Floyd Patterson, who died on Thursday at 71 following Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer, was a haunted, introspective child who flowered the moment he climbed into a boxing ring.
The youngster who found dark places like disused sheds to hide when he should have been in school turned into an Olympic gold medallist at the age of 17 — and went on to carve out his place in history as both the youngest holder of the world heavyweight championship and the first to regain it.
Patterson was derided because his manager, Cus D'Amato, refused to allow him to meet the most dangerous contenders of his time. D'Amato had fallen out with the powerful International Boxing Club, which ran boxing from their New York headquarters in the 1950s, and shielded Patterson from powerful punchers such as Sonny Liston and Cleveland Williams.
The IBC eventually fell in a dizzy muddle of accusations of corruption, but Patterson's spell as champion, in two reigns between 1956 and 1962, coincided with one of the low points in boxing history.
Patterson was far from the perfect fighting machine. He did not have the best of chins — he was knocked down more than any other holder of the heavyweight title — and when he did eventually face Liston, after, it was said, listening to a personal request from president John F. Kennedy, Patterson was destroyed in 126 seconds of the first round.
Haunted and humiliated, he left the arena in a false beard and dark glasses, but was spotted. Newspapermen had a field day and called him Freudian Floyd. Yet he never gave up and boxed through bad times and good until 1972, when, at the age of 37, he fought Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas.
Ricky Hatton, who met Patterson in 1997, was one of the first to pay tribute yesterday. "Floyd was a gentleman," said the British former world light-welterweight champion yesterday. "A lot of boxing hearts have been broken today."
Patterson won the Olympic middleweight gold medal in Helsinki in 1952 and when Rocky Marciano retired in 1956, he was matched with the veteran Archie Moore, in Chicago, for the heavyweight title. Patterson, only 21, won in five rounds.
After that D'Amato's caution ensured the new champion did not fight the leading contenders, but his trainer made a mistake when he let Patterson box Ingemar Johansson in New York in June 1959. The Swede knocked the holder down seven times in the third round before the bemused loser was led away.
Patterson showed his character by training hard for the return, and 15 months later he produced perhaps the greatest performance of his career by knocking out Johansson in five rounds. "It was worth losing the title for this," Patterson said. "This is easily the most gratifying moment of my life. I'm champ again, a real champ this time."
Patterson then won the decider, too, overcoming a knockdown to beat Johansson in six. After a soft defence against Tom McNeeley in Toronto, he agreed to box Liston. By then he was 27 and had grown away from D'Amato. Liston smashed him down in one round and Patterson insisted on a return bout because, he said: "If I stopped now, that would be running away. I did that when I was a kid, I've grown out of that."
He promised to do better in the rematch. He did. Just. He lasted four seconds longer.
By 1965, Ali was champion and Patterson challenged him in Las Vegas. A back injury didn't help, but Ali would have beaten him anyway.
Patterson boxed in Sweden for a while, lost a dreadful decision to Jimmy Ellis in a WBA title fight during Ali's political exile, and fought on to 1972.
In retirement he ran marathons and trained his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, to a world title. In 1983, he told a congressional subcommittee: "I would not like to see boxing abolished. I come from a ghetto, and boxing is a way out. It would be pitiful to abolish boxing because you would be taking away the one way out."
He also served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, but by the late 1990s the early stages of his battle with Alzheimer's, as well as prostate cancer, had begun and he excused himself from public life.
Patterson was a good guy in the bad world of boxing. He was mild, sweet, retiring, reclusive, impassive and ascetic. He spoke softly and never lost his boyhood shyness. Red Smith, the sports columnist, called him "the man of peace who loves to fight".
Patterson acknowledged his sensitivity. "You can hit me and I won't think much of it," he once said, "but you can say something and hurt me very much."
He may not have been the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, but he was one of the best loved.
TELEGRAPH with NEW YORK TIMES
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