Floyd Patterson and Emile Griffith were the first famous fighters I followed in the New York newspapers, the prime media outlet for professional boxing in the early 1960s.
Back then, it was all closed circuit TV unless you were rich or lucky enough to secure a seat at the old 50th Street Madison Square Garden. Patterson passed last week at age 71, leaving behind a boxing legacy few can match. He was the first ever to become heavyweight champion twice and the first to have a son follow him as a world champ.
It just didn’t seem like he was under six feet tall and 185 pounds. There was an aura about Patterson, perhaps because he was a champion with flaws. He was as famous for being knocked down in fights (21 times) as for winning them. Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali beat Patterson up, but Floyd never lost his popularity or his grace both in and out of the ring.
"I first met Floyd at Deer Lake (Pa.) where Muhammad was training for their fight," said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s longtime business manager and confident. "Ali told me he always put nicknames on his opponents. During the pre-fight press conference at Madison Square Garden, he saw Floyd just sitting there smiling. Muhammad said he couldn’t call him anything but a nice guy."
Ali went on to win the fight easily and delivered a lot of punishment, but years later told Kilroy he never intended to hurt Floyd.
"Ali was never mad at Floyd, even though Patterson for years continued to call him Clay," said Kilroy, recently hired as the Luxor’s director of player development. "That situation was patched up years later at the Las Vegas Hilton, where I was lunching with Floyd and his wife. Muhammad came over and said, ”˜Floyd Patterson!’ Floyd replied, "Thanks, Muhammad for the good pay day in the ring." Ali smiled and said, "Floyd, you earned it."
Patterson was the connection between legendary trainer Cus D’Amato and a young teenage rebel named Mike Tyson. D’Amato took both under his wing and made them the youngest heavyweight champs in history.
"I feel blessed to have known all of them," Kilroy said. "Fighters have compassion. They win titles with their fists and respect with their heart. Floyd Patterson won everyone’s respect as a fighter, family man and head of the New York State Boxing Commission."
Patterson was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer. Now, the suffering is over.
"I’m sure Floyd is in heaven reminiscing with Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Jerry Quarry about the old days," Kilroy said.
Record: 55-8-1, 40 KOs
1952: Olympic middleweight gold medalist in Helsinki, Finland.
1956: Became youngest heavyweight champ defeating Archie Moore.
1960: Regained heavyweight title with Round 5 KO of Ingemar Johansson.
1972: Retired following loss to Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas.