On this day in 1935, two-time Heavyweight Champion of the World Floyd Patterson was born in Waco, North Carolina. However, his family moved to Brooklyn while he was still very young and he was every bit a product of the Borough.
By his own account, Patterson was a troubled child. He would skip school and hide in a forgotten utility closet near a local stop on the subway line, sitting for hours in the dark. But two important events in his childhood changed the course of his life.
The first was being sent to the Wiltwyck School in Esopus, New York, after repeated run-ins with the law. The natural beauty of the Hudson Valley created a sense of awakening in the young street kid, just as it had inspired some of history’s most prominent landscape painters. Moreover, the care and attention of the faculty at Wiltwyck allowed Patterson to develop self-confidence and blossom into the thoughtful individual the world would later meet, during his reign atop the boxing world.
The second critical event in Patterson’s childhood happened when he followed his older brothers into Cus D’Amato’s boxing gym. It took the gruff trainer little time to recognize that he had found the same sort of boxing phenom he would later discover in Mike Tyson.
Patterson won Olympic gold in 1952, fighting at middleweight, when he was just 17. As a professional, he quickly developed into a major attraction in the New York City area. In 1954, still just 168 pounds and only 19 years old, he lost a decision to Joey Maxim, the former light heavyweight champion and a future Hall of Famer. It was loudly criticized as a robbery.
By 1956, Patterson was tipping in at about 180 pounds and competing with the big men. When Rocky Marciano retired, Patterson stunned the legendary Archie Moore via Round 5 KO, to claim the biggest championship in professional sports. He remains the youngest undisputed heavyweight champion in boxing history.
In June 1959, Patterson was knocked out in three rounds by Ingemar Johansson. The loss crushed Patterson, sending him into a depression that lasted the better part of a year. However, in June 1960 he jumped all over Johannson, knocking him out in five and becoming the first man in history to regain the heavyweight title. During the 1961 rematch, Patterson climbed off the canvas twice in Round 1 and dropped Johansson just before the end of the frame. He put the big Swede down for good in Round 6.
In 1962 and 1963, Patterson went down twice to Sonny Liston, both times by Round 1 KO. After Muhammad Ali defeated Liston in 1964, Patterson would lose badly to him in 1965. Ultimately, Patterson does not rate at the very top of the all-time heavyweight list. He was simply too small to compete with a bear like Liston, or a larger athlete like Ali, who could match his speed.
But Patterson is a true boxing legend, all the same, and one of the truly great men who has held the heavyweight crown.