February 1965: The Culmination of Floyd Patterson’s Redemption Road (I)
By Pete Madzelan: Floyd Patterson’s comeback after the two straight debilitating one round knockouts by Sonny Liston was met with a collective shrug.
Article posted on 11.02.2010
That was okay with Floyd, he was doing this for himself; for his pride. So, he embarked on his own redemption road that concluded when he outpointed George Chuvalo to cement himself as a top contender for the heavyweight crown.
To begin the road back, Floyd went abroad to Sweden, where he was enormously popular. Writing in the Saturday Evening Post, Pete Hamill beautifully described the affection Sweden had for Floyd, and Floyd for Sweden.
“When he walks the streets of…Stockholm and Goteborg, he is besieged by autograph hunters and tailed by photographers.”
Patterson quipped, “You might say I’m a kind of one-man Beatles..”
He said: “The thing about Sweden is that they seem to like me for me, for Floyd Patterson the man, not just Floyd Patterson the fighter.”
On January 6, 1964, in Stockholm, he knocked out Santo Amonti in 8. The consensus was unanimous: Floyd ring’s rust glistened. His opponent said, “I thought he’d be a lot better.”
Floyd shrugged, “I’ve fought less than two rounds in two years. My timing was quite a bit off. I needed the work.”
Next up #4 contender Eddie Machen.
The selection of Machen as an opponent was ironic because during Patterson’s reign, Machen waited years for a title shot that never came. Floyd’s ex-manager, Cus D’Amato’s was an artful dodger.
When they met of July 5, 1964, Patterson won handily, though Nat Fleisher, editor of The Ring thought it was closer, calling it a “hard fought…if not spectacular fight.” He scored it 6-4-2 Patterson.
Teddy Brenner, Matchmaker for Madison Square Garden saw it differently: “It was a pretty good for about four rounds. After that…Machen fought like a guy climbing a hill…no zip...”
Though the victory before 34,420 was an important comeback step, one wonders what would have happened if they met in 1957, when Machen was the #1 contender.
But 1957 never happened, 1964 did, and Floyd’s showed speed, boxing skill and hitting power. In the final 3 rounds, Floyd elevated his performance, landing an impressive tattoo of jabs and swift flourishing body work.
Floyd closed out 1964 by knocking out Charlie Powell in 6. Powell was clearly a tune-up fight.
“I’m sharper and hit better and I feel confident that I will overcome the last hurdle and get another opportunity to fight for the title. That’s my sole aim. It’s isn’t the money.”
Gay Talese, writing in the New York Times, said the Powell fight helped to build his “confidence” and he was now ready to return to New York and “could now face the fight crowds.” Fight crowds that would dissect his every move with eyes of a scalpel.
Knowing this to be true, Floyd knew he had to be ready.
To that end, the day after Floyd knocking out Powell, he returned to San Juan’s Hiram Bithron Municipal Stadium, where a winter league baseball game was in progress. No, Floyd wasn’t there to watch Juan Pizzaro pitch, even though that would’ve been a treat since Pizzaro was coming off his best major league season, racking up a 19-9 with the Chicago White Sox.
Floyd was there for other reasons. Beneath the grandstands, away from the lure of the summer game being played in winter, Floyd Patterson was working out in what was in training quarters in Puerto Rico.
Now, that’s dedication. He signed to fight George Chuvalo in Madison Square Garden.
Chuvalo was a tough 27 year old contender coming off an upset knockout of Doug Jones, where his aggressive brawling style prevailed. Besides beating Jones, his biggest fistic attribute was that he was never knocked down—and, of course, the fact that he was white wasn’t lost on those pushing the label of White Hope.
After the fight, Floyd spoke of the White Hope talk. At the time, Floyd was in the process of moving his family out of Yonkers, where they were victims of racial slurs. “All the talk about Mr. Chuvalo being the great white hope hurt me a lot before the fight. But that was proven wrong tonight when whites and Negroes cheered for me as much as they did for him.”
Floyd trained diligently at his Hudson River Valley camp.
He told New York Times reporter, Robert Lipsyte, that his ultimate goal was Liston. “If I’m fortunate enough to beat Chuvalo, and Clay (he called Ali, Clay) beats Liston, then I would like to fight Clay. And if I beat Clay, then I would like to fight Liston.”
As Patterson sharpened his skills, he shadow boxed in front of a large mirror, sweating dreams of his redemption road, while knowing that a defeat could toss him into oblivion—beneath the words: has been.
“If I lose, I might consider retiring. It all depends how I would lose whether I’d retire or not.”
In Floyd’s mind that wasn’t going to happen. In his soft tones of modesty that bordered on self-depreciation, he told reporters that he was going to meet Chuvalo head-on until one of them gives way.
Immediately, the strategy was questioned because as always, the fight revolved around the ever-present conversation of Patterson’s chin. In the minds of many, the tinkle-tinkle rattling of Floyd’s chin bottom lined the fight.
In a column, Red Smith quoted former welterweight contender of the fifties, Billy Graham, who picked Chuvalo. “If Floyd fights the way he says he will, moving in and trading punches. That’s risky, and Chuvalo will be dangerous down to the last punch.”
Then someone asked light-heavyweight Henry Hank, a solid fighter of the time. “I like Chuvalo. I worked out in the same gym as Chuvalo in Detroit. He was in with all the biggest men there, all the toughest guys in Detroit. Nothing ever happened to him. They never hurt him.”
As for Chuvalo, his workouts in Monticello up in the Catskills were notable and eye popping. A week before the fight, he sparred 12 fast rounds and impressed the likes of both Joe Louis and Barney Ross.
Chuvalo looked so good in training that the odds on Floyd dropped from 2-1 to 7-5.
The weigh-in was held in the Garden’s main lobby, where hundreds crammed in to see it. Chuvalo weighed 208; Patterson at 197¼, the heaviest of his career. Floyd said he was glad with the weight “because of the way Chuvalo fights, he’s kind of a bully.”
The Patterson-Chuvalo fight was the heaviest ballyhoo non-title heavyweight fight in years. There were 290 applications for press seating. The Garden was sold out four days prior to fight night—18,500 plus 700 standing room. Outside the Garden, people yelled “Anyone with extra tickets.” The New York Times reported: Scalpers’ business brisk on Eighth Avenue.
It was as the New York Post headline read: “A Night Out of the Past on 8th Ave.”
Ironically, both men entered the ring at the same time, and then had to wait through the introductions of boxing’s hierarchy: Joe Louis, Jimmy Braddock, Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Muhammad Ali, Rock Graziano, Emile Griffith, Joey Giardello and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Floyd came out bouncing; hands up in his classic peek-a-boo style. He pumped jabs. He used his speed, and quickly tossed out his pre-fight statements of going straight at Chuvalo. Instead, he moved in and out; bobbed and weaved, using his blistering hand speed to offset the forward pressing Chuvalo, who concentrated on the body.
Floyd felt Chuvalo’s strength early on, saying, in effect, I was unable to deal with his strength. Whereupon, he adapted, deciding to box, using the template of Zora Folley, who easily outpointed Chuvalo by jabbing, countering and grapping.
In the 2nd, Chuvalo was warned after landing three right thumping blows behind the head. Floyd ripped off a right, left, right combination, then ducked under a wide Chuvalo left hook. Towards the end of the round, Floyd unleashed and missed with one of his famous leaping kangaroo left hooks.
In the 3rd, Chuvalo tried jabbing, and again Floyd was bobbing and weaving beneath Chuvalo’s left hook swings. Chuvalo pinned Floyd in a corner and lands a flurry to the belly.
Though Chuvalo was a crude, flatfooted brawler, a managerial change in March 1964 was slowly making him into a better fighter. Under the watchful eye of trainer, Ted McWhorter, his technique was refined as much as it could be. His sweeping left hook was shortened; defense and the importance of getting inside and throwing “short punishers” was stressed.
The result was 4 straight wins that got him into the ring with Patterson.
The same pattern continued in the 4th, with Floyd moving to his left behind probing jab. After the fight, Floyd said, it was the first time he fought “a going away battle with less offense.”
Chuvalo pressed and pinned Floyd in a corner, landing a left-right. Floyd fought back but was nailed by a left hook at the end of the round. He appeared a bit wobbly.
During the round, Chuvalo was warned to keep his punches up. Afterwards, Chuvalo complained, “I just couldn’t get going with that referee. Every time I started to get going, the referee would break us up. He just wouldn’t let me fight my fight.”
In the 5th, the crowd started chanting, “Let’s go, Floyd.” Floyd responded with hard combinations. Chuvalo continued to work Floyd’s body, and repeatedly attempted to maneuver Floyd into a corner. Floyd shook Chuvalo with a left hook, followed by a left-right. Chuvalo continued to press forward.
The wide disparity in speed was not only telling, but was keeping Chuvalo from doing what he wanted to do. He wanted a replay of Doug Jones—staying on top of Floyd, setting the pace, not letting Floyd take to lead, and pummeling the body and head with short hurting blows,
Chuvalo started faster in the sixth, but it was same story line: aggressively stalking…shuffling flat-footed and pounding the body with good work downstairs. Chuvalo caught Floyd in a corner and landed a pair of rights that seemed to shake-up the ex-champ.
At this point, Floyd’s body had to be aching from the constant pounding. “I took tremendous body and head blows and after 12 years I guess I proved that I can take much better punishment than you (press) have given me credit for. My opponent hurt me a couple of times, especially in the belly.”
In the 7th, Chuvalo continued to pummel the body, while Floyd boxed, landing combinations and right hands. The grueling pace, more apt for lightweights instead of heavyweights, was beginning to show on both fighters.
In the 8th, Patterson appeared tired. Yet, he continued to dictate the pace. His ring savvy had him one step ahead of Chuvalo. They exchanged body shots. Floyd landed two rights and a left hook to the body, followed by another big right hand. Floyd’s right hand was zeroing in again and again, but was unable to dent Chuvalo’s granite jaw.
Though fatigue was a whispering companion, Floyd didn’t allow Chuvalo to dictate the pace and crowd him like he did with Doug Jones. Obviously, Floyd learned what not to do from the Jones fight, and also knew that Jones, like Folley, did well when he fought on the outside.
Chuvalo came out in the 9th with a series of probing jabs. Patterson attacked with a vicious combination only to have the never-say-die Chuvalo come back with his own flurries of connects and misses.
At this point, it was obvious that Chuvalo’s strategy was too one dimensional. The heavy reliance on Floyd’s body to wear him down and have him lower his guard wasn’t producing the planned fruits. Afterwards, he acknowledged, “I never hit him solidly on the point of the chin.”
In fact, only twice did Chuvalo land perfect shots to the jaw.
They traded blows to open the tenth round. Again, Chuvalo went downstairs, while Floyd blistered his face with combinations only to have Chuvalo return in kind. Chuvalo ripped a volley of punches, half of which landed and seemingly shook Floyd at the end of the round. Floyd wobbled back to his corner, looking groggy.
Maybe Floyd’s wobbling was Chuvalo’s flickering hope. Maybe the end of the tenth was a prelude to a Doug Jones ending, when he received the highest of compliments from Charley Goldman, who trained Rocky Marciano: “He fights like my Rocky.”
Floyd recuperated during the rest between 10 and 11, when Dan Florio, Floyd’s trainer told him to “take the 11th and 12th, to make sure of the win.”
Chuvalo quicken his forever forward chase, even tossing out of couple of jabs. Then, the fight reverted back to the script of the previous 10 rounds, with Chuvalo mauling inside, landing crushingly hard blows to the body while Floyd backtracked, landing stinging pop shots.
The 12th and final round began with the crowd again chanting “Let’s go, Floyd.” Floyd smashed home a right hand, and then a second right. Chuvalo, showed fatigue, while Floyd brought the crowd to its feet with some of his hardest blows of the fight. Chuvalo cornered Floyd, but Floyd spun out. They slugged it out with Floyd getter the upper hand. Referee Clayton jumps between them at the bell.
The decision was unanimous for Patterson: 6-5-1; 7-5; 8-4.
The following day, the fight was aptly described in Arthur Daley’s New York Times column: “A Magnificent Fight.”
In Floyd’s mind, the Chuvalo fight proved that he could adapt to any style. On that night, it worked. He jabbed beautifully and crashed home many counter combinations. His boxing offset most of Chuvalo’s offensive aggression. Though elated, the forever modest Floyd said, “Fighting his fight, I didn’t beat him.”
As to the future, Floyd said: “My main goal is to fight Cassius Clay, and if I am successful, then I would fight Sonny Liston and then retire.”
As for Chuvalo, he showed many shortcomings, but he also showed that he was an improving fighter, who would be part of the heavyweight landscape for years to come.
Chuvalo hoped for a rematch. That didn’t happen. In May 1965, Patterson returned to Sweden and laid the final brick onto his redemption road, when he dispatched Tod Herring in 3 before a sellout crowd.
When one steps back and looks at this story, beginning with the Liston knockouts, it shows that pride, hard work, and modesty can push aside even the strongest of conventional wisdom that says it cannot be done. Patterson proved that kind of wisdom wrong—achieving his Redemption Road.
February 9, 2010
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