Patterson-Johansson Rubber Match – The Capstone to a Lusty Trilogy – Neither man’s name is apt to be found on anyone’s top 10 list of the great heavyweight champions. So lightly regarded in some quarters were Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson that, when each was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (Patterson in 1991, Johansson in 2002), dissenters groused that the bar for entry had been lowered.
But if their respective credentials for being officially immortalized are a bit sketchy when compared to others, even their critics would have to admit that, on three nights spread over two years, the introspective American and the Swedish bon vivant made ring magic. Their trilogy – which, all told, consisted of only 14 rounds – produced 12 knockdowns, nine of which were registered by the guy, Johansson, who lost two of the three bouts.
Once, when advised that he had set the dubious record of having been floored 17 times in heavyweight title bouts, Patterson, who was 71 when he died on May 11, 2006, said, “That’s true, but I also hold the record for getting up the most times.”
Of the three-bout passion play that has proved to be a greater whole than the sum of the participants’ individual parts, boxing historian Bert Sugar observed that “the unique chemistry of their combined flaws and strengths produced one of the most exciting rivalries in the history of boxing’s glamour division.”
March 13 marks the 55th anniversary of the rubber match of that rivalry, when Patterson overcame two first-round knockdowns to put down “Ingo” for the full count in the sixth round at Miami Beach’s Convention Hall. And while it was the end of an era in more ways than one – after retaining his title one more time, on a fourth-round knockout of Tom McNeeley, Patterson was then clubbed out in the first round in back-to-back blowout losses to Sonny Liston – it was also the figurative beginning of another. To help him prepare for his final showdown with the much quicker Patterson, Johansson hired 19-year-old Cassius Clay, then 5-0 as a pro and just seven months removed from having won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics, to serve as a sparring partner. The teenaged phenom, who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, would later go on to twice thrash Patterson, taking particular delight in brutalizing the former champ in their first clash, on Nov. 22, 1965, because of Patterson’s continuing references to him as “Clay.”
There are other historical reference points that add significance to the Patterson-Johansson trilogy, although not all of them were immediately evident at the time. They were the first men to be paired in three heavyweight title bouts since Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott tangled with the title on the line each time from 1949 to ’52, a distinction only earned since then in a much-less-heralded series involving Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz. Patterson and Johansson had both competed at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, in which Patterson captured the middleweight gold medal and Johansson was disqualified for non-effort in his gold medal bout against American Ed Sanders, which resulted in his being stripped of his silver medal and being sent home in disgrace.
There was an ugly racial element to the series, with many white U.S. fight fans opting to openly root for Johansson over their black countryman, the Olympic hero Patterson. But over time Patterson and Johansson became good friends, as is often the case with those who have forged the kind of mutual respect that can only be distilled in the crucible of the ring. Patterson became a virtual adopted son in Sweden, where he later fought four times, and he and Johansson even ran a couple of marathons together, going the distance in a way they never were able to inside the ropes.
Finally, and sadly, each waged a losing battle with the insidious effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Although he didn’t succumb until eight years later, by 1998 it had become apparent that Patterson, then the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, had had so many of his mental faculties wiped clean that he could not even remember the name of his own secretary. The story was much the same for Ingo, who was 76 when he passed away after a 10-year struggle with Alzheimer’s on Jan. 30, 2009. He was too ill to attend his IBHOF induction ceremony in Canastota, N.Y., in June 2002.
In describing the epic and decisive third clash involving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Jerry Izenberg, the great sports columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser that “What it came down to in Manila wasn’t the heavyweight championship of the world. They were fighting for the championship of each other.”
And so it was for Patterson and Johansson that spring evening in Miami Beach, a much-anticipated bout witnessed by 15,000 on-site spectators and untold more at closed-circuit venues, CC being the height of technological innovation to that point. It was, by all accounts, very similar to Ali-Frazier III, “The Thrilla in Manila,” in that it was widely considered the most competitive and emotionally draining episode in the series, but the climactic final act should only be viewed as part of a broader perspective.
Patterson was just 21 when he squared off against 43-year-old Archie Moore on Nov. 30, 1956, in Chicago Stadium for the heavyweight championship that had been vacated just six weeks earlier by the retired Rocky Marciano. It was an interesting matchup of youthful vitality against a wily veteran’s experience, with Patterson becoming the youngest heavyweight titlist ever (a distinction he would later yield to Mike Tyson) when he won by fifth-round knockout, in the process depriving “The Mongoose” of his chance to become the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship.
There are those who believe that Patterson’s manager-trainer, Cus D’Amato, did his fighter something of a disservice by having him campaign as a heavyweight, which his relatively slight dimensions – most of Patterson’s big fights were fought at or slightly over 180 pounds, at a time when anyone over 175 was deemed to be a heavyweight – and dubious chin could be considered liabilities. But there was more money and prestige to be garnered competing against boxing’s big boys, and D’Amato endeavored to protect Patterson – who might have become a truly exceptional light heavyweight – by matching him in title bouts against mostly fringe contenders. Since besting ancient Archie Moore, Patterson had made successful defenses against a non-Murderer’s Row consisting of Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, Pete Rademacher (the 1956 Olympic gold medalist who was making his pro debut), Roy “Cut and Shoot” Harris and Brian London.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Johansson was in the process of restoring his smudged reputation in his homeland by winning his first 21 pro bouts (all in Europe), including 13 by knockout. But it wasn’t until his first-round blowout of highly regarded American Eddie Machen – a fighter D’Amato had taken care to keep away from Patterson – that Ingo established himself as a viable opponent for the champion.
Truth be told, D’Amato considered Johansson – whose preferred weapon, a thunderous overhand right, had two nicknames (“The Hammer of Thor” and “Ingo’s Bingo”) – to be nothing more than another overrated European pretender, whose straight-up style consisted of a decent jab and the straight right. And so the fight was made, with Patterson an opening-line 4-1 favorite.
Patterson-Johansson Rubber Match
The lead-up to fight night was almost better than whatever could possibly transpire in the ring, at least in the opinion of some veteran sports writers. Johansson, with matinee-idol looks and a swagger that would later call to mind the antics of New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, set up camp at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, where the media took notice of his stunning brunette girlfriend, Birgit, and speculated as to whether Ingo was sticking the jab and going to the body more behind closed doors than he was in his daily sparring sessions.
If D’Amato and Patterson had indeed taken Johansson lightly, it proved to be a disastrous mistake when finally they met on June 26, 1959, in Yankee Stadium. In the third round Ingo connected with his signature shot, the overhand right, and Patterson went down in a heap. But although the champion beat the count, he was so discombobulated that he thought that it was he who had scored the knockdown, not the other way around. He was headed to a neutral corner, offering no defense, when Johansson ran alongside him and dropped him again with a free-shot left hook and follow-up right. In all, the Swede decked Patterson seven times in that crazy Round 3 before referee Ruby Goldstein decided enough was enough and awarded Johansson a TKO victory after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 3 seconds.
Johansson’s victory – and the way in which it was achieved – made him an instant international celebrity, both in America and in Europe. One magazine dubbed Ingo, the first heavyweight champion from Europe since Italy’s Primo Carnera in 1934, “Boxing’s Cary Grant,” and The Associated Press voted him Male Athlete of the Year.
The rematch was held on June 20, 1960, at New York’s Polo Grounds and it was evident from the moment Johansson took off his robe that he had spent more time sipping cocktails in the company of beautiful women at nightclubs than slipping punches in training in the company of tough guys who could get him ready to defend his title. Patterson, meanwhile, had prepared with even more zealous dedication than usual, and that also was soon obvious. The end came in the fifth round, when Patterson connected with two crushing left hooks, the first of which rendered Johansson woozy, and the second which sent him crashing to the canvas, unconscious, blood trickling from his mouth and his left foot twitching uncontrollably. It was five minutes before Johansson was able to sit up, another 10 minutes before he was able to leave the ring, still in a dazed condition.
But it was what happened immediately after the most savage knockdown ever authored by Patterson that stamped him as a compassionate and caring man, an image he would carry for the remainder of his career, and life. He knelt alongside the stricken Johansson, gently cradling his head until medical personnel arrived. Just like that, the cloak of perceived villainy Patterson had unfairly worn in Sweden was forever removed.
So it was on to the rubber match, which in alternating parts consisted of swatches of the two bouts that had gone before. The first round was reminiscent of the premiere clash in Yankee Stadium, with Johansson twice decking Patterson with that big right hand. But Patterson, whose recuperative powers were as notable as his chin was fragile, scrambled to his feet each time. The fact that a relatively new wrinkle – the standing eight-count – was in effect, having been agreed to in advance by both camps, might have given Patterson a precious few additional seconds to refocus.
Fighting as if his life was on the line – and, in a professional sense, that may well have been the case – Floyd rallied well enough before the opening round ended that he was able to drop Johansson, the first time both fighters had been down in the initial stanza of a heavyweight title bout since the Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo bout 40 years earlier.
Johansson had his moments thereafter, but he again had trained indifferently and it gradually became apparent that Ingo’s Bingo had lost its zingo. On those occasions when he landed his right hand, Patterson remained upright, and he finally sealed the deal with a sixth-round knockout.
The passage of time has a way of parting clouds and providing clarity. Was Johansson’s overhand right really as devastating as advertised? It was good enough to put Patterson on the deck nine times, but Patterson, following one more successful defense, against Tom McNeeley, failed to make it out of the first round in two bouts against the fearsome Sonny Liston. But comparative results is like weighing the merits of apples against oranges; Eddie Machen was taken out in one round by Johansson, but the clever veteran was able to go the 10-round distance against Liston.
So maybe it’s best to simply say that the Patterson-Johansson trilogy deserves to be commemorated on its own merits, not in relation to any other rivalry for historical purposes. Human nature being what it is, we cherish those memories we so choose, and discount others not to our liking.
To this child of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Patterson-Johansson will always have a reserved section in the warehouse of fond boxing remembrances.
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