Dozens upon dozens of memories adorn the walls of my new gym, “Randy’s Ringside,” in Oyster Bay, New York. On one of those photos I am standing side-by side with a former heavyweight champion in my office at Ring Magazine, circa 1980. The inscription reads, “To Randy, Wishing You Health & Happiness Forever.” The Champ signed it “Your friend, Floyd Patterson.” Floyd also signed the date: April 29, 1981.
Floyd had signed the photo when we worked together announcing a boxing card for the PRISM Network. It was ironic, perhaps eerie, that I had been staring at the photo when an early-afternoon phone call had informed me that Patterson had died earlier that day from a combination of Alzheimer’s and prostate cancer. He was 71.
“Who is that man in the picture with you?” asked a boy in his early teens who was working out in my gym.
“That man,” I told him, “was the two-time heavyweight champion of the world, the first man to regain the title after losing it and up until Mike Tyson became champion, the youngest man to ever win the heavyweight crown.” Then I added, “He was also the nicest man I ever met in boxing. His name is Floyd Patterson.” Then I told him I had just gotten word that Patterson had died.
“Tell me about him,” said the youngster. “I’d like to know more about him.” The pleasure was all mine.
Oh, I told him about Patterson’s troubled early life…about his winning the gold medal as a middleweight for the United States in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki…I filled him in about winning the title left vacant by the retirement of Rocky Marciano…about his title defenses against Roy Harris and debuting Pete Rademacher…about losing the title to Ingemar Johannson, then regaining it back with a crushing left hook to the jaw…about his first-round defeats to Sonny Liston…about his comeback…about his losses to Muhammad Ali and how Patterson was the only top-name fighter I can ever recall who never officially announced his retirement.
I also told the young man, who was listening intently, about my friendship with Patterson. I told him of the first time we met.
It was July 1963. I was on vacation with my parents and brother in Las Vegas. Patterson was preparing to meet Sonny Liston, who had taken the title from him 10 months earlier. My dad had taken me to the training camp of Patterson—up The Strip at The Dunes Hotel—to watch the ex-champ train.
When Patterson finished training, my dad coaxed me to go ask Floyd for an autograph.
“Go on, go up to him,” my father said, lightly pushing me in Patterson’s direction. I hesitated.
“Don’t be afraid,” said my dad. “It’s okay. Go!”
I remember taking a deep breath, counting to three, and then walking over to the athlete whom I admired so much.
A white towel was draped over his shoulders as he signed autographs to the many men, women and children who awaited the ex-champ’s signature. The midday heat of the July Las Vegas sun was intense, but my sweat was from the nervousness of meeting my idol.
When my turn came, I nervously handed my pad to him. As he signed, he asked me my name and where I was from.
When I told him “I live on Long Island,” Patterson’s head swiveled from the page and he looked at me. Then he put an arm on my shoulder and said, almost excitedly, “I live on Long Island, too! Maybe you’ll come and watch me train when we get back home.” I just stared at him in wide-eyed amazement. In one of the rare times in my life, I found myself speechless. He shook my hand and said, “It was nice meeting you, Randy.” As other youngsters pushed their way closer to him, some tugging at his arms and tapping him lightly with “Ooh, me next, me next!,” I told him “It was nice meeting you, too. See ya’ back on Long Island.”
I was stunned. He signed an autograph for me. He put his arm on me. He spoke with me. He shook hands with me. I looked down at the autograph.
“To Randy,” he wrote. “Thank you. Sincerely, Floyd Patterson.”
I’ll always remember Patterson writing “Thank you.” He was thanking me for asking him for his autograph. He truly appreciated being asked to sign. How many of today’s spoiled, multi-millionaire athletes do you think appreciate being asked for an autograph? How many do you think would write “Thank you” along with their autograph?
A few nights later, Patterson would be kayoed for the second time in the opening round by Charles “Sonny” Liston. It was the first time I experienced pain when a fighter was knocked out.
The years flew by and my interest and love of boxing had carried me into the sport, first as an editor for publisher Stanley Weston, later as publisher/writer/author Bert Sugar’s right-hand man at Ring Magazine, then as a sportscaster.
Not quite 20 years after meeting Patterson that hot summer day in Las Vegas, I now found myself announcing a fight card with him. I handled the blow-by-blow. Patterson provided the color commentary. That evening, our friendship was born.
Patterson was as nice to me that night as he had been all those years ago in Las Vegas. I watched in amazement as dozens of autograph seekers besieged him for his autograph. He turned nobody away. I smiled every time he said “Thank you” to each one of them after signing the autograph.
Following the show, he gave me his address and phone number in New Paltz, New York. Over the next few years, I stayed in contact with him. In 1988, when I was named Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, Patterson was among the many well-wishers I heard from regarding my appointment.
During my term as commissioner (1988-1995), I saw Floyd constantly. On many occasions, he came to my State Athletic Commission offices at 270 Broadway on the morning of a weigh-in. He knew he had carte blanche to just walk into my huge, private office if he wanted to, but he never did. Instead, he always politely asked my secretary, Michele, “Is the commissioner in?” and “Would the commissioner be able to spare a few moments?” He always thanked her as she showed him into my office.
In the first week of June, 1995, I heard talk along the political grapevine that New York’s new Governor, George Pataki, was going to send me packing and replace me with Floyd Patterson. As unhappy with the news as I was, I was thrilled for Floyd. I called him at home.
Floyd was as humble as always.
“I wanted to call you, Randy, but I kept holding back because I thought you’d be mad at me,” he said.
“Mad at you? Mad at you? Floyd, I’m not mad at you. I’m happy for you. I’m very happy for you. You’re going to make a great Chairman and a great commissioner. You are one of the finest men in this sport. You exemplify everything that’s right in boxing.” I told him that if he ever has a question about anything pertaining to the job, he should not hesitate to call me. He then thanked me for being such a friend.
Over the next two years, Patterson called me a lot. Then, Alzheimer’s Disease began to take over his memory and the calls became fewer and fewer. Less than three years after being sworn in as the 15th Chairman of NYSAC since its inception in 1920, Patterson resigned his post because of an inability to do his job.
After his resignation from the commission, Patterson and his lovely wife, Nancy, continued to help those less fortunate. He helped those in hospitals and those who were hungry. He signed gloves, photos, cards, posters and anything else thrust in front of him. And he always said “Thank you” after he signed.
Then, the cancer struck in the late 1990’s. But, just as in his career, Patterson got up after each of life’s knockdowns and he continued to help others, always with a smile, always with a good wish. Finally, on Thursday, May 11, 2006, Patterson was counted out.
Now it’s our turn.
Floyd, from anybody you ever touched—Thank You.