MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Former Heavyweight Champ Floyd Patterson died today. He was 71. According to a family member, Patterson had been ill with Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer for several years. In 1956, Floyd Patterson became the youngest boxer in history to win the Heavyweight title.
But as we hear in this report from NPR's Tom Goldman, those who knew Patterson remember him as much for his humanity as for his boxing prowess.
TOM GOLDMAN: Floyd Patterson began as many boxers do. Born into poverty, he was raised in Brooklyn and had a tough childhood. At the age of 10, he was sent to a juvenile home where he discovered boxing. Patterson would hold his gloves high in front of his face, a distinctive peek-a-boo style, and then he'd spring forward and often catch opponents off guard. It served him well. As a 17-year-old in 1952, Patterson won an Olympic Gold Medal in the Middle-Weight Division. Four years later, he became the youngest Heavyweight champ in history.
BERT SUGAR: Having been a Middle-Weight, he had fast hands, probably faster at that point in time before Muhammad Ali of anybody in Heavyweight history.
GOLDMAN: Boxing writer and historian Bert Sugar says Patterson was great in his era. Sugar's new book ranks the top 100 fighters of all time and Patterson, he says, is not included.
SUGAR: But if I made a list of those who ennobled the world of sports, he'd probably be at the top of it. There was never a nicer man than Floyd.
GOLDMAN: Even in the boxing ring, where brutality rules the day, Patterson was part of a memorable boxing trilogy with Swedish fighter Ingmar Johansson.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)
Unidentified Man #1: Patterson and Bable (ph) gets up staggering. And the end, wait a minute the fight is over. The fight is over.
GOLDMAN: In the first of three fights, in New York City in 1959, Johansson pummeled Patterson knocking Patterson down seven times on the way to a quick victory. But a year later, fight number two, it was Patterson's turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)
P: Patterson dodges a wild right, takes a left to the body. Patterson with Johansson having no punch whatever. Johansson looks like a man sleepwalking.
GOLDMAN: It was a moment of redemption, says Bert Sugar. Still, Patterson's instinct was to comfort his opponent.
SUGAR: When he knocked out Ingmar Johansson to become the first Heavyweight champion ever to regain the crown back in 1960, he actually picked up the stricken and still unconscious Ingmar Johansson to take him to his corner.
GOLDMAN: Patterson went on to win the third fight against Johansson. Boxing pundits will forever wonder whether Patterson's humanity kept him from becoming, in Bert Sugar's words, "Great with a capital G."
Certainly being a nice man didn't help Patterson in 1962, when he lost his title for good to Sunny Liston, a fighter who had an image as a street tough thug. Nobody, says Bert Sugar, wanted Patterson to fight Liston.
SUGAR: Even John F. Kennedy and Roy Wilkins, head of the NCAAP, they didn't want him to, because Liston wasn't like Floyd, a credit, as the old saying went, to his race. And yet Floyd wanted it, still fearful, but wanted it. He wanted to give Liston his chance.
GOLDMAN: Liston destroyed Patterson in one round. He would fight Liston again and loose. Patterson retired in 1972, and then oversaw boxing in New York as the Chairman of the State Athletic Commission. Patterson also counseled troubled kids. For all his boxing accomplishments, Floyd Patterson once was asked about one of the more dubious ones, being knocked down in Heavyweight championship fights more than any man in history.
"Yes," said Patterson. "But I also got up more than anyone."
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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