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GAMBLE Goodbye Floyd Patterson
by Doug Gamble [speechwriter] 5/15/06

At a time when the sports world is peppered with so many thugs and jerks, the loss of a positive role model hits particularly hard. The death late last week of former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson of Alzheimer’s disease at 71 deprives the world of just such a role model, and me of a living hero.

Fascinated by boxing and taught to box by my father at age five, I worshipped Patterson growing up. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when I wrote an angry letter to a sports columnist who had criticized Patterson, and an excerpt was printed in the paper. I still work out on a heavy punching bag when the spirit moves me and aches and pains allow, and when I put on the gloves I’m Floyd Patterson in my mind.

It was in the 1950’s, back in the days of the Friday night fights on TV, when I was first attracted to Patterson, as many were, by his dizzying hand speed. His gloves moving so quickly they were a blur, he would land five, six or seven punches in beautiful combinations before many of his opponents could respond with one.

Doug Gamble

Doug Gamble is a former writer for President Ronald Reagan and resides in Carmel. [go to Gamble index]

But what also captured my young heart were two other things about Patterson -- his compelling life story and his humility.

One of 11 children, he was a petty thief on the streets of Brooklyn until he was sent away to reform school. Vowing to make something of his life and attracted to boxing, he wandered into the Gramercy Gym one day and met trainer and manager Cus D’Amato, a man who would not only guide Patterson’s career but would become a substitute father.

Under D’Amato’s tutelage, Patterson won the New York Golden Gloves championship and, in 1952, the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki in the middleweight division. He turned pro that same year, later moved up in weight class, and became at 21 in 1956 the youngest person ever to win the heavyweight championship.

But outside the ring Patterson was quiet spoken and mild mannered. He was unfailingly gracious and polite and never bragged about his accomplishments, in contrast to so many “in your face” athletes who chest-thump and preen. What a far cry from former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, for example, who once said that Rocky Marciano – the only heavyweight to retire as champion undefeated – was not fit to carry Holmes’ jock strap.

Even in a sport as gentile as golf, Tiger Woods, with his fist-pumping, club throwing and swearing, could learn something from Patterson about humility.

One of Patterson’s darkest nights occurred in 1959 when he was knocked down seven times in the third round in losing his title to Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson. His humiliation was my pain. It was one of the few times, man or boy, that the outcome of a sporting event made me weep.

Knowing there would be a rematch but too much of a nice guy to work up sufficient resentment against his opponent on his own, Patterson watched a film of his knockout over and over again to help build up motivation. In 1961, in what is called one of the greatest knockouts in boxing history, Patterson caught Johansson with a vicious left hook in their second fight, becoming the first boxer to ever re-capture the heavyweight title.

I have a video of that fight, and when I need to be reminded that comebacks are possible no matter how bad things seem at the time, I watch it for inspiration.

Patterson retired in 1972 with a record of 55 wins, including 40 by knockout, eight losses and one draw. Two of his losses were to Muhammad Ali. Patterson later twice served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and counseled troubled children.

My hero once said something that can be applied to the life of a person or, in these troubled times, to the life of a country. “They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most, but I also got up the most.”

Patterson was not the greatest heavyweight champion. He might have been better if he had been meaner, like Sonny Liston, or if he had more confidence in himself, like Muhammad Ali. He was a gentle soul, someone who, outside the ring, would never be taken for a boxer.

But if not the greatest champ, he was a great man. He epitomized the words “role model,” and I’m sure the example he set influenced the lives of many from my era. I wish we had more like him. CRO

California-based Doug Gamble contributed speech material to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, writes occasional opinion columns for the Orange County Register and is a senior contributor to CaliforniaRepublic.org.

Copyright 2006 Doug Gamble




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