SI Vault
Gilbert Rogin
January 16, 1961
When Floyd Patterson regained the heavyweight title, he said he would abandon his reclusive ways. But he is still a rarely seen, usually misunderstood, champion. Here, in a retrospective look at Floyd in the last days before Ingo licked him, is the form and substance of the man
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January 16, 1961

The Invisible Champion

When Floyd Patterson regained the heavyweight title, he said he would abandon his reclusive ways. But he is still a rarely seen, usually misunderstood, champion. Here, in a retrospective look at Floyd in the last days before Ingo licked him, is the form and substance of the man

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The day he was to fight Ingemar Johansson for the first time, Floyd Patterson, then 24, had three eggs scrambled soft, double order of bacon, double toast buttered, three cups of jelly, tea and Coke for breakfast. Bunyan, a sparring partner he was playing rummy with, had three pork chops, spinach, mashed potatoes, double bread, large orange and tea. I wrote it down in my nickel notebook (and found it there today, irrelevant and passionless as an old shopping list) not for the convenience of history but so I could order it from room service. Patterson was staying at the Edison, a midtown New York hotel where he had been since he left Ehsan's Training Camp in Chatham Township, N.J. the night before, conveyed in a gloomy Cadillac with windows tinted like Coca-Cola bottles. It was the official car of the mayor of Mount Vernon, N.Y., a suburb where Patterson's parents and many of his 10 brothers and sisters live in a house Floyd has bought for them. The mayor was, in a word, expansive, and as Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager, once said of someone else, "he used to be a former fighter." The Cadillac was driven by a Mount Vernon policeman who wore a tight and glorious uniform which was much admired. Two Mount Vernon detectives, one Negro, one white, rode shotgun. They were to serve Patterson as bodyguards; that is, they prevented well-wishers from shaking his hand on the theory that some wise guy, gambler, nut or agent of the International Boxing Club, which D'Amato was battling at the time, would try to crunch it. Patterson, like many other prizefighters, offers a soft, gentle, inert and vulnerable hand. It is like shaking hands with an infant or the dead. You have to do all the work.

That afternoon Patterson sat by an open window, flowered drapes billowing at his back, watching an old cowboy movie on the TV as he ate breakfast and played cards. He wore a T shirt with the mythical city of Everlast, N.Y. advertised on the front, and pajama bottoms. Someone knocked on the door: "Knock, Knock for Knickerbocker." It was the secret knock. Knickerbocker Beer had sponsored a radio show from Ehsan's. Floyd always knocked for the commercial, seriously rapping a table with his dark fist. It was Cus at the door. He said the fight was postponed; it had been raining all morning. "Of all the days in the world it has to rain," Floyd said. "Buster, do me a favor and call my mother and tell her not to come down, that the fight's off." Buster Watson was, ex officio, Patterson's assistant trainer. He had a round, shaved, shining head, a sharp wardrobe, which included a plaid trench coat, and a Cadillac he wouldn't let you touch. He said it left fingerprints. "I sure wish I was a pigeon," Buster said, looking out the window. "I fly around and see what's going on." "Can't they hire a man to wipe the seats?" Floyd asked plaintively.

The next day, the day of the fight, we—meaning Dan Florio, Patterson's trainer, Buster, Bunyan, Floyd and I—went for a walk in Central Park. As though Floyd were the Pied Piper, an increasingly numerous band of strangers tagged along. One man asked Floyd how much the seats to the fight cost. "For $5," Floyd told him, "you need spyglasses. For $10 you need regular glasses, but Ingemar and I will look like ants. For $30 you can see the blows but no facial expressions. For $40 you can see our facial expressions. For $50 you get the real blow-by-blow, and for $100, when I get off my stool you can set right down on it." Floyd watched a woman in the park tear up a newspaper she had been reading and leave the remains on the bench. "Evil people," he said. "She tore that paper in half so no one could read it. You'd think people'd grow up and learn, but they don't." As we walked back to the hotel, Dan kept trying to get Floyd to wear his hat although it was a mild day. Dan was more than a trainer; he was a nanny, a major-domo. After he fired the cook at Ehsan's because, among other things, he could only cook meat one way—burned—he and Buster did the cooking. Dan was an obliging, solicitous, tidy little man. He would be in the kitchen late at night wrapping steaks for the freezer. "If I don't know what Floyd's doing," he said, "it rests my mind." On weekends, when Ehsan's was crowded with reporters, Cus's friends and hangers-on, many of whom wanted to be fed, Dan's good nature was put to the test. "This is a hell of a time to make a sandwich when I'm squeezing oranges for the champion of the world," he told a visitor one time, "but I'll do it." Among the visitors was a certain species of person from Harlem Floyd called "125th-Streeters." They were full of flash, schemes, moves, easy confidences, talk and laughter. "They're bad people," Floyd said. One 125th-Streeter, at Ehsan's for the day, insisted that he wanted to throw horseshoes, although Floyd patiently explained that there was no court or shoes, "unless," he said, "you want me to be a horseshoe and throw me." Once when the dining room at Ehsan's was filled with 125th-Streeters, Floyd drove to town for food to eat in his room. Dan took up pot roast on a covered plate, but Floyd petulantly refused it. Cus put some stuff in a bag and joined Floyd for dinner on his bed. "It's just like Kansas City," Cus said. In Kansas City, he explained, Floyd and he couldn't find an unsegregated place to eat so they had "picnics" in their hotel room. "I want to be accepted for what I am," Floyd has said. "If I can't be accepted legally, I don't want to be." Once a guy who was trying to impress Floyd showed him a batch of police courtesy cards and offered to get Floyd some. "Sure," Floyd said, "can you get me one of those for Mississippi and Arkansas?"

In the last year and a half I have wondered why it was Floyd lost to Johansson. Was it acedia—torpor and apathy? I remember Floyd asking himself after a workout, "Why did I look the way I did? What was the purpose? Why do I get bored? Oh, my. Even when the competition is not great a champion is supposed to show his hand." And another time: "It was kind of boring today. I been boxing these guys for two weeks. By changing sparring partners it gets more interesting. But then, I might be boring these guys, too. I know what they can do, so I'm swinging wide. I know they can't hit me." "We'll get you some fresh ones," Dan promised, but they never came. Was it, too, a kind of indolence, a kind of compassion and security of soul brought on by the hapless Roy Harris and Brian London, his previous two opponents? "When you're fighting a man," Floyd said once about Harris, "and look up in his eyes and see only flesh...." And about London: "What I heard about London, I thought he would ram, butt, kick, emasculate." Of course, London did nothing but cower pitifully behind his high, red gloves. "You don't feel right beating a man up like that," Floyd said. "Any man that's a human being feels sorry for someone that offers no opposition." A reporter once said to Floyd, "You couldn't have liked yourself after the London fight." "I didn't hate myself," Floyd said. "You were missing too much," the reporter insisted. "I wasn't missing," said Floyd, "when I got my check."

Floyd often mused about money. "I can see 20s, 50s, 100s marching around up there," he said one day, "in rotation. But I won't invest unless I get a piece of paper guaranteeing me a profit, and since they don't do that, I guess I won't be investing for a long time." But though he liked to joke, he didn't like to get hit or to miss. "I never give pain a second thought," he said. "But I hate to get hit. It's not the pain, it's the embarrassment; it even gets embarrassing to miss. I hope, though, I never have to prove I can take a punch." A reporter told him that Ingemar had knocked Eddie Machen out with a blow on the top of the head. "I'll have to look out for top-of-the-head punches then," Floyd said. He took Ingemar, if not lightly, not with gravity either. "There's no such thing as a lucky punch," Floyd told the reporters when they said that was how Ingemar had beaten Machen. "It's only a punch you don't see coming. Maybe I'll get caught nice and good and that'll wake me up."

At Ehsan's, Floyd shared a room with Buster, three portable record players and a portable TV on which, he told us in wistful wonder, "that Mike Hammer really comes up with them." When the arm of one of this record players didn't work properly, Floyd told the repairman, "It doesn't move with any grace." At night, when Floyd served us ice cream and pop in his room, Buster would tell, in his hoarse, inexhaustible voice, stories of involved outrages and foibles, and rock and writhe on the floor in his undershirt, like a beetle on its back, laughing. "I died, I died, I nearly died," Buster would gasp from the floor. On his camp bed Floyd would hold his pillow to his stomach as though, without it, his laughter, like flood water, would burst violently through.

In Floyd's room at Ehsan's in the last nights before the fight, we were:

1) Mickey Alan, a friend of Floyd's who had been a fighter and who sang, throbbingly, in obscure Queens nightclubs. His photograph, with abundant, romantic hair, appeared in their advertisements in the New York Mirror on Fridays. If Floyd won the fight Mickey was to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show with him. The day after his audition Mickey returned to Ehsan's in a triumphant blue suit he had bought for his TV debut. "I'm on the Ed Sullivan Show," he said. "Hold on," said Floyd, who often speaks like one of the Rover Boys. "Ingemar has to give you his permission. You don't make it unless I make it. You passed with flying colors. Now it's up to me."

2) Michael Giacco, a sculptor from Allentown, Pa. who was doing a bust of Floyd as one of a set of the heavyweight champions. He measured distances on Floyd's face with an immense pair of wooden calipers. He said Floyd's heroic bust was worth $750. "You mean," Floyd said, "that someone will buy my head for $750!"

3) Bunyan, sometimes, Cus and me.

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