November 29, 2012 by markstani
In my day job as a sports writer, I come across a lot of boxing books. When they’re good, they’re great: Thomas Hauser and David Remnick on Muhammad Ali; Nick Tosches on Sonny Liston; for reportage, the mighty McIlvanney On Boxing. The majority, sadly, are either half-baked, pulp-autobiographies or weighty, statistics-heavy biogs – both of which singularly fail to dig under the specially glossed-up skin of their subjects. Happily, WK Stratton’s new Floyd Patterson biography falls closer to the category made famous by Hauser and Remnick. I would add that anyone remotely interested in sport and/or Americana could do worse than look up Stratton’s previous book, the fantastic ‘Chasing The Rodeo’ (pub. Harcourt).
Fifty years have passed since Sonny Liston scored the second of his two first round knockout wins over Floyd Patterson, effectively ending the top-level career of one of the most paradoxical and misunderstood heavyweight champions of modern times.
Shoe-horned between the legendary eras of the ever-popular Rocky Marciano and a brash young upstart then still known as Cassius Clay, little credence is given to Patterson when it comes to the age-old task of ranking the heavyweight all-time greats.
Patterson’s confusing contradictions were there for all to see: he possessed one of the most malevolent left hooks in history, but appeared almost disinclined to use it, preferring to help an opponent scrabble to retrieve his gumshield, or hug him in apology after beating him.
Shy of the media, he was nevertheless an articulate and politicised man, championing the cause of black people in their rise against racial segregation and developing friendships with stars from president John F Kennedy to Frank Sinatra.
And yet, for all the fact that he made history as the then youngest heavyweight champion in history and the first man to reclaim the crown, he is destined to be best remembered as a fighter who fled his losses in disguise, too embarrassed to be seen in public.
WK Stratton’s new biography of Patterson – subtitled The Fighting Life Of Boxing’s Invisible Champion (pub. Mainstream) – fills a void on the boxing shelf and serves to remind us just how much Patterson’s reign has been glossed over and largely forgotten over the past half century.
In it, Stratton charts the rise of Patterson from a dirt-poor urban upbringing in Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant, through reform school where he started boxing, to contender status in a sport still crying out for a worthy successor to the recently retired Rocky Marciano.
For a fighting man who would go on to conquer the world at a time when so-called the richest prize in sport really was still worthy of its name, Patterson’s self-doubt and all-round inclination towards pacifism was really quite extraordinary.
Hard-bit Writers weaned on Marciano’s brutal simplicity did not quite know what to make of Patterson, who had a punch as good as any but a chin which saw him knocked down multiple times, even in apparently routine contests.
Patterson won the vacant title with a fifth round knockout of Archie Moore in 1956, and despite losing it shockingly to Ingemar Johansson two years later, bounced back to beat the Swede twice in a trio of bouts that helped define his career.
Patterson may have been no match for the ogreish Liston, who flattened him twice, but when many assumed he would take the hint from those losses and pursue other activities to which they assumed he must be better suited, he earned a crack at Muhammad Ali in 1965.
Therein lies one of the most unpleasant myths about Patterson, who was routinely branded an ‘Uncle Tom’ – a lackey of the white establishment – by Ali, a newly-minted member of the separatist Black Muslims.
In fact, Patterson had done an awful lot to help the advancement of black rights, refusing to fight in any venues in which segregation was employed, and ignoring safety concerns to visit Birmingham, Alabama when its race riots were at their height.
Ali admitted as much after their fight, in 1965, in which he appeared to go easy on the fading former champion. Incredibly, Patterson’s supposedly questionable fighting heart even carried him to a 1972 rematch, which the post-Vietnam Ali won with ease.
Stratton’s tireless sourcing of old articles and interviews have woven a fascinating book, which paints vivid portraits not only of Patterson but his long-time manager and later Mike Tyson mentor Cus D’Amato, as well as opponents like Johansson and Roy ‘Cut ‘N Shoot’ Harris.
It is occasionally let down by unnecessary supposition – it is hard to believe the unqualified assertion on page 59 that Marciano retired undefeated because he feared a fight with Patterson – that “some people close to the champ feared Marciano risked getting killed in the ring with Floyd.”
Not that such statements should be allowed to deflect from an eminently worthy and well-written project, and one which deserves its place on the bookshelf of definitive boxing biographies, just as Patterson’s name should stand among history’s heavyweight greats.
(c) Press Association