‘Freakier than Iron Mike’

Sir Winston Churchill’s memorable World War II description of Russia fitted Floyd Patterson as snugly as a pair of boxing gloves.
An exasperated British Prime Minister said of the Soviet Union: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
If Churchill had ever met Patterson he may well have added the words eccentric, quirky and odd.
In the last 120 years, 74 men who have held versions of the world heavyweight title. But none can compete with Patterson, the ultimate introvert, when it comes to freakish behaviour — not even Mike Tyson.
He suffered so many complexes in his six-year reign as world heavyweight champion from 1956-62, that Americans referred to him as Freudian Floyd.
American author WK Stratton reveals all of Patterson’s many idiosyncrasies in his engrossing book.
Patterson, knowing deep down he was more than likely to lose his crown to the fearsome Sonny Liston in 1962, paid a make-up artist to make him a false beard and moustache.
When he suffered the inevitable first-round knockout, Floyd put on his disguise and fled the Chicago arena to hide from his humiliation.
A few days later Floyd arrived at an airport wearing a fake beatnik beard and carrying a suitcase.
Looking at the departure board, he saw there was a flight to Madrid. The Spanish capital seemed as good a place as any, so he bought a ticket and flew out.
Booking himself into a hotel under an assumed name, he then decided to affect a limp. So for the next few days he hobbled around the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, happy to be unrecognised.
He ate only soup and the locals stared at him, wondering who was this strange, disabled black American in their midst.
What was Patterson’s explanation for such a weird performance?
He said: “I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do and cannot seem to conquer that one word — myself — is because I’m a coward.”
But Floyd was anything but a coward. If he had been, he wouldn’t have shared a ring with Liston, Muhammad Ali and Ingemar Johansson a total of seven times.
Even braver was his fight for civil rights in the US long before Ali’s crusade against racial discrimination.
Patterson refused to fight for segregated audiences and risked his life by going to Birmingham, Alabama to stand alongside Martin Luther King.
He wasn’t the greatest heavyweight champion but he has a lasting place in history.
At 21, he was the youngest to win the richest prize in sport long before Tyson came along — and the first to win it back. Patterson was 71 when he died seven years ago.
On his headstone is written: “A Champion always”. No one could argue with that. – The Sun
“Floyd Patterson, The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion” by WK Stratton is published by Mainstream.

February 2013
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