Patterson an all-time great outside the ropes

When he knocked out Archie Moore in the fifth round in November 1956, Floyd Patterson became, at age 21, the youngest heavyweight champion in history -- a distinction he retained for almost exactly 30 years.

After being relieved of his title in June 1959, courtesy of a half-dozen knockdowns at the hands of Ingemar Johansson, he starched Johansson with a pair of leaping left hooks a year later, to become the first -- and, until Muhammad Ali shocked George Foreman and the world in Zaire in 1974, the only -- man to regain the heavyweight belt.

But, after Patterson's death Thursday at 71, experts and historians were as keen to talk about his personality as his ring record.

Patterson, recalled Bert Sugar, author of "Boxing's Greatest Fighters" and co-author with Patterson of "Inside Boxing" in 1974, was "one of the gentlest athletes of all time, ever. When he knocked out Ingemar Johansson, he carried the limp body of Johansson to his corner."

Ed Brophy, executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, added that Patterson was "an icon, a true gentleman and a great representative of the sport of boxing. He represented boxing well outside the ring, and after his retirement he devoted much time to youth with amateur boxing programs, and then he represented the New York State Athletic Commission [as chairman]. He was always respected by his peers. He was always a gentleman, he was always kind to fans and to his fellow fighters. He was a great representative of the sport and will truly be missed."

Harold Lederman, HBO's "unofficial official," was a ringside judge with the New York State Athletic Commission during Patterson's tenure.

"To me, he was such a gentle person outside the ring," Lederman said. "He had such a nice personality. One story that I vividly recall: We had a referee called Harold Valan. He was the referee when Floyd fought Jimmy Ellis in Stockholm, Sweden, and everybody under the sun thought Floyd won the fight, and there were no judges and Harold was the sole arbiter and he gave it to Ellis. When Floyd became the New York State Athletic Commission chairman, Harold was scared stiff that Floyd wouldn't give him any work, but Floyd never even thought about it. Floyd used Harold Valan as if nothing ever happened. I think Harold himself was shocked by that, but that was Floyd's nature. He held no grudges against you."

"Some said his sensitivity, which he wore on his sleeve, was his shortcoming," Sugar noted. "But it was a strength, one which allowed him to counterbalance the brutality of the sport."

Even as Patterson began to fall victim to the onset of Alzheimer's, surely exacerbated by the brutality of the sport he loved, he retained a self-deprecating sense of humor, Sugar recalled.

"One time when I was at his home in New Paltz [N.Y.], having a late lunch, along with former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres and former middleweight champ Gene Fullmer, the grandfather clock in the dining room chimed -- one 'bong,' 1 o'clock ... after a silence that was about 10 or 15 seconds [but seemed much, much longer], Floyd broke the silence by saying, 'If someone else will admit they heard that, I will, too.'"

Inside the ropes, Brophy said, Patterson "was always in situations of fighting the odds against the bigger man. He was a lighter-style heavyweight. He fought normally under the 200-pound mark, and he courageously fought the bigger men. He brought hope for lighter heavyweights to do well within the sport if they had talent and could condition themselves smartly."

Indeed, not only did he fight at less than 200 pounds for much of his career but he frequently barely even exceeded the light-heavyweight limit: 182 pounds against Moore and his first fight against Johansson, a relatively bulky 189 and 194 for his two fights against Sonny Liston that brought his second heavyweight reign to an end.

With the exception of Johansson, Patterson's title defenses had been against mostly undistinguished opposition, and his manager, Cus D'Amato, had been criticized for his choice of challengers. D'Amato didn't want him to fight Liston, a hulking bear of a man Patterson had been accused of ducking. But other voices prevailed -- including President Kennedy, who urged the civil rights groups championing Patterson to beat Liston, widely portrayed as a thug who had been convicted of armed robbery -- and Patterson himself felt it was the right thing to do for boxing.

Perhaps so. It was certainly the wrong thing for Patterson.

In Chicago on Sept. 25, 1962, and again in a rematch in Las Vegas on July 22, 1963, Liston annihilated Patterson, blasting him out inside a round on both occasions. Patterson recovered to win five straight fights before earning another shot at the title, by then held by Muhammad Ali.

The prefight buildup was ugly, with Ali berating Patterson -- widely seen as a "good Negro" in the parlance of that day -- and promising to "put him flat on his back, so he will start acting black." And the fight itself was uglier, with Ali completely outclassing and punishing the former champ, seemingly stepping back every time he was on the brink of ending the contest, as if to prolong Patterson's punishment. Eventually, with Ali trainer Angelo Dundee imploring his charge to "knock him out, for Christ's sake," the referee stopped the bout in the 12th round.

That beating seemingly removed Patterson from world title consideration for good, but he could have become world heavyweight champion a third time if he been given the nod against Ellis, whom he fought for the WBA belt that had been stripped from Ali for refusing induction in the armed forces.

After the Ellis bout, Patterson fought on for four more years until he retired after a seventh-round stoppage by Ali in 1972, his place in history secured by his achievements but his position in the heavyweight pantheon diminished somewhat by the severity of his defeats.

"In truth, you couldn't say he was one of the top five greatest heavyweights of all time," Lederman said. "The truth of the matter is, he didn't have the greatest jaw in the world, but he made up for that with that great leaping left hook, which I've never seen anyone duplicate yet. The guy was totally off his feet sometimes when he landed his left hook, and he could tear your head off with it. I mean, he'll be forever famous for that punch. Johansson didn't knock him out, even if he knocked him down six or seven times, but Floyd knocked him cold with that hook, so that he was lying on his back on the canvas with his legs twitching.

"Floyd had a tremendous amateur career; he was a great professional; he was a terrific puncher. Unfortunately, he was on the small side and he didn't take a great punch."

His spirit, his attitude, and his strengths and weaknesses as a fighter were all embodied in one quote, recalled by Sugar.

"When asked, 'Does it bother you to know you were knocked down more times than anyone in heavyweight championship history?' He responded: 'But I got up more times than anyone in heavyweight history.'"

If he wasn't among the very greatest heavyweight champions in history -- and his cause is not helped by being sandwiched among a trio (Marciano, Liston and Ali) who undoubtedly were -- he was certainly, as Brophy noted, an iconic one, a "face of the '50s," as Sugar put it.

But whatever his position inside the ropes, regarding his place in history outside the ring, there is no doubt.

Put simply, Sugar said, "He ennobled the sport."

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.