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Never have so many paid so much to sec so little as the more than 600,000 people who shelled out an estimated $4 million, either live in Chicago or via television in 260 theaters, to dimly perceive Sonny Liston's astonishing one-round knockout of Floyd Patterson. At first, the fans regarded the bathetic outcome in truculent silence; then, baffled and disgruntled, they spilled into saloons and living rooms complaining like mutinous lascars. There was a near unanimity of opinion, some of it by people who should have known better. The fight was fixed to set up a lucrative return match, they said. Patterson went into the ring a quivering coward, they said. Patterson was a bum made of glass. One theory, no more bizarre than the others, had it that the mob ordered Patterson to lose and promised him a one-sided High Noon if he didn't.
The genesis of all this wide-eyed theorizing and downright baloney was the fact that many spectators failed to see the knockout blows. One second Patterson was tottering against the ropes, the next he was collapsing like a bridge table. Those who did have a good look at the punches but were unfamiliar with Liston's work vastly underestimated their force. Liston is not a notably swift and flashy hitter, but that final left hook crashed into Patterson's cheek like a diesel rig going downhill, no brakes.
Annoyed fans who thought that Patterson should have beaten the count didn't know what they were talking about. There are no fighters extant, and precious few mammals of any variety, that could have beaten the count. The miracle is that Patterson was able to get to his knees.
By all the laws of logic and reason, the fight could not have been fixed. Patterson was destroyed so completely that he does not recall any of the action depicted in color on the following pages. He had no idea that he had been holding onto the ropes or, indeed, how he even got to the ropes. "Did I come off the ropes like I was going to throw a punch?" he asked pathetically. He was astounded to learn that he embraced Manager Cus D'Amato a minute after he had shakily regained his feet. "I must have still been groggy," he said, "because I have no knowledge of it. It couldn't have been me. It must have been somebody who looked like me, possibly my brother. You're sure I was hit? I thought I might have blacked out. Gosh, one of these days I'm going to start taking off my boxing trunks right there in the ring in front of all those people, thinking I'm in my dressing room already."
When Sonny Liston heard the soreheads' theories that Patterson was yellow or Patterson had gone into the tank, he reacted with typical simplicity. "That's got to be the most stupidest thing I ever heard," he said. "I felt enough of him under my glove on that last hook to know it was a good enough punch to put any man down hard. I looked at him close when he was going down and I took another good look when he hit the floor. He was gone. He surprised me for a tiny second when he got up on one knee, but then I could see he was like a man reaching for the alarm clock while he was still asleep. I admired the way he was fighting to make it. All of a sudden, I could see why Johan-na-son couldn't keep him down."
Liston will have no part of the theory that Patterson was cowardly. "There's a big difference between having fear in you and being a coward," he said on the plane ride back to Philadelphia. "I can have fear in me, too, and that kind of fear is good. Then I'd go into the ring and because I had this fear I'd try to take the other guy out as quick as I could. Patterson had fear in him but he wasn't no coward."
Said Patterson, in the careful manner he uses when he is being interviewed, "I definitely wasn't afraid. I wish to emphasize that. I was definitely not afraid. Perhaps I should have been. I have never been afraid of any of my opponents, no matter how big they are." (He was, perhaps, apprehensive about explaining the knockout to his children, but he solved the problem admirably. His oldest daughter, Seneca, 6, asked him what happened. "I told her it was just a game where we try to push each other down," he said. "This time he pushed me down. The next time I'll push him down. I asked her if she wanted to play the game. I let her push me down to show her how it was done.")
Liston claims Patterson wouldn't look at him during the weigh-in. Sonny is proud of his ability to stare an opponent down and figures that such matters are important. Patterson does not.
"I never looked any of my opponents in the face," Patterson says. "It's no sign of being afraid. I just find it difficult to look them in the face. I saw Liston's body. It looked tremendous but as soon as the bell rang the image became smaller. I guess my mind plays tricks on me." None of this is to say that Patterson did not fight a shameful, heedless fight, and he knows it better than anybody. "Boy," he said, "that was a terrible performance! I fought a fight that wasn't a fight. My mind just wasn't on the fight. It was what I call a lingering mind. Instead of forgetting everything but my opponent, my mind just lingered from here to there to the other place. The fact that my mind lingers is something I can't control. Now this isn't an excuse. I know what was wrong but I don't want to say what right now. First thing a beaten fighter looks for is an excuse. My excuse is I got hit. You know, my belly was in terrific condition. I had two guys throwing a medicine ball at it as hard as they could every day. Only thing, Sonny didn't punch me in the belly. I fooled him, though. He said it would go five rounds.
"I'm not depressed so much because of myself but because of the people, the public. They were behind me. Now I've gotten almost a thousand letters. That's going to make me give a very good account of myself the next time. My opinion of Liston was correct. I just have to change myself to a certain degree—my mental attitude. I have to have a reason to fight at my best; to win just doesn't seem to be enough reason for me. Something has been done to me by Sonny Liston and now I have much, much more reason than winning. I want my championship back. I'm not saying I'm going to get it. That's boasting. People don't want to hear that. They want to see it."