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Floyd Patterson: The Essence of a Competitor

by Joyce Carol Oates

First published in the 1988 Summer Olympic Viewer’s Program.

"I won the heavyweight title in 1956 as the youngest boxer in history—21 years old. And I regained it in 1960 with a knockout over Ingemar Johansson; I was the first heavyweight in history to win back his title. But the proudest moment of my career was when I won my Olympic gold medal in Helsinki in 1952," Floyd Patterson says without hesitation. "I was 17 years old. I'd never been away from home—never flown in an airplane. And here I was fighting in the Olympics, in a foreign country. I was scared stiff. I didn't think I would win even my first match. But I wanted to win—maybe that made the difference."

Floyd Patterson had one of the most meteoric careers in heavyweight history. Following his victory (as a middleweight) in the 1952 Olympics, he immediately turned professional, moved up into the heavier division and won the world title in a match with Archie Moore in 1956, following the retirement of the champion Rocky Marciano. Patterson had, as an amateur, won two Golden Gloves tournaments, was one of the youngest athletes to have won an Olympic gold medal and became the first gold medalist to win the heavyweight boxing championship.

In 1961, with his spectacular defeat of Johansson, his career took on the quality of legend, and he enjoyed celebrity of a quintessentially American kind. He was given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his trainer, the late Cus D'Amato, a man not known for extravagant gestures; he was invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy; sportswriters universally acclaimed the intelligently controlled aggression of his ring style; he received thousands of letters from fans—including, unexpectedly, Swedes who seemed to have taken the soft-spoken, introspective young black American to their hearts, despite the fact that he had knocked out their own champion Johansson in two highly publicized bouts in 1960 and 1961.

Patterson is said to have been a nonviolent person who once helped an opponent pick up his mouthpiece from the canvas. "I don't like to see blood," he once explained. "It's different when I bleed, that doesn't bother me because I can't see it."

Indeed, among contemporary boxers, no one is so articulate as Floyd Patterson. He has a reputation, unique in athletics generally, for being self-analytical to a remarkable degree; he does not hesitate to tell an interviewer that though he endured more than his fair share of what might be called fortune's vicissitudes—including, for some time following his losses to Sonny Liston in the early 1960s, a "deep sense of shame"—there is not a single event in his life he would want altered; not a moment he truly regrets.

"Through my twenty-two years in boxing," Patterson says, "I learned what I am. Without boxing—without all the things that happened to me, good and bad—I would be a different, lesser man today."

Aged 53, Patterson maintains a physical regimen that assures his excellent conditioning; he weighs approximately what he weighed in 1956 and he runs up to eight miles a day. Boxing critics who argue for the abolition of the sport should consider Floyd Patterson. He is living proof that boxing is not inveriably injurious to a boxer's well-being and that, under proper instruction, it builds character through the rigorous discipline of training and, if pursued into maturity, an almost mystical sense of one's identity. Trained by the famous D'Amato (who was also Mike Tyson's trainer), Patterson adamantly believes that it is character rather than skill that ultimately determines a boxer's quality. What you are determines how you perform in the ring.

"What a boxer learns, what these young amateurs are learning, is essentially a respect for the body," Patterson explains. "in turn, that respect touches other things in life, including other people."

Patterson's involvement with others has been considerable. He heads the Floyd Patterson Children's Fund and runs a boxing gym in New Paltz, New York where he trains young boxers, including his adopted son Tracey, a featherweight with a promising career as a professional. (Patterson also served as New York State Boxing Commissioner, from 1977-84)

Patterson looks forward to the Seoul Olympics with particular anticipation. He believes that good amateur competition is invaluable for the nourishment of new young talent; his own life, begun as one of ten children of a hardworking but impoverished Brooklyn family, would be unimaginable without the opportunities that the Olympics offered to him.

But amateur boxing differs considerably from professional, and a young man with the talent for one might not have the talent for the other. The amateur bout, for instance, consists of three rounds—"like sprint running"; the professional bout consists of up to 15 rounds—"like marathon running." When he turned professional at the young age of 17, Patterson's greatest anxiety was not over being knocked out by an opponent but being unable to endure longer fights. Another way in which amateur boxing differs dramatically and rather misleadingly from professional boxing is that a knockdown is scored by judges no differently than an ordinary clean hit. The power of the boxer's blows is not supposed to count.

Boxing, Patterson explains, is a feat of coordination. "You need lighting-quick reflexes—you have to fight by instinct. If you stop to think about what you're doing, it will be too late." He decided to retire, at age 37, when he realized he could no longer fight instinctively, and he believes that a mandatory retirement age, somewhere in the 30s, might be advisable for the profession.

Since 1952, one of the most spectacular changes in boxing is the size of the purses awarded to "super-champions" like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson. The sums are many times what they were for even the most heavily promoted matches in Patterson's time, approaching, one might say, the grotesque: $15 million for Marvin Hagler for a single match, in 1987; more than $20 million for Mike Tyson for a single match (of several matches fought by him in that year), in 1988. Asked how boxers of his generation would have felt had they known what lay ahead, Patterson says laghingly, "Well—we couldn't wait for it! We had to fight when we did."

On its highest levels, boxing, like any sport, or art, or vocation in life, is about character; it resolves to being, not merely doing. Which may account for its ongoing fascination for so many people, women as well as men, who might otherwise condemn its naked display of aggression. In symbolic form, writ small, yet wordless, it is about what w must all endure, willingly or otherwise—winning and losing. As Floyd Patterson has thoughtfully put it, "Winning after all is easy. It's losing that requires courage."