The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Floyd Patterson

I read lots of books during the years that I was working on The Boxing Kings, some of which I was reading again, after many years, since my interest in the sport runs back to childhood. Many others I was encountering for the first time, including a sizable portion of books on the champs that hadn’t been written back when I was kid.

Books about Floyd Patterson, who James Baldwin once called, accurately, “quite probably the least likely fighter in the history of the sport,” fall significantly into that latter category. Patterson, who died in 2008, would have turned 83 yesterday, so this seems like a fitting time to talk about the literature on him.

The first man to regain the heavyweight title, Patterson was champion from 1956 to 1959, and then again from 1960 to 1962. He came pretty close to winning at least a portion of the title for a third time in 1968, when he lost a disputed decision for to WBA champion Jimmy Ellis (this was during the time that Muhammad Ali was exiled  from boxing). He was athletically gifted, blessed with one of the fastest pairs of heavyweight hands, threw an explosive and sometimes unorthodox left hook, and was a profoundly dedicated boxer who managed to stay in the division’s Top Ten almost without interruption from 1956 through 1972, a remarkable accomplishment. He was as conflicted as he was talented, though, haunted by a complex blend of fear, guilt, compassion, and rage, making him a most difficult man to understand—and a natural subject for writers. Baldwin, Gay Talese, W.C. Heinz, Norman Mailer, and others covered Patterson, and all wrote compellingly about him. His delicate psyche earned him nicknames like Freud Patterson and Freudian Floyd.

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You might think that there would have been more biographies of someone like this, but until fairly recently, the only proper biography done on Patterson was Floyd Patterson, Heavyweight King: An Original Story, by journalist Jack Newcombe, published in 1961. The other key book during this period was Patterson’s own autobiography, hopefully titled Victory Over Myself, and written with sportswriter Milton Gross. The voice, however, is recognizably Patterson’s: “I am just part of the social history of our time and our country,” Patterson writes at one point, referring to Civil Rights-era America, “and I can’t lag behind it—or run too far ahead of it. If you keep walking around with the bitterness in you, sooner or later it’s got to turn into a pain that makes you want to strike out at the injustice. I would never want to do that. If I can’t go some place legally, I don’t want to go there at all. If I can’t fight back legally, I don’t want to do it viciously. At the same time, you can’t overlook it and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Victory Over Myself won a distinguished literary fan: the poet Marianne Moore, who couldn’t say enough in Floyd’s favor. She regarded the book “as a manual for descriptive writing—how to exhibit yourself without repelling the reader. I read the book very carefully and annotated it at the back. It was delicately done.” Patterson’s story, Moore wrote, was “a model of modesty and tenacity. . . . I think he has the art of riveting the attention on the text.”

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Yet it wasn’t until 2008 that a full-fledged Patterson bio appeared: Alan H. Levy’s well-researched Floyd Patterson: A Boxer and a Gentleman. Four years later, W. K. Stratton published Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion, an elegantly written, frank, and sympathetic biography. Both books delve deeply into Patterson’s psyche, his life outside boxing—especially his commitment to civil rights—and the charged social climate that prevailed in the U.S. during his long boxing career. Stratton, in particular, achieves something that any biographer can be proud of: he convinces readers that his subject is much more interesting than they probably thought beforehand. (My only quibble with Stratton is his assertion that Rocky Marciano retired in 1956 to avoid a fight with Patterson, which he does not substantiate. I find it hard to believe, though I’m willing to be convinced.) Readers looking to learn about Patterson will find value in both books, but Stratton’s should now be regarded as the definitive biography.

Patterson also features prominently in many other boxing books, including David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, in which my favorite sections are not Remnick’s treatment of Ali but his portrayals of Patterson and Sonny Liston. Bob Mee’s Ali and Liston: The Boy Who Would be King and the Ugly Bear also has compelling material on Patterson. Patterson is heard from in Thomas Hauser’s oral biography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, in which he memorably says: “I came to love Ali. I came to see that I was a fighter and he was history.” And there are many others.

Maybe one reason that it took so long for biographies of Patterson to emerge is that he was written about, expansively, in non-book form by some of the best writers in the business. His career did correspond, after all, with a still-vibrant age of American magazines, and he was the subject of some searching treatments. In addition to a host of Sports Illustrated stories, my favorites include W. C. Heinz’s “The Floyd Patterson His Friends Know” (Sport, November 1960) and Gay Talese’s “Portrait of the Ascetic Champ” (New York Times, March 5, 1961) and “The Loser” (Esquire, 1964). Talese, who grew close to Patterson, wrote a few dozen stories on the fighter for the Times and considered him a “writer’s dream.”

The first Patterson-Liston fight, in 1962, brought out literary heavyweights to cover it, including Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. Baldwin’s “The Fight” (Nugget, February 1963) is a remarkably compassionate portrait of both Liston and Patterson. Baldwin seemed to have both guys pegged. On Patterson: “A man more complex than he was yet equipped to know, a hero for many children who were still trapped where he had been, who might not have survived without the ring, and who yet, oddly, did not really seem to belong there.” On Liston: “He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express; and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way—he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.” (If you wanted a one-sentence biography of Sonny, that one would do.)

Patterson was loved by some boxing scribes and derided by others (like Jimmy Cannon), and though he was talented, even gifted, his limitations (psychological and otherwise) ensured that he would remain a marginal figure in the heavyweight pantheon—at least, as a fighter. As a three-dimensional character, Patterson doesn’t have to take a backseat to any heavyweight champion. Few boxers of any era have given writers more to work with.

 

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