Floyd's Comeback Night

"They never come back,” went an old heavyweight maxim, meaning that once a heavyweight champion had lost his title, it was lost for good. Before 1960, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, and Jersey Joe Walcott had all tried and failed. It is one of boxing history’s ironies that the old truism was finally falsified by a man whom writer James Baldwin called “probably the least likely fighter in the history of the sport”: Floyd Patterson.

Patterson, who, at 21, was the youngest man to win the title in 1956, became an ex-champion on June 26, 1959, at Yankee Stadium, when Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson knocked him down seven times in the third round, prompting referee Ruby Goldstein to stop the bout. It was the worst trouncing a heavyweight champ had taken since 1919, when Jess Willard was assaulted over three rounds by Jack Dempsey in Toledo. It was also a big upset: conventional wisdom held that Johansson wasn’t in Patterson’s class, and many suspected that his vaunted right hand—it was called Ingo’s Bingo and the Hammer of Thor—was just hype. The right hand turned out to be more material than mythological, though, making Johansson the first and only Swedish claimant to the title and launching a dizzying year of fame and riches for this working-class son of Goteborg. Johansson enjoyed night life and the finer things, and, unlike the shy and complicated Patterson, he had not one ounce of ambivalence about fame or wealth. He cashed in on the title over the next 12 months as few men have ever done.

Patterson retreated into seclusion, a familiar response well-honed during a tormented boyhood marked by a nearly pathological shyness, petty thievery, and a consuming sense of shame. But he found boxing while at Wiltwyck, a school for emotionally disturbed boys located in New York’s Hudson Valley supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, and with it, an organizing purpose for his life. Gifted as he was in the ring, though, Patterson seemed forever torn between the poles of competition and compassion. In one fight, when his opponent’s mouthpiece fell out, Floyd picked it up for him. Many years later, after another bout, when told by reporters that he had broken his opponent’s nose, Floyd replied, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Puzzled, one of them asked why he had gone into the ring, if he felt that way. “Not to break a man’s nose,” Patterson replied. When Johansson blasted the crown off Patterson’s head, many sensed that Floyd had never been meant to wear it. He lacked a champion’s killer instinct. And besides, “Freud” Patterson, or “Freudian Floyd,” as some in the press called him, at just 182 pounds, was too small for a heavyweight.

A rematch with Johansson, though, was quickly signed, and after a long personal funk, Patterson snapped out of the darkness and resolved to get his title back. Unlike most of the heavyweight champions before him who had gone seeking their lost titles, Patterson was young—just 25—with plenty of fight left in him, and he determinedly analyzed the first fight and his mistakes. He even got help from Joe Louis, who came to his training camp and watched films with him. “The only way to beat a puncher,” the Brown Bomber told Floyd, “is to crowd him. If you give him punching room, he’ll beat your brains out.”

They fought again on June 20, 1960, in New York’s Polo Grounds, the last major fight held at the old home of New York’s baseball Giants, who had relocated to San Francisco three years earlier. The Polo Grounds had been the site of some legendary heavyweight battles, like Louis and Billy Conn’s first fight in 1941 and Dempsey’s epic, manic slugfest with Luis Angel Firpo in 1923. But by the time Patterson and Johansson met again, the Polo Grounds was starting to fall apart. Patterson-Johansson II would be the last major fight held at the historic site before its date with the wrecking ball in 1964. Outside the stadium, a near riot took place, as mobs of fans tried to crash the gates, some leaping over the walls into the stadium. It took 200 NYPD officers to quell the unrest.

Meanwhile, at ringside, a hint of boxing’s casino-glamorous future came in the form of beautiful models handing out perfume and orchids. Ringsiders found a white packet on their seats, inside of which was Wash n’ Dri, “the miracle moist towlette.” One woman, with her orchid pinned to her mink collar, was asked whom she thought would win the fight. “I’m crazy about Ingemar,” she said, “but now I really don’t care, everybody smells so good.”

Patterson weighed in at 190 pounds, eight pounds heavier than the first fight, and he looked it; his body rippled with muscle. He came out with a fury in the first round, attacking Johansson and crowding him, as Louis had advised. Johansson looked rattled. Floyd had quickly sent a message to the champion that he could expect rude treatment. But in the second round, Ingo landed the right—and it seemed for a moment that a replay of the first fight was in the offing. Floyd backed off and Ingo pursued, but the Swede, curiously tentative, could not follow up. In the third and fourth rounds, Floyd kept a busy left jab in Ingo’s face and hurt the champion with a left hook. Floyd’s activity and speed continually upset Johansson’s fighting rhythm.

In the fifth, Floyd went after Ingo again, double-hooking to the body and then, with a leaping hook, knocking Ingo to the canvas. The groggy, exhausted champion made it up at nine. On this one night, Floyd had no mercy. His hands flying, Patterson attacked with everything in his arsenal. Ingo tried to smother Patterson, but Floyd prodded him out of a clinch and moved him over to where he was hittable, like a photographer positioning someone for a shot. Then Floyd let go a parabolic left hook that crashed onto Ingo’s jaw with the force of a sock full of heavy coins, and the Swede dropped to the canvas on his back. Blood pouring from his mouth, Ingo lay motionless but for a quivering of his left leg as he was counted out. Floyd turned to look over the ropes to the writers, who had made him the underdog. Grinning, removing his mouthpiece, he could barely contain his joy. This most fragile of boxers had done what his illustrious predecessors could not: regain the heavyweight title.

The celebration in the ring became more subdued when Ingo wouldn’t stir. After several minutes, he was helped to his feet, but he was not able to leave the ring for a good while longer. He had been knocked out in the most decisive manner imaginable and exposed as a fighter with limitations most critics suspected before he won the title: a right-hand puncher with not much else. Floyd, meanwhile, had showed that he could adapt and prevail. It was the greatest moment of his career and, as he freely conceded to reporters afterward, the happiest night of his life.

An admirer of Floyd's, 18-year-old Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, would later memorialize the event in verse: 

A lot of people say that Floyd couldn’t fight,

But you should have seen him on that comeback night.

He cut up his eyes and mussed up his face

And that last left hook knocked his head out of place!

Despite his crowning win over Johansson, Patterson’s place in boxing history has been compromised by his flaws. His talents are overshadowed by vulnerabilities: he was knocked down about 20 times in his career, sometimes by vastly inferior fighters, and he lost his title both times by bludgeoning knockouts: to Johansson in 1959 and then to Sonny Liston, who destroyed him in the first round in 1962 and repeated the trick the following year. Floyd would be further overshadowed by the arrival of Muhammad Ali. And finally, Floyd’s gentle personality and conflicted attitude, while fascinating for writers, just didn’t fit the profile for boxing’s king of the hill. Yet he was an excellent boxer, with faster hands than any heavyweight but for Muhammad Ali; he won the heavyweight title twice; and he managed to stay ranked in the heavyweight Top Ten for most of the period between 1956 and 1972, a remarkable feat. He may not have been anyone’s idea of a definitive heavyweight champion, but as a fighter, Floyd Patterson is underrated.                                                                                                          


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