Floyd Patterson was born on January 4, 1935 in Waco, North Carolina—the third of 11 children. He grew up in abject poverty and would become the youngest heavyweight champion until Mike Tyson came along. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1936 so that Patterson’s father Thomas could look for work. He worked in construction, as a longshoreman, in sanitation, and in a fish market. Thomas Patterson worked every day, but to Floyd’s young eyes there never seemed to be enough. The Patterson’s constantly moved around Brooklyn trying to accommodate the ever-growing family. As a child, Patterson felt ashame of not having clothes that fit and a sense of helplessness for not being able to help his parents provide for the family.
As a result of his own self-perception, Patterson did not go to school, but avoided the truant officer by staying in the dark all day—in neighborhood cellars, alleys, subway stations, or in the movies. Patterson was not like the other kids; he could not (or would not) read or write, he did not bring friends home, and he would not look people in the eye. Besides skipping school he began to steal to pass the time away. Because his mother could not control him, Patterson was sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in 1945, which was an alternative to jail for boys aged eight to 12. It was at this correctional institution that Patterson blossomed. At Wiltwyck he received individual attention and found that white and black kids were treated exactly the same.
It was also at Wiltwyck that Patterson put on boxing gloves for the first time. He was a natural, winning all three bouts in which he participated. At the age of twelve Patterson returned home a new person. He was still shy, but he had overcome the feeling of shame that was so deep-seeded within him as a small child. Patterson went to P.S. 614—a vocational elementary school where he got the idea that he could use boxing to earn money for his family.
In 1949 Patterson entered Gramercy Gym, which was run by Cus D’Amato, who would later train and manage Tyson. D’Amato gave Patterson boxing equipment and taught him the rudiments of the ring, but his first experience at boxing was almost his last. Patterson’s
Career: Won a gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics; World Heavyweight Champion 1956-59, 1960-62; Last fight in 1972 against Muhammed Ali; Commissioner, New York State Athletic Commission, 1977-84; Commissioner, New York City Sports Commission, 1985; Chairman, New York State Athletic Commission, 1995-98.
Awards: Received “Setting a Good Example Award’’ from President John F. Kennedy, 1961; Elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame, 1976; Received the “Pioneer of Excellence Award” from the World Institute of Black Communications and CBS Records, 1986.
first fight was against his brother Frank, who was then the 160-pound New York Golden Gloves Champion. He was pummeled by his big brother, but overcame his fear and stuck with the sport. Six months later he had his first amateur fight.
In January of 1950 Patterson entered and won his first AAU tournament bout in the 147-pound weight class. The next year as a 160-pound fighter, Patterson won his weight class and traveled to Chicago to participate in the national AAU Boxing Championships. 1951 was a significant year for Patterson personally because he met his future wife Sandra Hicks. Patterson wanted to turn pro that year as a sixteen-year-old, but D’Amato would not let him. In the back of his mind D’Amato was saving Patterson for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. In 1952 Patterson won the Golden Gloves Championship at Madison Square Garden and the National AAU Championship in Boston. After Patterson won the Eastern Olympic tryouts and was named to the team, he left school for good for a chance at history. Patterson became a member of perhaps the finest United States Olympic boxing team ever assembled as the squad won five gold medals including Patterson’s.
On September 12, 1952 Patterson had his first professional bout at the age of 17. He won it with a knockout in the first round to receive the eye-popping sum of three hundred dollars—half of which immediately went to his mother. Soon the family had a telephone, a television, and appliances in the home where Patterson still shared a bed with his little brother Larry. In his first month as a professional he won three fights and $1,000. Patterson was named “Ring Rookie of the Year” in 1953 by the New York Boxing Writers.
There was talk of matching the 19-year-old prodigy up against a ranked opponent, but D’Amato wanted to take it slower. After fighting four light heavyweights, D’Amato signed Patterson for his first big professional fight against veteran Joey Maxim. Patterson returned to Wiltwyck to train for the fight for which he would be paid $5,000. In his debut as a big-time contender, the kid lost to the experience of Maxim. Though Patterson did not believe he had lost in his heart, he was devastated. Later Patterson realized that he had been outsmarted by the ex-champion and developed a respect for Maxim. Patterson soon recovered from his loss and went on a tear of 11 straight knockouts including his first official heavyweight fight against Archie McBride. By the end of 1955 Patterson was fighting in Los Angeles and rubbing elbows with such Hollywood stars as Frank Sinatra and Kim Novack. Despite his new success and notoriety, he was miserable. He missed Sandra who was still in high school back in Brooklyn. When Patterson returned home, he asked Sandra to be is wife and the two were married on February 11, 1956 in a civil ceremony. After Patterson converted to Catholicism later that year the two were married again in a religious ceremony on July 13. Patterson bought a home for his family in Mt. Vernon, New York and he and his new wife moved in with them.
On April 12, 1956 Rocky Marciano retired, leaving the heavyweight division without a champion. On June 8 the 21-year-old Patterson fought Tommy ‘Hurricane’ Jackson at Madison Square Garden for a purse of $50,000. Despite a broken hand that he had injured two weeks before the fight, Patterson won the bout in a split decision. The path was open to fight for the newly vacated heavyweight championship. In September of 1956, Patterson was signed to fight Archie Moore for the heavyweight championship. As he drove to Chicago Stadium on November 30 he had more than the title belt and its $114,257 purse on his mind. At Queens Memorial Hospital back in New York Sandra was going into labor with their first child. Patterson was able to keep his composure and knocked out Moore in the fifth round. In his dressing room a reporter informed him that he was a father and showed him a picture of his new daughter Seneca. One and a half hours after winning the heavyweight championship Patterson was in a car on his way back to New York.
Patterson ruled the boxing world at the age of 21, but he learned in reality that his accomplishment meant little to a black man in 1957 America. He was not able to get a meal in a truck stop in Baltimore or eat in a restaurant in Kansas City during a five-city exhibition tour. In Wichita he was greeted by 50 people blocking his path from the station. A Catholic priest intervened and allowed Patterson and his entourage to stay with him at his Parish. After continuing on with his exhibition before a hushed all-white crowd, Patterson vowed that he would never box in front of a segregated crowd again. He insisted that promoters desegregate seating and avoid scheduling him to train in segregated towns. Patterson also became part of an anti-discrimination suit against a beauty parlor which would not take his wife’s appointment. Becoming heavyweight champ was a rude awakening in other ways as well. The withdrawn Patterson was constantly stared at, and was criticized by the boxing media both for his youth and for not fighting real challengers to his heavyweight title. Because of D’Amato’s dispute with the boxing powers-that-be, the best contenders would not fight Patterson. He fought Jackson again and also two lightly-regarded fighters Roy Harris and Brian London in 1958 before signing to take on the number one contender, Ingemar Johansson from Sweden.
Johansson was undefeated in 21 fights and had knocked out 13 previous opponents. During his training Johansson played up the fact that he had injured his right hand. He never threw it while sparring. During the championship fight, he also made Patterson a believer. Johansson did not even come close to throwing the right for the first two rounds. After setting up the young fighter to leave his left side open, Johansson delivered a crushing right hand to the side of Patterson’s head which punctured his left ear drum and left him dazed for the rest of the bout. Johansson punched Patterson down seven times, but each time the bewildered champ struggled back to his feet. Finally the referee had to stop the fight.
After recovering from the physical beating, Patterson found that the mental anguish was worse to deal with. He had weeks of sleepless nights and even his children began to question if their father was sick. Finally the feelings of self-doubt and self-pity began to evolve into something like a hatred for Johansson. Patterson was also having his troubles with D’Amato after an investigation of the way the first Johansson fight was promoted. D’Amato would eventually have his license revoked on November 24, 1959 and be suspended from boxing. Despite not having his manager, Patterson had developed a burning desire for a rematch and for redemption. He decided not to wait for D’Amato’s suspension to end and signed to fight the heavyweight champion again on June 20, 1960 at the Polo Grounds in New York. Patterson overcame another hand injury and his own demons of doubt in the second fight. He started out as the aggressor cutting Johansson’s eye in the first round. Patterson worked him over for four more rounds and then at 1:51 of the fifth the ex-champ literally knocked Johansson senseless. Patterson was heavyweight champ again, but in his long climb back to the top of the boxing world he learned something about himself. For Patterson he would rather give up boxing than to develop a hatred for an opponent.
Years after the fight he told Sports Illustrated: “I was so filled with hate. I would not ever want to be like that again.” He would fight Johansson a third time and though he struggled, Patterson found a way to win. He was knocked down twice in the first round, but then switched his focus to pounding Johansson’s body. Patterson won the fight in the sixth round knocking Johansson out with a right. In late 1961 Patterson knocked out Tom McNealey in the fourth round after knocking him down eight times. After the McNealey fight Patterson again heard from the critics claiming that he would not fight any real challengers, but that would change all too soon.
The most obvious choice for a title bout was Charles “Sonny” Liston who had been demolishing all the boxers critics claimed Patterson should have been fighting. D’Amato was cautious as ever and did not want Patterson to fight Liston citing the ex-con’s ties to organized crime. Even the NAACP did not want Patterson to give Liston a shot at the title because of his unsavory reputation. But Patterson fought Liston anyway on September 25, 1962 in Chicago. Liston outweighed Patterson by 25 pounds and was a nine-to-five favorite. Liston batted Patterson around like an amateur knocking him out in two minutes and six seconds of the first round. In the rematch a year later Liston knocked Patterson down three times before again knocking him out in the first round.
Many thought that Patterson’s career was over, but he was only 29 years old and he decided to continue his boxing career. He won two bouts in Stockholm, Sweden and earned another shot at the title against Muhammad Ali. Patterson thought he matched up well with the brash young Ali, but he had no luck in the fight. He injured his back in the first round, but continued even though he was severely hampered. Patterson lasted into the twelfth round when the referee gave the bout to Ali on a technical knock out. Despite the terrible punishment he was receiving in the ring Patterson was not ready to retire. He defeated Henry Cooper in 1966 and fought four times in 1967.
Patterson lost to WBA Champion Jimmy Ellis in a title fight in Sweden despite breaking Ellis’s nose and cutting his eye. He then left the ring for two years. He resumed boxing in 1970 mostly fighting washed-up journeymen through 1971. But he would get one last chance at the big-time in 1972. Muhammad Ali was looking to stay sharp while waiting for his rematch with Joe Frazier. He signed to fight the 37-year-old Patterson on September 20 in 1972. Patterson stayed even with Ali for the first four rounds, but Ali cut Patterson badly over his right eye and the ring doctor stopped the fight in the eighth round. Patterson called for a third fight with Ali, but it never happened. The brutal beating by Ali would be his last fight. Patterson’s final record was 55-8-1 with 40 knockouts.
Though he would never fight again, Patterson remained active in boxing. Patterson opened a gym in New Paltz, New York to bring along young fighters the way D’Amato brought him to boxing prominence. In 1976 Patterson took particular interest in an 11-year-old kid named Tracy Harris, who reminded him of himself as a boy. Patterson took the young boxer under his wing both personally and professionally. He eventually adopted Tracy Juan Harris Patterson as well as becoming his trainer and manager. Patterson guided his new son to two Golden Gloves titles as an amateur and to 97 victories. Patterson seemed to work well with his son as Tracy compiled an excellent professional record and won the World Boxing Council junior featherweight championship. But the newest Patterson wanted a change. In late 1994 he told his adopted father that he wanted a different manager and the bond between father and son was broken. Though Patterson suffered pain in his personal life, his tireless work in the boxing community brought him to the attention of New York Governor George Pataki. He was named the athletic commissioner of the State of New York in June of 1995. Patterson hoped to use casino gambling as a way to bring the marquee fights from Las Vegas back to New York. He also wanted to establish a pension fund for older fighters in the state. In late December of 1995 Patterson presided over the biggest bout in New York in decades pitting Oscar De La Hoya against Jesse James Leiha. What should have been his greatest professional triumph was spoiled by the results of one of the undercard fights. Patterson sat slumped in his chair as he watched his estranged adopted son lose his title.
At 61 years old Patterson appeared to be the picture of health. He still worked out at his gym and remained active running the athletic commission and serving as a Eucharistic minister administering Communion to residents of a nearby nursing home. But all was not well with the former champion. There were rumors that Patterson’s memory was slipping. The truth came out after a New York Post report on a deposition that Patterson gave in March of 1998 in regards to “ultimate fighting.” During the deposition Patterson could not remember his secretary’s name, the name of the man he replaced as athletic commissioner, or the name of Archie Moore, the man he defeated for the heavyweight championship. Patterson’s friend and former boxer Jose Torres told The Sporting News: “I felt that he was having a little trouble with his memory, and people were talking about it all around boxing …” The fallout from the revelation led to Patterson’s resignation from the athletic commission on April 1, 1998. Since then Patterson has retired to his 17-acre farm in New Paltz having left a legacy as an honest and loyal gentleman in a world of boxing conmen, back-stabbers, and charlatans. He remained as legendary sportswriter Red Smith said, as quoted in Sports Illustrated: “A man of peace whose life has been devoted to beating men with his fists.”