Pat Putnam and I were solving the problems of the world, talking boxing and having a drop or two early one morning in the Flame on the Las Vegas Strip a lot of years ago when Pat got it into his mind that he wanted to go and get a tattoo of a shamrock on his arm. He wanted me to also get a tattoo.
For once I resisted. So I went back to Caesars Palace while Pat went off in search of his shamrock. When he got back to the hotel he called my wife in New York, waking her up to tell her, “Sadie, Ed got a tattoo on his chest that says, ‘I love Maria.’” Fortunately for me, Sadie knew Pat, and she went back to sleep. The next day, Pat sent Sadie flowers as an apology.
No one could have had a more loyal or interesting friend than Pat Putnam. There has never been a better boxing writer than Pat Putnam.
Pat died on Sunday, Nov. 27, at age 75 of complications from surgery.
For most of the important fights of the last 40 years of the Twentieth Century, including almost all of Muhammad Ali’s career, Pat was at ringside. He started covering boxing for the Miami Herald and then for 27 years for Sports Illustrated, where he wrote more than 600 stories, including more than 50 cover stories and about all kinds of sports. For most of the 1990s, however, he wrote almost exclusively about boxing.
Writing for a weekly magazine, Pat had do more than just tell what happened in a fight. He had to tell why it happened and also give the readers a look behind the scenes leading up the first bell. When he was in Miami, Pat got the scoop on Cassius Clay changing his named to Muhammad Ali. When SI hit the newsstands a few days after Mike Tyson’s 4th round KO of Holmes in 1988, readers learned for the first time that Tyson had punched a hole in a dressing room wall in anger and frustration over a delay because of a dispute over the gloves.
Pat had great empathy for the fighters, but he was critical of them when they deserved to be criticized. He also often took aim and hit the mark on the sport’s incompetents and exploiters. He loved to take shots at the alphabet governing bodies. Pat, however, realized that the incompetents, exploiters and alphabets played a part in making boxing a great sport to write about.
In 1982, Pat won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism. Never one to blow his own horn, this was an award he at least would talk about. He did not talk about the four Purple Hearts and the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, that he was awarded in two tours of duty as Marine during the Korea Ward. He also was a prisoner of war in Manchuria for 17 months.
He would talk about the Marines at the drop of hat, but shied away from his war experiences. He also loved to discuss and argue about boxing, which he and I did constantly by phone after I retired from The Associated Press in 2002. No matter how many times we rehashed a story, we always laughed.
Pat’s wit was as quick and accurate as an Ali left jab.
Pat, Mike Katz and I were sitting at the back of a huge room at Caesars Palace for the Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard middleweight championship fight in 1987. Leonard was fighting for the only the second time since he had retinal surgery in 1982, and it was announced from the dias that there could be no questions about Leonard’s eyes. Up shot Pat’s hand as he hollered, “How many fingers, Ray?”
One of my favorite Putnam stories occurred at a fight in Reno, Nev., which I did not attend, but which was related to me by Tim Dahlberg, my colleague and now the AP’s national boxing writer. Tim thinks it was a Hector Camacho-Greg Haugen lightweight bout in 1991.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer, who introduced 91 people before the Tyson-Spinks fight, had just finishing introducing celebrity guests in the Sparks Convention Center, when Pat caught his eye and shouted, “Don’t forget Joe DiMaggio.”
Buffer grabbed the mike and said something like this: “Ladies and gentleman let’s have a big Reno welcome for one of the greatest baseball players of all time. a member of the Hall of Fame who 50 years ago hit in 56 straight games. Let’s hear it for the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.” The crown went nuts, trying to get a glimpse of Joe D.
DiMaggio was not at the fight. He was not even in Nevada.
Several years ago Pat and I visited the International Boxing Hall of Fame at Canastota, N.Y. A plaque honoring Pat Putnam should be on a wall there.