A day or two after I won my first professional fight, I was back working at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I had beaten Eddie Godbold in two minutes and 39 seconds of the fourth round. My pay was $300. It was given to me in cash—three $100 bills. It was a lot of money, for me. My salary at the hotel was $44 a week, and $25 of it went to my mother every payday. After all those years of having nothing in my pocket it was fine to know there was money there. For a long time afterward I'd take my share of the purses in cash and carry it around with me. Maybe I counted it every once in a while.
Not that there was always a lot to count—not right away, anyway. My life for the next few years was like any professional fighter's: sometimes I was in the money, often I was broke. A few times I went hungry, but that was because I managed badly.
But I learned. I learned a lot of things—about money, about fighting and about life, I guess you'd say. Some of them I wish I'd never had to learn; most people probably wish that. The fights are all part of the record, and anybody who follows boxing knows about the many I won and the few I lost. My ring history is all tangled up with the story of Cus D'Amato and his feud with the International Boxing Club. I'm not concerned with the rights and wrongs of that, because I wasn't in the feud, exactly. Cus was fighting Jim Norris and I was his big gun.
Cus was my manager and I went along with the time schedule he had worked out for me, though I didn't always agree with it. I was impatient to go up against the tough ones, and Cus always tried to match me when he thought I was ready. Just after I turned 19 I was eager to take on Joey Maxim, but Cus kept holding me off. Until this time I'd been fighting strictly as a middleweight or at weights close enough to it. But I was big-boned and I went on a diet designed to pick up my weight. It was a change from what I was used to. I was a pork-chop and sweet-potato eater. But Cus put me on steaks. I disliked steak but I ate what I was told, and each time I stepped on a scale there was something more to see. Eventually I fought Maxim, on June 7, 1954. He won. It was the first time I was beaten by a pro and I took it hard, even though 11 writers out of 12 in a ringside poll said I had won. I thought I'd won, too, but I didn't dispute the decision. Instead—once the disappointment had worn off—the fight convinced me that someday I would be a champion. Maxim showed me nothing in the ring I couldn't learn to handle. And he had been a champion.
I was sure I was on my way, but the championship wasn't all that was on my mind. Other things, more important probably in the long run, were happening, so that sometimes I all but forgot my ring career.
Wedding between fights
I married Sandra in 1956—first in a civil ceremony, later (after I'd become a Catholic) in a religious ceremony on July 13. The courtship and the marriage are still bound up in both our minds with fights and training periods. The civil wedding took place not too long before I fought Hurricane Jackson in what was really an elimination to meet Archie Moore for the title. That was after Rocky Marciano retired on April 27, 1956. Our first child, Seneca, whom we call Jeannie, was born the night I won the title from Moore. Trina, our second daughter, was born three months before Ingemar Johansson knocked me out; and Floyd Jr., my first boy, was born soon after I regained the title by knocking out Ingemar.
Shortly after I became the world champion on Nov. 30, 1956 my awareness of some of the unpleasant things in our society grew sharper. I was living in Mount Vernon, N.Y. by then, and the mayor, who had once been a fighter himself, arranged for a torchlight procession in my honor. I liked that—who wouldn't? I liked all the distinction that went with being a champion: the dinners and interviews and being asked for my autograph. But in some ways nothing had changed. I was a Negro—and I wanted to be accepted for what I had always been, not for what I had become.
I knew that, champion or no champion, I'd still be called names by the ignorant, still face segregation and discrimination. But I didn't expect what happened when I went on a five-city exhibition tour in April 1957. I was to fight exhibitions with Julio Mederos in Kansas City, Minneapolis and Joplin, and with Alvin Williams in Wichita and Fort Smith, Ark. This wasn't Deep South. I'd had experience of what happens to Negroes there. But this was Midwest, except for Arkansas. And in place after place it was the same old insult, sometimes open, sometimes veiled. My sparring partners and I couldn't stay at certain hotels or eat in certain restaurants. In Kansas City we found out that Jersey Joe Walcott was staying at our hotel and we went to see him.
"It's a big thing to be the champ," Joe said. "It opens an awful lot of doors."