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Few oldtime fight managers can look at a young heavyweight without experiencing an unsettling sense of despondency; if hope suggests a dozen reasons for believing the tyro will become a walking gold mine, experience supplies 100 for suspecting he will not. Apprentice pugs are constantly the prey of their own doubts and fears; both their confidence and their reputations must be built as carefully as a pousse-caf� and can be destroyed by one damaging fight. Even if the aspirant has a reckless appetite for brawling, he may never get past the seventh grade of his education for the ring, or may be kayoed by the Demon Rum. Nonetheless, it is now as clear as anything can be in the future books of boxing that a lithe young Brooklyn Negro named Floyd Patterson—who celebrated his 21st birthday this month by challenging Rocky Marciano—will be the next heavyweight champion of the world.
This does not mean that Patterson—who was the boxing star of the 1952 Olympic Games at the tender age of 17—can be expected to demolish Marciano this week or the week after. In The Ring's year-end ratings for 1955, in fact, Patterson is not even listed among the heavyweights (although he is considered the No. 1 challenger for the light heavyweight crown). His own handlers, until recently, have been tormented by the ghastly suspicion that he might quit growing before he weighed 175 pounds, and might thus be stranded forever just out of reach of big gates and big money. But despite this and despite his youth, Patterson could very well end up facing Marciano in the ring before 1956 is out and, in doing so, could inspire one of the biggest gates of modern times.
He has, in the last few months, demonstrated a heartening tendency to keep on getting bigger. He weighed 178� pounds, trained fine, in December, and was nudging 180 pounds last week—only five pounds short of the weight at which big men are classically considered at their most efficient. He has always been an exciting fighter and one with rare natural talent. But he has also shown an awesome capacity for improvement—in nine fights last year, all won by knockouts or technical knockouts, he proved himself an increasingly finished and balanced technician in the ring. In his last bout he so outclassed the fifth-ranking heavyweight, Jimmy Slade (now reduced to ninth place as a result), that the referee stopped the chase in the seventh round.
In the opinion of the Brooklyn matchmaker Teddy Brenner and the veteran promoter Ray Arcel, Patterson today is the "best young fighter of any weight in the world" and both believe he will outclass all other leading heavyweights within the year—that his speed and reflexes will be too much for seasoned contenders like Ezzard Charles, Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson, Nino Valdes, Bob Baker and Bob Satterfield, and that he already is much more than a match for New Orleans' Willie Pastrano, Philadelphia's Joey Rowan, Detroit's Chuck Spieser and other relative newcomers.
But what would be Patterson's fate if circumstance pushed him into combat with the champion as early as next September—or, for that matter, even with Archie Moore?
Patterson's manager, white-haired Constantine (Cus) D'Amato, a shrewd and cautious man, has a tremendous respect for the Marciano bludgeoning power. But D'Amato firmly believes that by next fall a 21-year-old Patterson would be too much for a 33-year-old Marciano or a 40-year-old Moore. Patterson's trainer, an oldtimer named Dan Florio, who maintains a cynical detachment about fighters for all his pedagogical attachments to them, puts it more bluntly. "It'd be no contest," he says. " Patterson is just too fast. I've trained lots of old guys. I trained Joe Walcott. They get tired, and if you get tired in there against Patterson, then God help you. I'd hate to be the guy. A year, he'll be ready for anybody. I've trained 500-600 fighters and I've never seen anything like this boy."
This sort of rash soothsaying has a good deal of foundation in present performance. At 21, Patterson is known as a "fellow who will leave you for dead." He is a good-looking six-footer with lean hips, long arms and broad shoulders powered by slabs of smooth muscle. There is still a gangling, faintly schoolboyish air about him, but he fights with the expressionless eye and violent gracefulness of a large cat hunting its dinner. He is a rarity—a good boxer with a knockout in either fist and an instinct for pressing his man. He has lightning reflexes, fast hands and can punch in bewildering combinations. He is hard to hit, but he has been clobbered, upstairs and down, without losing his poise or aggressiveness. He has never been knocked out. He has lost one professional fight; that, however, was a debatable eight-round decision to wily old Joey Maxim, the ex-light heavyweight champion, with whom he was matched at 19. "He can belt good," says Joey, "and he had my tail dragging after the fourth round."
Fighters, like most other athletes, do not reach their peak of physical efficiency until they are mature, grown men (an Irish fighter, according to ring legend, may not develop fully until 25, 26 or even 27—Latins and Negroes are generally expected to mature at around 23). But fighters should also start young, and Patterson already has a veteran's poise. He began fighting at 15, had 44 amateur fights (38 of them won by knockouts) and since then has easily beaten top middleweights, top light heavyweights and main-event heavyweights. He suffers from nervousness before a fight, but is able to fall asleep while waiting in the dressing room, a trick of relaxation few boxers have ever achieved (among the few: Gene Tunney and Joe Louis). The idea of losing does not seem to occur to him. "The other guy always looks big when we weigh in," he says, "but it's funny—he always seems smaller than me when I see him in the ring."
As a main-event fighter of note and (ah, glorious distinction) a contender for the heavyweight championship, Patterson lives at present in a curious state of suspension—not unlike a man cautiously savoring the rigors and surprises of Space Platform One while preparing for a trip to the moon. The platform, at the moment, is a lackadaisically furnished bachelor den in Brooklyn's rugged Bedford-Stuyvesant section, just a few hazy dreams away from riches and world fame, and just a few blocks from a crumbling Old Law tenement where his father, a hard-working garbage truck driver, and his mother live with nine of their 11 children. Patterson is basically a shy and sensitive youth; he is shrewd and knowing about the ring and the mores of the slums, but he sometimes reveals a grave and boyish innocence about the big outside world into which growing fame is projecting him. Pending that great day when he supposes the transition will be complete, Floyd keeps to himself.
"I don't have many acquaintances," he says. "You get an acquaintance and, the first thing, they start doing things for you—favors for you—and the next thing they want to borrow." For companionship Patterson relies heavily upon a 24-year-old uncle named Charley Johnson. Patterson gets up at six each morning, drives with Uncle Charley to Brooklyn's Prospect Park where—heavily encased in long underwear, overalls, heavy Army shoes, sweatshirt and hood—he runs from two to five miles. He goes back to his room, drinks a cup of tea and sleeps until midday. He goes to a movie and then to Manhattan to work out in Manager D'Amato's grimy gym.