June 4, 1956
As much as Floyd Patterson's peekaboo style of boxing baffled opponents, his ruminations on such unfighterly topics as friendship and responsibility intrigued sportswriters. Red Smith characterized Patterson as "a man of peace whose life has been devoted to beating men with his fists," while other writers described him as "a fighter who is a flower child" or "a quiet tiger." Patterson was a fascinating study, one of the rare men in whom sport seemed to have effected the miraculous change we often claim it can, turning a teenage hooligan into a disciplined member of society.
Like Mike Tyson, Patterson escaped the tough streets of Brooklyn and was trained by the legendary Cus D'Amato. Patterson used boxing to vent, in his words, his "convict tendencies," and he became a superb fighter. He turned pro after winning the middleweight gold medal at the 1952 Olympics, and though small for a heavyweight—he usually fought at less than 200 pounds and often gave away as many as 15—he became the youngest man to win the heavyweight title when, at age 21, he knocked out Archie Moore in November 1956, five months after his first of eight appearances on the SI cover (above). Patterson was also the first man to regain the championship, when he KO'd Ingemar Johansson in June 1960, a year after he'd lost his title to Johansson. But Patterson didn't like what that fight did to him. "I was so filled with hate," he said later. "I wouldn't ever want to be like that again."
Patterson once said that "it's better to make friends than build gates," and he has taken that maxim seriously. He has maintained a close friendship with Johansson and has even run marathons with his former foe. Still a trim 182 pounds at age 61, Patterson lives on a 17-acre farm in New Paltz, N.Y. He no longer trains fighters, as he did for 23 years following his retirement from the ring in 1972, but he remains active. As a Eucharistic minister, he administers Communion every Sunday to residents of a nearby nursing home, and recently he was named chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates pro boxing and wrestling. His hope is to create a pension plan for retired boxers. "A fighter should be able to put his earnings away so that when he retires, he doesn't have to walk the streets," Patterson says. " Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson—all the great fighters—retired with nothing. I don't want that to happen anymore."