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Close Encounters With Floyd Patterson

I did a Biofile interview with Floyd Patterson in 1994 which was later published in the magazine Boxing 94. For a gesture of immense gratitude for a former world heavyweight champion giving me, an amateur reporter, a full page interview, I mailed Floyd a copy of the magazine and to much surprise a few weeks later received two photos of Floyd Patterson, one signed with a gracious note.

Because Floyd Patterson was about the nicest, kindest sports champion I ever met, this feature is a tribute to remember this very special and all time great boxing ambassador.

Steve Devito (Boxing insider): “On a day my dad came with me to Gleasons Gym, Floyd was working with his stepson Tracy. My dad was in awe, frozen in time. He wouldn’t dare go over and say hi – he was that intimidated by Floyd’s presence. I went to Floyd and explained what was going on with my dad. Floyd walked to my dad and said, ‘There’s a rumor in the gym you want to go a couple of rounds with me!!!!’ Then a couple of minute conversation. I remember watching it all from twenty feet away my dad turned into a kid right in front of me.”

Michael Bentt (Former WBO Heavyweight Champion): “I met Floyd Patterson once in Manhattan. Though I don’t recall whether it was in my days as an amateur or pro that I met him. Yes, Mr. Patterson was the personification of class and humility, i.e, the true characteristics of a fighter. FYI, that meeting may have been arranged by Stan Hoffman.”

Harold Wilen (Boxing trainer and gym owner in Sarasota, FL): “I met Floyd in 1986. He came to my gym. Then we met up at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. I said his son, Tracy, would do well to train in a hot climate, like Sarasota, Florida, since the top guys in his division, were from hot countries. Floyd and I were to work together in my gym, but he could never break away from his beloved Upstate New York (New Paltz). We took Floyd and his wife out to dinner at The Colony in Longboat Key in ‘86. I have that picture at my gym.”

Rick Glaser (Boxing matchmaker, international agent): “I met him in New York City at a show when he was the commissioner. He was very nice, classy, humble. Every former world champion should be as classy, humbe and nice as he was. Hey, how are you? I heard your from Buffalo. I heard you’re new in boxing… he couldn’t have been any nicer. Very understated, humble, nothing negative. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t think he was anybody. He had a very blessed life and career, Olympic gold medal, Heavyweight champion, New York State Boxing Commissioner, his adopted son Tracy became world champion. He led a charmed life except for having to fight Sonny Liston twice. It was an honor to meet a guy like that.”

Bryan Smith (Former amateur boxer): “I met Floyd Patterson at my boxing gym in the 90s. He was class. When I met Floyd it was 1995 I believe, he was training his son Tracy Harris Patterson for the Eddie Hopson fight in Reno. He finished up training Tracy for about a week leading to the fight and had a sparring partner with him. I was an amateur boxer at that gym and was doing my own training so we didn’t talk all that much but in all of our interactions he was gentle and kind and soft-spoken. On like the third day I had a good day of sparring three different sparring partners and after we were warming down I shouted at Floyd across the gym asking when he was going to let me spar Tracy. Luckily he didn’t let us spar and just laughed it off. But he didn’t put me in check for my arrogance. When I met Floyd it was 1995 I believe, a few years before Parkinson’s struck him.”

Michael Olajide (Former middleweight title challenger): “I did meet him when he was the commissioner, I believe. It was so long ago. He was just as everyone described him…shy and mild mannered. He had this friendly/ painful thing going. Doesn’t say much but he was respectful.”

Randy Gordon (Former NY State Athletic Commissioner, TV analyst, Former Ring magazine editor): He was my first sports idol…I met him in 1963, the week he was facing Sonny Liston for the second time…could not have been nicer. Who would have thought he’d replace me in a job 32 years later as New York State Boxing Commissioner. Lots of Floyd Patterson memories…

It was a scorching hot day in mid-July 1995.  The news I had been dreading for months had finally arrived.  Eight months earlier, my boss, New York State Governor Mario M. Cuomo, had lost the gubernatorial election to George Pataki.  On the night Cuomo lost, I stood a few feet away from him when he conceded defeat.  It was a tough pill to swallow, as I was a huge fan, believer and supporter of my boss. 

That pill of defeat was made even tougher to swallow when I realized that, in a very short time, I’d be receiving a call from the office of the new governor.  The call wouldn’t be an invitation to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, N.Y. (NY’s equivalent of the White House.  The call would be to say, “Thank you for your years of service to the people of New York.”  You don’t hear anything else, as your brain is too busy  are too busy screaming, “OH, NO!!!” 

Yes, that’s how these kind of jobs end.  Quickly!  Suddenly!  You get politically whacked!  Here today, gone today!

In the days after Cuomo’s loss, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson came into my office.  He needed to drop off some medical records to Ruby Tyrell, the head of my Medical Department.  The papers were for his son, Tracy, who would be defending his WBC Super Bantamweight Title on November 29, 1994, in Atlantic City.  Ms. Tyrell then faxed the papers down to the New Jersey Commission.  In addition, Floyd was in to renew his Cornerman’s License. 

He also came in to see me.  He never stopped into the office—for any reason—without seeing me.  For me, it was always great seeing the former heavyweight champ.  You see, he was my first boyhood sports idol.

For far too many fans, meeting their sports idol doesn’t turn out as they had hoped, or expected it would.  I can fill pages here listing the top athletes who have broken more hearts of young fans with their stand-offish, conceited, bullying, nasty attitudes. 

Then there are the other pages I can also fill of the friendliest, nicest, warmest, most-personable humans the Good Lord has ever put on Earth. 

Floyd Patterson is number one on my list. 

He is the man most responsible for me spending a career in this crazy, mixed-up, back-stabbing, yet beautiful, artistic, breathtaking sport of boxing.

Through a cousin who was an executive at The Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, where Patterson trained for his rematch with Sonny Liston, I was introduced to Patterson.   I watched him jump rope, hit the speed bag and shadow-box.  After his workout, he asked little me (I was 14, 5’1” and perhaps 80 pounds!) if I’d like to learn to hit the speed bag.  As I could barely speak from excitement, Patterson saw, from the look on my face, that my answer was “Yes!”

He took me over to the speed bag, and had me stand on a wooden box.  Within a few minutes, I was making the bag do a sweet rat-a-tat.  Patterson applauded.

My idol was applauding me.

He then asked my dad and I if he could take us to lunch.  As my father had a meeting to go to, he thanked Floyd, but said he had to decline the very kind offer.

My eyes showed the disappointment of not being able to dine with Patterson.  My dad looked at me.  So did Patterson.

The former heavyweight champ spoke.

“If it’s okay, Mr. Gordon,” Patterson said to my father, “How about Randy and I go to lunch here in The Dunes?  I will have him driven back to The Sahara (where I was staying with my family).  “I’ll  have my limo take him there.”

I look at my dad.  I looked at Floyd. 

“That will be fine, Mr. Patterson,” my dad said.

I hugged my father.  Then, I turned and hugged Floyd.

Floyd reached out and shook my father’s hand and said, “Randy will be fine with me.”  Then he added, “You don’t have to call me ‘Mr. Patterson.’  My name is Floyd.”

“Anything you say, Champ,” my dad replied.  The three of us laughed.

My father left, then Floyd put an arm around my shoulder.

We walked to the spa area of the gym, where I sat down with a bunch of Floyd’s entourage…sparring partners, trainers and a few men dressed in business suits who worked for The Dunes.  A few minutes later, Patterson emerged, dressed in a red sweat suit.

“Ready for lunch, Randy?” he asked.

Oh, I had lunch with Floyd, but I could barely eat and don’t even remember what it was I had for lunch.  All I know is that I was dining—one on one—with my idol.  Every few moments, he stopped talking long enough to sign autographs for fans who had approached him.  His bodyguards allowed all who wanted an autograph to approach the former heavyweight champion.

When it was time to leave, I asked, “Will I see you again, Floyd?”

Sure you will.  We are two New Yorkers.  We are two Long Islanders.  He wrote his home number on a paper napkin.

A few days later, Floyd was knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston.  The loss hurt me more than it hurt Patterson.

A week after the fight, when I had returned home, I tried calling the number Floyd had given me.  It was disconnected.  Patterson took his losses hard.

I bought tickets to many of his future fights at Madison Square Garden, including victories over George Chuvalo, Charlie “Devil” Green and Oscar Bonavena, but didn’t get to see him at those events.

I even went to his final fight, on September 20, 1972, against Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden.  It was not a fun fight for a Floyd Patterson fan to sit through, even though Patterson acquitted himself very well before being stopped on cuts in the seventh round.

Seven years later, I had become Editor-in-Chief of The Ring.  Unbeknownst to me, Publisher Bert Sugar had a TV shoot to do with Patterson. 

As I sat in my private office editing copy and sifting through photos, Sugar walked in to tell me that “Floyd Patterson will be here in a few minutes.” 

The expression on my face must have been priceless.

“Why the look?” Sugar asked me.  I told him the story. 

“Let’s see if he remembers you,” said Sugar.

When Patterson came in, I could hear Bert’s roaring voice as he called members of the staff to “Come to my office.  I want you to meet someone.”

He introduced each one of them to Patterson.  Finally, the door to my office opened. 

“This is my Editor, Randy Gordon.  I looked at Floyd and smiled.  He extended his hand.

“Hello, Randy, nice meeting you,” he said.

He didn’t remember me.  But then, we had met 16 years earlier.  I was a young teenager then.  I was now 30 and sported a moustache and a head of dark, wavy hair.

As we shook hands, I asked Floyd, “Do you remember the kid you met at The Dunes a few days before your fight against Sonny Liston?  You taught him to hit the speed bag.  You took him to breakfast.  You had your limo take him back to his hotel?”

Patterson thought for perhaps two seconds.  Then he exploded in jubilation.

“RANDY!  RANDY!  HOW ARE YOU?”  He ran around to my side of the desk.  I stood up and we hugged.  I almost cried.  What the heck!  I did cry.  Bert’s ever-present cigar almost fell out of his mouth.

It had been 16 years since I have seen Patterson.  Well, we were  never out of touch with Patterson again.

In 16 more years, he would then be chosen by New York’s new Governor, George Pataki, to replace me.

When I heard the news that I was being replaced as Commissioner, a quick phone to a political friend in the know told me it was Floyd Patterson who would be stepping in to replace me.

I quickly called Floyd at home.

His wife, Janet, answered.

“Hi, Janet, it’s Randy,” I began.  “I just was given the news, and I called to congratulate Floyd.”

“Randy, I am so sorry,” Janet said.  “Floyd didn’t want to take the job.  He wanted to know if the two of you could work side by side.  He was told that wasn’t possible.  Let me get him.”

“Hello, Commissioner,” began Patterson.

“What’s with the formality?” I asked with a laugh.

“I respect you, Randy,” I always have.

We talked for perhaps 30 minutes. 

All I could keep saying was “I am so happy you were the one chosen to replace me.”  All he kept saying was, “I am so sorry.  They should have never let you go.”

Then, he asked, “You’re not mad at me, are you?  I didn’t campaign for your job.”

“I know that, Floyd.  I really know that.  I am part of the Cuomo team.  You are part of the new administration.  It comes with the territory.”

“Are we still friends?” he asked sadly.

I assured him we were.  I also promised him we always would be.

Floyd Patterson was my first sports idol.

No kid could have asked for any better!

Pete Pharoah (Boxing photographer): “Jimmy Glenn worked his corner as head trainer for the second Ali fight. Ali and him and Floyd remained friends. I met Floyd twice. In Vegas for Holmes vs Ali and at a press conference for Tracy Harris Patterson. I was shocked how broad shouldered he was.”

Chuck Metzger (Boxing photographer): “I met him when he was doing a signing in Las Vegas. I was little when I watched his fights on black and white TV. Those were the days. He was quiet and soft spoken. He was on a small stage. When he got up, he fell backwards off the stage. He was lucky he didn’t get hurt. Sorry it’s not much of a story. But when I met him it was very big to me. He was the icon I loved to watch. A great gentleman.”

Melvin Stanley (Boxing media): “My first memory of Floyd Patterson was going to the Felt Forum to catch a fight. I was just getting into the media business. I’m going into the employee entrance at Madison Square Garden and out comes Floyd Patterson and Howard Cosell. I asked Mr. Patterson for an autograph on a piece of paper. He goes to the side to write on the table and then he said, Wait a minute. I’ll send you a picture in the mail. What is your name and address? That had to be a Friday or Saturday. And lo and behold, on Tuesday or Wednesday in the mail I received a photograph from Floyd Patterson. To my friend Melvin Stanley, from Floyd Patterson. I still have it. My first and most unique memory of Floyd Patterson, the first man to regain the heavyweight title.”

Jack Hirsch (Boxing writer): “One memory about Floyd stands out. It was after a BWAA dinner. I got on the elevator with Floyd and Joe Frazier. Someone else on the elevator asked Joe about Bert Cooper who he formerly trained. That set Frazier off. I remember Floyd just looking on with a warm smile on his face, seemingly amused by what he was hearing.”

Floyd Patterson was born in Waco, North Carolina on January 4, 1935.

He won the Olympic gold medal as a middlweight in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

In 1956 Patterson became the youngest man at age 21 to win the World Heavyweight title by beating Archie Moore by fifth-round knockout. He lost the title to Ingemar Johansson but then regained the title in the rematch (the first man to regain the heavyweight championship) and defeated the powerful Swede in the third fight. Overall, Patterson made six title defenses before losing the title in Chicago to Sonny Liston in 1962.

Patterson later challenged Muhammad Ali for the world title in 1972 but that final attempt did not succeed. It would be his last pro fight.

Patterson retired from boxing with a record of 55-8-1 (40 KOs).

Patterson was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. He trained his adopted son Tracy Harris Patterson to win the WBC Super Bantamweight and IBF Super Featherweight titles.

Patterson passed away in 2006 at age 71.

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