Saturday, May 13, 2006

Death knocks out Floyd Patterson

The other night we watched an old episode of Cheers. In the opening bit, Frasier comes into the bar excited by the news that an article he wrote about the psychological ramifications in the films of Ingmar Bergman is going to be published in the magazine American Film. He wants to read the article to the gang, Sam, Woody, Norm, Cliff, and two of the regulars, Pete and Steve.

Frasier: Now I call the piece, "Ingmar Bergman: Poet of the Subconscious." (Begins to read.) "The films of Ingmar Bergman---"

Norm: Boy, who could forget her in Casablanca, huh?

Frasier: No, no. You're thinking of Ingrid Bergman. I'm talking about Ingmar Bergman.

Woody: Ingmar Bergman the boxer?

Cliff: No, Woody, you're thinking of Ingemar Johansson.

Sam: You mean the guy who knocked out Floyd Patterson?

Norm: No, no, no. Sonny Liston knocked out Patterson.

Pete: Well, then who knocked out Johansson?

Norm: Patterson.

Steve: Before Liston.

Norm: No, Johansson knocked out Liston.

Cliff: Well, who knocked out Patterson?

Woody: Was it Ingrid Bergman?

Pete: No, Ingrid Bergman---

(Frasier who has been coming to a slow boil blows his stack.)

Frasier: Shut up! Shut up! Not one more word! I came in here to discuss Ingmar Bergman, not start an Abbott and Costello routine!

Norm: Actually, I thought it was more like Martin and Lewis, wasn't it?

Sam: You mean Joe Louis?

Cliff: Oh, he's the one who knocked out Floyd Patterson.

Woody: Then who knocked out Lou Costello?

Frasier (surrendering): Apparently Ingrid Bergman.

(He walks out of the bar in disgust.)

Woody: Boy. She was tougher than she looked.

For the record, Ingemar Johansson did knock out Floyd Patterson. And Patterson knocked out Johansson, taking back his heavyweight title in their second fight. The two fought a third time, and Patterson won that one too, knocking out Johansson in the sixth round.

Patterson lost his title for good to Sonny Liston in 1962. Liston knocked him out in the first round. Liston had 20 pounds on Patterson, who was one of the smallest heavyweight champs ever.

Lot of people didn't want Patterson to fight Liston because of the weight disadvantage. President Kennedy even asked him to duck the fight.

Patterson told the President, "The title isn't worth anything if the best fighters can't have a shot at it. And Liston deserves a shot."

Liston and Patterson fought again the next year, and Liston knocked him out again, again in the first round.

Patterson kept fighting and was the first fighter to challenge the guy who took the title from Liston.

Muhammad Ali beat Patterson in 12 rounds. But he didn't knock him out.

I don't know all this off the top of my head. I read it in the local newspaper the day after we watched that Cheers episode. The paper was announcing the news of Patterson's death.

Mike Levine of the Times Herald-Record has a nice tribute to Patterson, who was one of his boyhood sports heroes. Before Patterson's first fight with Ali, the 12 year old Levine wrote Patterson a letter:

An over-the-hill Patterson signed to fight Muhammad Ali, whom Floyd unaccountably insisted on calling by his given name of Cassius Clay.

I was 12 years old, and I wrote to Patterson saying I liked them both and wished him well. To my astonishment, Patterson wrote me back. He said he wanted to "reciprocate" my good wishes. He wished his opponent well, too. "May the best man win."

Ali was bigger, faster, stronger. Patterson's back went out in the fourth round. Preferring to humiliate Patterson rather than end his misery, Ali taunted him for 12 rounds, screaming, "What's my name? What's my name?" until Patterson was a bent hunchback.

Turns out, Patterson lived nearby. He was Catholic and belonged to our parish. I never saw him at mass, although I don't know if I'd have recognized him if I had. I don't think he attended church in the whole time we've been living here, though. He had Alzheimer's.

Patterson grew up hard and he died hard. He was estranged from his son, the boxer Tracy Patterson, who was, to his father's joy, junior heavyweight champion. He was the first Olympic gold medalist to become heavyweight champion. He was the youngest fighter to win the title. He was sensitive. His defeats shamed him. He wore disguises to hide from the public when he was feeling that way.

Apparently though he was a gentleman, in and out of the ring. After he knocked out Johansson to win back his title his first move wasn't to celebrate. It was to go over to Johansson to see if he was all right.

A journalist once suggested to Patterson that he'd been knocked down more than any other fighter.

Patterson said that might be true, "But I also got up the most."


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