Blackmail, Sexual Obsession, Fight Fixing: Behind The Weird Scenes On The Night Floyd Patterson Conquered Boxing

Illustration for article titled Blackmail, Sexual Obsession, Fight Fixing: Behind The Weird Scenes On The Night Floyd Patterson Conquered Boxing

Excerpted from W.K. Stratton's Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion, available today from fine booksellers everywhere.


In September 1956, at Chicago's Bismarck Hotel, in a room crowded with boxing dignitaries along with a throng of newspaper reporters and broadcast journalists, Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore signed a contract to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. The fight was set for Nov. 30 of that year at the Chicago Stadium. The Old Mongoose was a press favorite because he always made for good copy. He understood how to sell an upcoming match, just as he understood how to conduct psychological warfare against an upcoming opponent. A later master of self-promotion and psyching out the competition, Muhammad Ali, would learn a great deal from Moore. After the contracts were signed, one of the broadcast journalists asked Moore to predict the outcome. Moore said he'd probably knock Patterson out. Asked to respond, Floyd said, "If Moore can knock me out, more power to him."

This was Moore's cue. He rose to his feet and began a blistering verbal attack on Patterson as the cameras rolled and the sportswriters scribbled notes. Patterson was completely taken aback. He believed in treating the opposition with dignity. There was nothing dignified about the words spewing from Moore's mouth. Finally, Patterson could stand it no longer. He fled the room and hurried through the lobby and out onto the street, where he sucked in some deep breaths of fresh air. He found a pay phone, called Sandra, and poured his heart out. She was always effective in those days at calming him down. But now he had even more reason to check in with her. Sandra was pregnant and their baby was due to arrive about the same time as the heavyweight title fight. Sandra directed the conversation to the soon-to-arrive baby and how she herself was feeling. She soothed his anger over Moore's tirade. Patterson returned to the hotel and completed the interview, although he was irked by later questions about how he planned to stand up against a fighter with Moore's decades of experience. Floyd believed that he'd learned as much in a short time as Moore had learned over many years, but no boxing prognosticators seemed to consider that possibility.

* * *

Patterson, his manager/trainer Cus D'Amato, and company had set up camp at a Chicago horseracing track closed for the season, Sportsman's Park. It was a bizarre experience for Floyd. He did his roadwork on a course designed for racehorses and sparred in a makeshift ring erected in the grandstand penthouse. He shivered through the nights with his friend and unpaid trainer Buster Watson on cots in the jockeys' quarters. D'Amato was consumed by fear that one of his enemies would attempt to poison Patterson, so he slept on a cot positioned so that it barred the door to Patterson's room.

D'Amato's peculiar behavior did not go unnoticed by sportswriters. At other training camps, they'd seen D'Amato actually sleep in the same bed with Floyd. Whatever his explanations, D'Amato's actions seemed to go beyond propriety. He seemed obsessed with his fighter, but what was the source of his obsession? Was the guy a genius or was he half-mad? Or was there something else?

"I remember a story that Patterson told me," author Gay Talese, who knew both Patterson and D'Amato well, once said. "I got the impression that D'Amato had a sexual thing for Patterson—not that Patterson reciprocated. Patterson told me he was lying in bed and D'Amato was lying next to him, slipped perhaps into bed, I don't know. It was a training camp, you know. Prizefighters in training camp are intimately open, not sexually, but you are naked, you are free, there is a lot of openness. But this one time in bed, D'Amato had his foot on Patterson's foot, sort of playing with his toes." Perhaps it was totally innocent, an involuntary action by a man deep in slumber. But Talese was not alone in speculating about D'Amato's feelings toward Patterson. It was hard to tell the truth of the matter, for D'Amato was such an off-center man. "D'Amato was an eccentric," Talese said, "amusing, but I think probably borderline psychotic or paranoid." But Floyd himself once gave a curious answer to a question about his relationship with D'Amato, one bound to raise eyebrows in the 1950s: "He makes mistakes, but the more they try to turn me against him, the more his quality comes out. Lucky he isn't a woman. I might have married him."


Sleeping arrangements, worries about his pregnant wife, and the frigid weather aside, Floyd went through what he considered a successful camp at Sportsman's Park, particularly in developing a game plan for the fight. In addition to running and sparring, Floyd spent hours with Dan Florio watching again and again the films of the Marciano-Moore championship bout. During each viewing, Florio noticed that Patterson would tense up at one particular point in the fight. He ran and reran the film until Floyd pointed out that Moore responded to right-hand leads with a right of his own. Floyd decided he should avoid right leads.

Of course, Florio had seen the same thing, but he wanted Patterson to detect it on his own, believing the lesson would be more effective if Floyd figured it out for himself. In the makeshift ring, Patterson worked on options to a right-hand lead with his sparring partners as he and Florio devised a strategy designed to keep constant pressure on the older, heavier Moore. They wanted to wear the Old Mongoose down, then put him away once he was fatigued.


At noon on Nov. 30, Patterson and his entourage arrived via station wagon at the Chicago Stadium for the weigh-in before that night's championship fight. Patterson registered at 182 1/4 pounds; Moore, at 187 3/4. Patterson retired to his dressing room and, as was his custom, went to sleep. But not all was calm in the hours before the opening bell.

That morning's issue of the Chicago Tribune carried a story suggesting the IBC was up to its old tricks. Charley Johnston, Moore's manager of record at the time, had inadvertently disclosed that Moore had been given an under-the-table $200,000 guarantee. This was at odds with contracts on file at the Illinois Athletic Commission, which called for each fighter to receive 30 percent of the combined gate receipts and TV and radio broadcast revenue. Promoters estimated that, based on this formula, each fighter should receive about $150,000. But the Tribune article suggested another agreement was in place, one kept hidden from D'Amato and Floyd. If Moore was guaranteed $200,000, regardless of the gate, that meant Floyd would be receiving less than D'Amato expected. In exchange for the $200,000 guarantee, Moore agreed to give the IBC exclusive ownership of his services as heavyweight champ. D'Amato was livid.


Besides that morning's Tribune story, there was an even bigger reason for turmoil in the Patterson camp. When Floyd tried to telephone Sandra after the weigh-in, there was no answer. He was sure that could mean only one thing—she had gone into labor earlier than expected. He hurriedly placed other calls until he was able to confirm that she was indeed at the hospital. He dialed Queens Memorial, and his brother-in-law came on the line to assure Floyd that she was fine and that nothing was happening yet. He promised to give Floyd a call when Sandra went into delivery. Later that afternoon, Patterson became the father of a six-pound, two-ounce daughter. But Floyd's handlers did not let him know, fearing it might distract him from the business at hand. Four hours after Seneca Patterson drew her first breath, Patterson stepped into the ring in the Chicago Stadium to fight Moore.

There was all the usual pomp and circumstance associated with a heavyweight title bout at the Chicago Stadium that night. Photographers, cameramen, newspaper reporters, and broadcasters competed for space along all four sides of the ring. Past champions were introduced and waved at the crowd. Every two-bit politician worth his salt had nabbed a ticket in the front rows and showed up well preened, hoping to be seen, as did all manner of national and regional celebrities.


After the referee's traditional midring delivery of instructions, the bell rang and Floyd took command, driving long jabs into Moore's face, first from outside and then up close, scoring on the Old Mongoose seemingly at will in spite of Moore's vaunted protective shell. The first round ended with a hard Patterson right smashing into Moore's head. In the next round, the boxers exchanged blows fairly evenly, although Patterson clearly was the sharper, faster fighter. The third round was pivotal as Floyd opened a deep cut in Moore's left eyebrow. Patterson thereafter beat Moore to the punch time after time, making the Old Mongoose look his age. At the close of the fourth round, Patterson drove Moore to the ropes with a flurry of lefts and rights, finishing with a hard right-hand body punch as the bell rang. A stunned Moore wobbled to his corner. Just past the two-minute mark of round five, Patterson floored Moore with a left hook. Moore made it back to his feet before the referee's count ended, but seemed confused.


When the fight resumed, Patterson hit him with a crisp combination of punches and Moore fell again. He struggled to a kneeling position, but this time could rise no farther.


The heavyweight championship belonged to Floyd Patterson. Even so, Floyd found himself feeling sorry for Moore.

Patterson went through the celebratory motions, allowing himself to be hoisted to the shoulders of D'Amato and Florio. On the way from the ring to the dressing room, a reporter stopped Floyd to show him a wire service photo from New York of Sandra holding Seneca. And that's how Patterson learned he was a father. After that, much of the fight melted into a blur for him as he thought about his new daughter. He was "the happiest ever." With his purse of $114,257, it seemed nothing but good times lay ahead of him.


Though a victory party was planned at a Chicago restaurant, Floyd, ecstatic though he was about his win, ditched it. He and two friends climbed into an automobile and hit the road for New York. He had no time to celebrate the magnitude of what he had just accomplished, fighting the best fight of his career, humiliating Moore, who was widely considered to be among the 20 or so best boxers to ever tie on the gloves. But for now Floyd and his friends focused on the white lines of the two-lane highways of the upper Midwest as they roared through the crisp November night. Floyd ached to see his wife and Seneca.

Meanwhile, as a huffing Moore sat sweating in his dressing room, fight reporters swarmed in to get his postbout comments. Moore hoisted himself onto a bench and said, "It seems that even I must bow to the thing called youth. Youth and those fast legs. I came to the end of a very hard road, and when I got there I found the gate closed." Moore's manager, Charley Johnston, listened, but didn't believe him. Once the reporters had cleared out of the dressing room, Johnston lit into his fighter: "I don't know what was going on out there but it didn't look good to me. As a matter of fact, it looked goddamned funny." Moore protested that he'd fought as well as he could. Johnston refused to believe it. Later, Moore said that he was under undue stress in Chicago because a former lover was attempting to blackmail him by claiming, among other allegations, that Moore had raped her 12-year-old daughter. Moore said that because of the blackmail ruckus, his head just wasn't into fighting Patterson. The bout was like something he watched as a spectator, not participated in. But allegations that Moore had taken a dive in a fixed fight began to spread. Eventually, Moore felt obliged to respond by releasing a statement:

I must protest strongly when it is hinted that I dumped the fight. To do so I would have had to have a reason, and the only reason would be that I had bet money on Floyd. It takes a minimum of two to make a bet, and if the man I bet with will come forward I'll be glad to meet him for the first time. If I had won the fight, I would have been the holder of the heavy and light-heavyweight titles. I think it would have meant quite a few dollars in the Moore bank account. The odds were favorable for a "killing," because I was a 6-to-5 favorite, and when you rule out money there isn't another reason for me to go into the tank . . . I openly admit I was beaten fairly by a good fighter. I've lost many fights but never did I lose one in such a sorry fashion as the night I fought Floyd Patterson.


Moore's statement, however, only fueled fixed-fight speculation.

Naysayers aside, plenty of writers were impressed by Patterson's victory, none more so than Arthur Daley of The New York Times. "Patterson appears to have the brightest of fistic futures," he said. "Being the youngest man ever to hold the richest prize in sports, he faces the opportunity of becoming the greatest of heavyweight champions. In many respects he's better equipped than Joe Louis was when the Brown Bomber ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-three."


Others agreed with Daley. Less than two weeks after the Moore fight, Patterson was voted the unanimous winner of the Edward J. Neil Memorial Plaque, an award given to the fighter of the year by the New York Boxing Writers Association. This put him in the company of such luminaries as Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Benny Leonard, and Jack Dempsey. Chicago boxing writers and broadcasters chimed in as well, giving Floyd their boxer of the year award. Even more significant, The Ring magazine, "the Bible of Boxing," named him its fighter of the year.

The hubbub surrounding him was not something Patterson relished. He discovered he could not step into a restaurant or stroll among the rides at Coney Island without people stopping to stare at him. He rode in a victory parade and felt awkward: parades were for kings or presidents. He retreated to the comfortable house he'd recently purhased in Rockville Centre, a well-scrubbed suburb populated by families of professional men who took the train to and from their day jobs in Manhattan, traded their Brooks Brothers suits for chinos or Bermuda shorts once they returned home, and sipped highballs as they congratulated themselves for living out the American dream. Floyd, too, could congratulate himself, his uneasiness aside. As a 21-year-old black man, he'd accomplished what the middle-aged white men living in Rockville Centre had spent decades trying to achieve. He was wealthy enough to liberate not only himself and Sandra from the ghetto, but also his parents and her parents. He was famous, respected, and stood at the peak of the boxing world as the youngest man ever to do so. How could he top all of this?


Excerpted from Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion by W.K. Stratton. Copyright © 2012 by W.K. Stratton. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.