risk. Had he ever deserved any recognition, any belonging in the first place? What would John Wayne think of him? The referee, Ruby Goldstein, stopped the fight after Patterson had gone down for the seventh time.”

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