"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: floyd patterson

BGS: The Loser

Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

box_g_patterson1_sw_580

At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.

The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.

He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.

At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:

“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”

“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”

The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”

“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”

“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”

“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.

He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”

One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.

In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.

“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”

Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.

“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’

“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.

“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .

“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”

Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.

Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.

His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.

“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.

“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.

“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”

The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.

The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.

“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”

“How old are they?” he was asked.

“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”

Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.

“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”

Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.

D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.

“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”

Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.

But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.

Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.

Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .

“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .

“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’

“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’

“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.

“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .

“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .

“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”

“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”

“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”

Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.

Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.

“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”

Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.

Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.

“This smoke won’t keep up,” Hanson assured. “You can level off.”

Patterson leveled off.

He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.

Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.

But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”

Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.

“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.

“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”

When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”

“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”

“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”

Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”

“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . .”

She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.

“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.

“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”

The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.

“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”

Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.

“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”

All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.

“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.

“Nope,” the boy said, casually.

“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.

“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”

Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.

“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.

“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”

A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.

“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”

“Nope,” the boy said.

“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.

“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”

The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:

“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”

“Okay.”

The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”

Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.

It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.

The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.

“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”

It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.

The Loser: The Most Honest Sports Story Ever Written

While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.

He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”

Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.

“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.

“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”

“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”

“Quinn?” Patterson asked.

“Yes.”

“Quinn doesn’t like me.”

“Why?”

“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”

“In his forties.”

“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”

Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.

Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.

It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.

Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.

“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.

“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”

Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”

Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”

He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.

“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”

“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.

“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”

“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”

“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”

“Could Liston be a coward?”

“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”

“Have you no hate left?”

“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”

“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”

Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”

“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”

“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’

“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.

“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”

Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.

He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!

The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.

And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.

As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”

She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”

Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”

“No,” he said.

“Oh, come up here!”

“No,” he cried.

Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”

He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”

“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.

“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”

“To get it out of my mouth.”

He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.

Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.

And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.


Gay Talese is the best-selling author of The Kingdom and the PowerHonor Thy FatherUnto the Sonsand Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “The Loser” can be found in The Gay Talese Reader andThe Silent Season of a Hero, an anthology of Talese’s sportswriting. He is also the author of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which the editors of Esquire pronounced the best story the magazine has ever published.

Bronx Banter Interview: W.K. Stratton

Sports on Earth debuted yesterday and featured a Q&A I did with W.K. Stratton, author of a fine new biography of Floyd Patterson. Stratton is the author of four other books including Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. He also edited Splendor in the Short Grass,  a terrific collection of Grover Lewis’ non-fiction writing.

In our chat over at Sports on Earth, Stratton–who goes by the name Kip–and I talk about Patterson’s relationship with Muhammad Ali. But there’s far more to Patterson’s career than his two fights with Ali.

So, dig in, and please enjoy the rest of our conversation.

Bronx Banter: Patterson has long been a favorite of writers like W.C. Heinz and especially, Gay Talese. Yet there haven’t been so many major biographies on his life. What drew you to writing about him?

Kip Stratton: In the mid-1970s, I took a college class with my mentor, Harry Ebeling, called Nonfiction Prose of Contemporary America. It was, in essence, a class in the New Journalism. This class introduced me to the writing of Gay Talese.  One of the pieces I studied in that class was Talese’s masterpiece from Esquire, “The Loser,” which was about Patterson.

BB: Did you following boxing at that time?

KS: Oh, yeah. I was a boxing fan since I was a kid. Boxing was in a kind of golden age, which probably started around the time of the Patterson-Johansson rivalry and lasted until, say, the Leonard-Hagler fight–which, incidentally, I believe Hagler won–a quarter of a century later. Although Muhammad Ali is the best known there were many terrific boxers were during that time, including Patterson. But I didn’t know how complicated Patterson was until I read that Talese piece. After that, I picked up more and more about Patterson here and there over the years, all of it interesting. In 1988, I met him, briefly, at a celebration marking the centennial of Jim Thorpe’s birth. Something about him in person seemed compelling and that increased my fascination with him. Eventually I read his autobiography, Victory Over Myself, which appeared at the peak of his career and I was blown away by what I read. Then, Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography of Ali appeared, which included a quote from Ali in which he listed Patterson with Liston, Foreman, and Frazier as the best he ever fought. Patterson, but not Ken Norton. Patterson, but not Larry Holmes. Patterson, but not Archie Moore. Ali said Patterson had the best boxing skills of any fighter he met in the ring. That pretty well cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to write about him someday.

BB: Can you talk about the work Talese did on Patterson, both for The New York Times and Esquire and how that influenced your thinking on the fighter. 

KS: Talese joined The Times as a sportswriter after he served a hitch in the Army; earlier, he’d had a job on the Times as a copyboy following his graduation from the University of Alabama. As I recall, he told me he intentionally targeted a job in the sports department because it would allow him to employ more stylistic freedom than other sections of the paper, which were very much locked into “Old Gray Lady” rules of writing. He said he admired what was going on in the pages of some of the other newspapers in the city at the time, in particular The New York Herald-Tribune. The sports pages of the Times would give him the same leeway writers at these other papers had. I read many articles he wrote for the Times’ sports section. They were experimental as hell for that paper. I remember one about the future light heavyweight champion, and future author, José Torres. The profile did not give Torres’ name until the last sentence! So Talese was doing this wonderful sort of creative nonfiction for the Times. To be sure, much of it was immature compared to the masterpieces he would later write. But it was interesting. So, here you have Talese, interested in taking this whole new approach to sports writing and he runs into Floyd Patterson, a whole different sort of boxing champion.

BB: It was as if they were made for each other.

KS: Gay wrote more than four dozen bylined Times pieces about Patterson that I found. I’d never met Talase prior to starting research on the book, but he was nice enough to offer me some time for an interview after I approached him via a mutual acquaintance.

BB: You went to his brownstone here in New York?

KS: I arrived at Gay’s house on the Upper East Side on a day when he suddenly had crushing deadlines of his own. But he granted me time. I think he was impressed that I had dug up all those old Times articles. He was an absolute gentleman–of  course attired in finely tailored clothes. He presented me with an inscribed copy of his newest book, which I totally did not expect. We talked and talked, not just about Patterson and D’Amato and company, but about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and John Gregory Dunne and two of Gay’s great friends, David Halberstam and Ben Gazzara.

BB: Wow, I knew he’d been friends with Halberstam but not Gazzara.

KS: Yeah, Talese and Halberstam were friends from when they came to know each other as young reporters on the Times. Gay thought Halberstam was the greatest reporter of their generation, and I think he’s undoubtedly right about that. Gay told me that he and Gazzara followed the fights together, among other things. I also read a quote of Talese’s in which he said something like Gazzara, once he became prominent as an actor, let a whole generation know it was okay to be Italian-American. Something like that. It would have been great to have hung out with Talese and Gazzara to listen to them talk about boxing.

BB: And women. Where’s Casavetes when yo need him?

KS: Talese invited me downstairs to his basement office and showed me his archives. Like Mailer, he’s kept everything. Using large sheets of paper, he storyboards his articles as if they are three-act dramas. He showed me his actual storyboard for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which some of us think is the best magazine article ever written by an American. And he showed me the storyboard for “The Loser,” that piece I studied in Harry’s class all those years before. I was flabbergasted to actually see that relic from all those years ago. Talese and I also talked about his collaboration with Patterson for the Esquire article in which Floyd called for people to try to understand Muhammad Ali, not just jeer him, one of the first sympathetic Ali articles to run in a mainstream magazine. So I felt as if I had Talese looking over my shoulder the whole time I worked on this book. You know, this notion of, You better not fuck this up because there are high expectations whenever you take up the subject matter of Patterson.

BB: And he wasn’t alone, right?

KS: Talese, yes, but also Heinz, Mailer, Baldwin, Hamill, Oates, Schulberg–writers of that caliber. So I felt as if I had a standard to meet. Beyond that, Gay gave me a lot of insight into the Patterson saga through his comments in the interview, in particular about D’Amato, a character who merits a great deal of examination.

BB: Patterson had an unusual sensitivity and honesty for a fighter of his caliber, didn’t he?

KS: Let’s start with the instructions given by the referee before the opening bell. Nowadays, this is the time for the absurd exercise in posturing known as the stare-down. It wasn’t quite like it is now in Patterson’s day, but it was still expected that a fighter look the man he was going to battle in the eye. Patterson never did that. He stared at the other guy’s feet. He couldn’t look into the eyes of someone he was getting ready to hurt. If he did that, he wouldn’t be able to fight. He cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head after he knocked Ingo out. He helped an opponent recover his mouthpiece after he, Floyd, knocked it out.

BB: He was also candid, especially with Talese.

KS: Patterson was perhaps the most eloquent champion ever when it came to mining deep feelings and expressing them. He spoke honestly about fear, about cowardice — he described himself as a coward once. At the same time, he was reclusive and seemed to like to stay silent most of the time. He was not comfortable around people, an introvert, yet he did as much charitable work as any champion in history. He lived a conservative lifestyle in that he didn’t drink or do drugs or make the party scene very much, and he held conservative stances about other things, yet he was an early and outspoken liberal when it came to the civil rights movement. He lent his name and gave money to desegregation causes. He went to Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was often, to quote Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.

BB: Patterson’s accomplishments in the ring tend to be overlooked these days. How much of that is due to the huge impression that Ali left?

KS: Patterson was the bridge between Rocky Marciano and Ali. The year Patterson won the heavyweight title, you had Humphrey Bogart appearing in The Harder They Fall. The year Patterson fought his last pro fight, you had Ron O’Neal appearing in Super Fly. Because of this, it’s hard to really associate Patterson with an era in the way you can a Dempsey or a Louis, and I think that’s allowed him to slip through the cracks to a certain extent.

BB: He gets lost.

KS: Absolutely, the light of Patterson gets lost in the glare of Ali. Patterson brings speed into the heavyweight ring that no one had ever seen before, revolutionizing the possibilities for a heavyweight fighter. But then Ali shows up with hand speed that matches Floyd’s and has even faster ring mobility and is taller and weighs more. Makes it easy to overlook Patterson. Floyd is good in interviews, eloquently giving well thought out answers. Ali takes control of interviews, makes them his own, makes them funny, makes them memorable for years to come. Patterson’s a good looking guy. Ali has movie-star good looks, one of the handsomest men to grace the public stage during the 20th century. Patterson has great wins over Moore and Johansson, but Ali has monumental victories over Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, and, indeed, Floyd himself. Mailer writes a significant article about Patterson but writes a significant book about Ali. On and on. The Greatest was and is The Greatest. But I think enough — or more than enough — has been written about him. I think it’s time to look at some of these other figures. Patterson. Joe Frazier. And so on. You go to a bookstore, and often the only boxing titles you see are about Ali. That’s not right. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean that Buddy Holly and Little Richard aren’t damned significant figures. So be it with Floyd Patterson.

BB: What is it about stars of the 1950s and early ’60s being forgotten? 

KS: Well, again, I think Ali has something to do with it. People became so fixated with him. We’ve now had a couple of generations of American boxers come along, many of whom don’t know how to keep their hands up or are otherwise lacking in boxing fundamentals because Ali didn’t do it that way. But they’re pretty good at pulling off ring antics of some sort. This is part of the downside of the Ali legacy. Ali became sloppy about staying in shape–of course I’m talking about fighting shape here–in the second part of his career, and that became part of the negative legacy too. And one thing Ali did was that he made the fight be something more than the fight. Often it seemed that the sideshow was more important to the fans than the fight itself. That’s carried over to subsequent generations of fighters.

BB: How so?

KS: Floyd Mayweather is a brilliant boxer, but it seems that his fans are more interested in the gangsta production surrounding the fight than the fight itself. Well, Mayweather understands that expectation and delivers time after time. The fights of the pre-Ali era was something entirely different. Flourishes occurred here and there among the boxers, and fairly often when you talk about Archie Moore, who was a different sort of character for the 1950s, but the fight itself was the thing. Beau Jack headlined the Garden 21 times during the 1940s and ’50s and brought no show except his boxing skills. That was enough for the time. Fighting well. And the fans would stream in to see it. Now there has to be more. Showbiz. Glitz. Outrageous haircuts. Bling glittering off trunks. That’s the expectation. Modern fans don’t resonate with many of those older, pre-Ali fighters who did nothing more in the ring than just fight. In order to have resonance with modern fans, the older boxers have to have a hell of a back story, like Floyd Patterson.

BB: I think it’s interesting that Ali mentioned Patterson over Norton who fought well against Ali, arguably better than Patterson did.

KS: Floyd had a great trainer in Dan Florio. It is doubtful that any heavyweight champion had better instruction in and subsequent competency at the rudiments of boxing than Patterson. You know, how to set up a right cross with a left jab. How to set up a right uppercut. So I think in part what Ali was saying is that Patterson was the best schooled of any boxer he faced. Beyond that, if you watch the film of the first Ali-Patterson fight, you see that Floyd’s hand speed was something Ali was unaccustomed to encountering. Ali lived and died by his jab, but Patterson had the speed to catch a lot of Ali’s jabs in that first fight. Now, don’t get me wrong: The fight was a mismatch from the get-go. Ali was bigger and younger; Floyd was injured and shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place. But in those early rounds, Floyd does a very respectable job taking Ali’s jab away from him by blocking them with his right hand. I think those are the reasons Ali had so much respect for him.

BB: Since Ali has cast such a large shadow over Patterson, and a host of other fighters, can you talk about how Patterson stands up on his own, without comparing him in any way to Ali.

KS:  First, let’s talk about Floyd the amateur. Pete Hamill has said that Patterson was one of the great amateur boxers in the history of American sports. Hamill’s right. Patterson’s record in the Golden Gloves and the AAUs is very impressive, especially when you consider he was 16 and 17 years old when he was scoring all those victories. Then he went to the Olympics. The 1952 US boxing team at the Helsinki games is a great story. The United States had never performed particularly well in Olympic boxing prior to 1952; our teams were dominated by white collegians before that. But in 1952, you had a team whose dominate fighters were inner city guys who were tough and talented. That team brought back five gold medals to America. Five! And all five of the gold medalists were African American. This was at a time when big league baseball and pro football were barely integrated. It would be twenty years before some Southwest Conference football teams integrated. This was a huge event in the history of sports in America. And Floyd Patterson was the star of that team. To the end of his life, Floyd said that winning a gold medal in the Olympics was his proudest accomplishment.

BB: And that’s all before he went pro.

KS: That’s right. He won the heavyweight title at age 21, the youngest man to do so. His record stood for around three decades before Tyson won it at an even younger age. Patterson won the title, lost it, then regained it. He was the first person in history to win the title twice. This was something that boxers the likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis couldn’t do. He came damned close to winning the title a third time in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. At around the halfway point of his pro career, he, an African American fighter, fired his white manager and became his own manager. He did all these things showing a high level of fair play and honor. For instance, everything was set up for him to be able to avoid fighting Sonny Liston. Many people inside and outside the boxing world believed Liston’s extensive criminal background was justification for keeping him from competing for the crown. Floyd could have bought into that argument and every sanctioning body would have supported his decision. But Patterson believe Liston had earned a shot at the title, that he deserved it, and Patterson gave it to him, even though he knew it would spell his doom as champ. Remarkable, just remarkable.

BB: And he had a complicated relationship with the trainer Cus D’Amato.

KS:  Patterson had to paired with just the right mentor if he was ever going have any success fighting. I believe it could not have been anyone else other than Cus D’Amato. I spend a good deal of time in a boxing gym and I hear the same thing over and over: Boxing is mostly mental. Boxing is 75 percent psychological. My friend Anissa Zamarron, a two-time world champion female boxer, says that a successful boxer has to take on the mind-set of a rooster in a cockfight whenever the bell rings. Well, getting Floyd to be a rooster psychologically took some doing. I’m not sure anyone other than D’Amato could have taken Floyd that far. He was a very talented amateur psychologist, I believe, especially when dealing with young boxers, teenaged boxers. Floyd came from a large family and his father was usually absent, out working, holding down two or more jobs, and because his father worked so much, I got the feeling that Floyd didn’t receive very much fathering from him. Floyd was closer to his mother. D’Amato became this sort of surrogate father figure.

BB: Your portrait of D’Amato could be a book on its own.

KS: D’Amato was pretty messed up himself. He was regarded as a mystery figure during his prime–some writers wrote that he had no family, stuff like that. But I dug up quite a bit about him. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, lost his mother at a very early age, had a beloved brother, a boxer and a talented artist, shot and killed by a New York cop. D’Amato went through serious depression as a kid, obsessed with funerals and all that. He also told stories about himself as being some sort of vicious street tough, which were probably exaggerated or made up entirely. He was a ne’er-do-well who couldn’t keep a job, a dabbler in city politics but not too successful in that either. But then he stumbled into the world of boxing, and though he was no athlete himself, certainly never boxed, he found himself in this world of prizefighting. Boxing was completely mobbed up in New York at the time, and D’Amato willing “did business,” in his early days when called upon to do so. But then he eventually very publicly set out to expose the mob’s reign in boxing with an attempt to dislodge; at the same time, he continued to associate himself, secretly, with some powerful organized crime figures. Complicated man. He had no interest in making money for himself, but I think he was a kind of publicity hound. He always wanted it known that he was the brains behind Patterson. He brought Floyd along brilliantly through the amateur and early pro days. No one could have done a better job. He and Dan Florio were able to pick fighters that stretched Patterson, helped him grow from a middleweight to light heavyweight and then to a heavyweight contender. Cus was great at building up Patterson’s confidence. So a father figure, a confident, an adviser, a spokesman–all  those things. But there were also problems.

BB: Was Patterson’s break from D’Amato necessary in him becoming his own man?

KS: Once Patterson won the world title, it became apparent that D’Amato was a bit in over his head in handling a champion at that level. He made mistakes on contracts that ended up costing Floyd money. That sort of thing. Just making a fight was a tortuous process for him. The business decisions were what Patterson pointed to when he eventually talked about why he fired D’Amato and took over his own career. But there was more. I think part of it was the need for a son to break away from his father, figuratively speaking, for Floyd to prove that he was his own man. D’Amato’s hesitancy to match Patterson with some of the ranking contenders of the late 1950s made it almost seem as if Floyd were afraid to fight them. Well, one thing you didn’t do to a proud black man was put him into situations in which it might seem as if he were a coward. Jesus, that harkened back to way too many old American stereotypes. I’m not sure D’Amato ever got that, however.

BB: You write about how he have made some unwelcome advances though Patterson never called him out publicly on that.

KS: I discovered in my reserach there was a lot of whispered speculation about D’Amato’s sexuality in some quarters. D’Amato had a long-time relationship with Camille Ewald, but she usually lived apart from him. In the 1950s, a man was expected to be married with children or have a very visible girlfriend or, in the world of boxing, maybe both. Cus didn’t do this, so he was suspect. For a time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jim Jacobs. That too spurred whispering. I mention this because in the context of the times, this was a big deal. Then there was the event about which Patterson told Talese. D’Amato was so obsessive about “protecting” Patterson from enemies, real or imagined, that he took to sleeping the same bedroom with him. And then in the same bed with him. One night, Floyd told Gay, Patterson awoke to feel D’Amato rubbing Floyd’s leg with his foot. Floyd feigned sleep and didn’t react in any way. Nothing like this ever happened again, as far as I could find out. And who knows? D’Amato may have been sound asleep himself and it was some sort of reflexive thing. I mention all this only to portray just how closely, how intimately if you will, connected Patterson and D’Amato were at one point. It went beyond the typical manager/trainer’s relationship with a boxer, and because of the nature of the sport, that’s always a pretty intimate relationship anyway.

BB: Still, Patterson need to break from him eventually.

KS: Floyd could never become what he did had it not been for D’Amato, but he also had to break with D’Amato if he was to grow into a man fully in charge of his life. Floyd broke with Cus and drove his career where he thought it had to go, the fights with Liston and Ali, the defeats, the dethronement, the tarnished legacy. To me this is what Aristotle was getting at when he wrote about tragedy. To me, Floyd Patterson is a tragic figure in this regard. And if it was cast into the tradition five-act form, D’Amato would be a key figure in “The Tragedy of Floyd Patterson.”

BB: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your book of poetry, Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. How did you get into poetry?

KS: Poetry was the first thing I wrote in earnest. In high school, I had a teacher, Kenny Walter, who turned me on to contemporary poetry in a serious way. Now, where I came from, it wasn’t exactly okay for a guy to be interested in something like poetry, under normal circumstances. But Kenny had been something of a star athlete in my home town before he went off to college and came back a teacher, and he was still a serious weekend basketball and tennis player and a serious bird hunter. So he showed you could be into poetry and still be “manly.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a pretty remote place–rural Oklahoma—inhabited by a lot of people with backwards notions. So Kenny made poetry accessible, and I sure as hell was interested.

BB: What poets did you read early on?

KS: The big poet who fascinated us at that time was James Dickey, again, a former athlete, a guy who seemed to know a lot about the woods, a guy who seemed to know a lot about things like archery. Since then I’ve learned he was in part a fraud, a damaged person, but, again, he wrote about things I could relate to. Anyway, through that portal, I entered this whole world of verse. I was so damned naïve—I didn’t realize there were all these competing factions in that world. The portal through which I entered was one dominated by some poets who would be classified as Academic poets: Dickey, Richard Hugo, William Stafford. Stafford eventually became a friend of mine for a while, a kind, generous man. Also Robert Lowell during his confessional period—I still think “Skunk Hour” is a terrific poem. Elizabeth Bishop.

BB: When did you break out of the “academic poets”?

KS: That came later and was a liberating experience. Here were a bunch of people writing verse that came from the truest artistic inspiration. Sometimes the verse ended up being, to my taste, not completely successful, but, damn, you could not deny the spirit and the true artistic inspiration behind it. Other times the verse exceeded what the Academics could pull off at their best. I remember well watching a black-and-white PBS documentary about Charles Bukowski at a time when Bukowski was hardly known. It was fascinating and led me to seek out some of his early verse, which was not easy to find in a place like Oklahoma City at that time. As I said, it was liberating. So I just kept writing verse, never stopped. I write poetry that’s not destined to end up in The New Yorker or Poetry. I came in through the Dickey-Hugo-Stafford portal, and their influence is still on me, but I think I wound up writing more in the Outlaw Poetry tradition.

BB: What did you write about?

KS: I wrote a series of haiku about boxing, in part as a sort of satire on the form. Seriously, boxing haiku? Sports infiltrates the verse. I write about rodeo. I wrote a poem about learning at a football game about the suicide of a girl I knew and dated some as a teenager. I wrote poems about a lot of hard slices of life, about dumping my father’s ashes in a stream in the Cascades, about my stepbrother’s death from AIDS. I wrote poems about Merle Haggard and Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates and Dennis Hopper. I wrote about beer joints. I wrote about a Mexican food place in Uvalde, Texas.

BB: And then…Peckinpah?

KS: I’ve long considered the director Sam Peckinpah to be a kind of poet, when he was at his best. He created his metaphors in the mixed media of film rather than by writing them down as lines on paper. I’ve thought a lot about Peckinpah’s work over the years, read a lot about him. I had a poem that included in a line the phrase “dreaming Sam Peckinpah.” I thought for a long time it would be a good title for a book. Well, I had all these poems I’d written, one or two going back more than thirty years. And one day it occurred to me that they could be arranged in a thematic way, sort of in the way a rock concept album from back in the day would be arranged. So I did that, drawing on quotes from or about Peckinpah, and, damn, if I wasn’t happy with the results. About that same time, a wonderful small press publisher had told me he’d be interested in something like what I was working on. Things clicked. And that’s how Dreaming Sam Peckinpah came to be.

Visit Stratton’s website here; you can purchase the Patterson book, here.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver