When I heard that Pat Putnam died Sunday afternoon due to complications from surgery, it felt like someone drilled a hole through the middle of my heart. Death doesn’t always generate that reaction, but in Pat’s case it’s another story. The loss of Pat to his family, friends, and to those of us here at The Sweet Science, is not easily expressed. Not only was he the greatest living boxing writer – hands down, don’t give it a second thought – he was also one helluva great guy: smart, decent, funny, down-to-earth, despite his towering talent. There was never anything smug, pompous or self-important about Pat. No, he was the genuine article, the real deal, a real man, a real writer – rare qualities in these diminished times – someone who accepted his God-given gifts, yet worked at it assiduously.
Until recently, I only knew Pat from his writing and was of course bowled over by his talent. But I was fortunate enough, blessed enough, to get to know Pat during the past year when our lives intersected at The Sweet Science. Despite our different ages and the different paths our lives had taken, we came together and found common ground in mutual respect, a fascination with boxing, and the connoisseur’s love of fine writing. We also shared an almost mystical belief in the power of language to diminish the filth in the game – against all odds, even with the inmates running the asylum.
As befits a writer of his stature, Pat covered the boxing beat forever. He started in 1960 as boxing writer for The Miami Herald and learned the ropes at Chris Dundee's 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, where Chris’ younger brother Angelo was a constant presence, and which was about to become the launching pad for an up-and-coming rocket named Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali). In 1968 Pat was hired by Sports Illustrated where he covered boxing for 27 years. Pat won the Nat Fleischer Award “For Excellence in Boxing Journalism” from the Boxing Writers Association in 1982, and, as he told me, that meant a great deal to him at the time; but he also spoke of his disenchantment with the present BWAA, a disenchantment which mirrored my own – more common ground – for we both grew weary, him after awhile, me in a New York minute, with the back scratching in the org.
Pat was no fool; far from it. In fact, he could spot a fool at ten paces. I think he understood that he was the torchbearer for a style of writing and a style of thinking which were light-years from the dry journalese of those who dream to fill his shoes, and that the style was headed for extinction. Pat’s passing is a loss too huge for the boxing illiterati to comprehend. Those who want to share Pat’s life well lived should take the time to revisit his work. But don’t read it and weep. Read it and recognize that boxing was luckier than it knows to have as fine a writer, and as fine a man, as Pat Putnam in its ranks.