Greatest Knockouts: Patterson vs. Johansson

Originally Published: September 28, 2006
By Bert Randolph Sugar | Boxing Historian

Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson - III
March 13, 1961 -- Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Fla.

Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johannson
AP PhotoPatterson-Johansson III in 1961 was the best fight in the triology.
If "Peanuts" cartoon character Charlie Brown had been a boxer, he would have been Floyd Patterson. Patterson's ring career was a tightrope walk across the chasm of his own introspective personality. He was a sensitive man, a perfectionist, and his own worst critic. The press admired Patterson the man, but doubted his credentials as a fighter. Floyd probably would have preferred it the other way around.

Patterson was born on Jan. 4, 1935, in Waco, N.C. His family migrated to New York, and young Floyd became embroiled in a life of petty juvenile crime. As with many ghetto youths, boxing became his salvation. His amateur career was spectacular, resulting in two New York and Eastern Golden Gloves championships in 1951 and 1952, and an Olympic gold medal in the middleweight division at the 1952 games in Helsinki. He turned pro on Sept. 12, 1952, with none of the fanfare that accompanies the debut of today's Olympic champions.

Under the tutelage of his volatile, often-controversial manager Cus D'Amato, and trainer Dan Florio, Patterson managed to win 29 of his first 30 pro fights. (The lone loss was an eight-round decision to former world light-heavyweight champion, Joey Maxim.) His 31st outing was a 12-round points win over Tommy ("Hurricane") Jackson in 1956 which earned Patterson a match with world light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore for the newly vacant heavyweight title, a vacuum which had occurred just six weeks before when Rocky Marciano retired as the undefeated champion.

On Nov. 30, 1956, in Chicago, Floyd dropped the 43-year-old Moore with a leaping left hook in the fifth round and finished him off with a right-left combination. At 21, Patterson was the youngest man ever to wear the heavyweight crown, as well as the first Olympic medal winner to win the title.

Patterson might have been a great light-heavyweight. But at 182 pounds, he was as a mere child among men. Of the other heavyweight champions, only Rocky Marciano had a shorter reach. Worst of all, Floyd had a delicate chin and only an average defense. D'Amato exercised extreme caution in selecting his opponents, a strategy that probably added years to Patterson's reign as king of the heavyweights.

During his first two years as champion, Patterson successfully defended his title four times, knocking out four challengers who could be described as weak at best. However, they were hardly pushovers. Even Pete Radamacher, who had never fought professionally, managed to knock Patterson down; but Patterson's recuperative powers were extraordinary, and each time he managed to come back to whittle his opponent down to size -- and to the floor.

Pressure from the media and the public began to build for Patterson to face one of the top contenders -- Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, or Nino Valdes. On Sept. 14, 1958, less than a month after Patterson survived a knockdown and came back to stop Roy "Cut and Shoot" Harris in his third title defense, number one heavyweight contender Machen traveled to Gothenburg, Sweden, to fight European heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson. Johansson, undefeated in 20 fights, with 13 knockouts, was little-known outside of European boxing circles, where he had gained recognition by knocking out the likes of Henry Cooper and Joe Erskine. The handsome Swede pulverized the talented Machen with a ferocious right cross, stopping him in one quick, spectacular round. D'Amato was quick to accept him as Patterson's next challenger, assuming that like most European heavyweights, the Swede would be "ready-made" for Patterson.

Patterson's and Johansson's fates were linked early. Like Floyd, Ingemar represented his country at the 1952 Olympic games in Helsinki. While Patterson was earning international accolades, Johansson disgraced himself and his nation in front of a Scandinavian crowd. He reached the finals in the heavyweight division, only to be disqualified in the second round of his match with Ed Sanders of the United States for "not fighting."

Johansson turned pro on Dec. 5, 1952, three months after Patterson. He stopped Franco Cavicchi in 13 rounds on Sept. 30, 1956, to win the European heavyweight crown. He successfully defended that title twice, but prior to his upset of Machen there was no indication that he was destined to become the first fighter from outside the United States in 25 years to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

Of the 31 men who have laid claim to the heavyweight championship of the world during the gloved era, Patterson and Johansson are generally regarded as two of the least able. But the unique chemistry of their combined flaws and strengths produced one of the most exciting rivalries in the history of boxing's glamour division.

Their protracted war was waged over a period of two years, in three pitched battles for the heavyweight title that consumed a total of only 14 rounds. All three fights ended in a knockout, with Johansson winning the first and Patterson the victor in the second and the third. Between them they made 12 trips to the canvas. And each fight was better than the one preceding it.

They met for the first time on June 26, 1959, at New York's Yankee Stadium. A crowd of 18,215 filed into the 60,000-seat stadium -- 3,000 fewer people than had attended Patterson's previous defense against Roy Harris. But over $1 million was added to the $470,000 live gross by closed-circuit patrons -- the largest gate of its kind in boxing history. Patterson was paid over $600,000 -- more money than Rocky Marciano ever made for one fight!

Patterson took the 4-1 underdog lightly and paid dearly for his contempt. A stand-up boxer with a basic jab right-hand offense in the classic European tradition, Ingemar controlled the action from the opening bell with his long, accurate jab as Patterson managed to get in one hard leaping left hook late in Round 2 -- his only effective blow of the fight. The Swede, however, continued to keep the champion at arm's length with his persistent left, all the time ready with his right, the much-heralded -- and just as often maligned -- "Hammer of Thor."

But with only 30 seconds gone in Round 3, all hell broke loose. Johansson scored with a jab, and then took the wrappings off his right and threw a booming right cross that knocked Floyd down. The champion was up quickly, but was unconscious on his feet. Thinking he had knocked Ingemar down, Patterson wandered toward a neutral corner. Johansson caught him with a left hook from behind that landed on the back of Patterson's head and a right which floored the champ for the second time. Patterson beat the count again, but two more awesome rights put him down yet a third time. He made it to his feet, but a right-left dropped him to the canvas again. By now Patterson was like a ghost, lifted up from the deck by some supernatural force and then made one with the canvas by Johansson's right. Now Johansson was on him, battering Patterson with both hands until he collapsed to the mat. Floyd arose for the fifth time, only to be flattened again, this time by a right uppercut, followed by a left and a right. The champion still refused to quit. Johansson walloped his now-helpless opponent with a left-right-left salvo until referee Ruby Goldstein mercifully stepped in and stopped the fight at 2:03 of Round 3.

The new heavyweight champion of the world was an impishly handsome Romeo, who enjoyed night clubs more than fight clubs. The media loved him. "Ingo," as he was called familiarly -- and he was called frequently -- lived up to his new title and lived up to the hilt; he was wined and dined at the most fashionable watering holes on two continents.

However, the toast of the boxing world had a date with destiny, as well as one with Patterson. The original contract had guaranteed Patterson a rematch, and one was scheduled for June 20, 1960, at the Polo Grounds in New York. Johansson, never a dedicated athlete in any case, trained lightly for the second fight, believing that he only had to tap Floyd on the chin once with his vaunted right to retain the title. The Swede's right cross became a legend in its own time, alternately dubbed the "Hammer of Thor" and "Ingo's Bingo." But, in fact, the blow was greatly overrated. Over the course of their series Johansson had Floyd down nine times, but was never able to put him away for the full count. Sonny Liston, who possessed a punch worthy of a legend, leveled Patterson twice for the 10 count in less time than it takes to drink one quick shot of Aquavit.

Patterson lived like a monk during his training for the second fight, avoiding the press while sharpening his tools to their finest edge. For the first time since winning the title, he was intensely motivated. He recognized that he had let Johansson control the pace of the first fight with his jab. To become the first man in history to regain the heavyweight championship he would have to be the constant aggressor, and upset Ingemar's mechanical "one-and-a-two" rhythm, delivered like the beat of a Lawrence Welk tune.

Patterson was a changed fighter, physically and mentally. He came into the ring for the rematch weighing 190 pounds -- a solid eight pounds heavier than for the first fight. Johansson, for all of his laxity in training for the rematch, weighed in at a trim 194½

Following his fight plan, Floyd was the early aggressor. But with just a minute gone in Round 2, Floyd encountered disaster in the form of a Johansson right that exploded against his head. This time, instead of going down, he shook off the effect of the punch and backed away from Ingemar for the remainder of the round. The blow had a salutary effect on Patterson. He discovered that he could take, and survive, the kind of blow that had felled him an incredible six times in the first fight.

Patterson's confidence grew with each passing round. In the fifth round he ripped a right to Ingemar's jaw that hurt the champion. Floyd followed up with a wild left hook which missed, but a second leaping left hook caught Johansson flush on the jaw, knocking him down. The Swede was up at nine, bleeding from his mouth and with a cut over his left eye. Patterson came roaring at him with one left hook after another. A final left hook -- the hardest punch Patterson had unleashed in a career which spanned 64 fights and 40 knockouts -- came up from the floor and crashed into Ingemar's face. The champion went down like a sack of bricks, his head landing with a thud that was audible in the ringside section. His left foot twitched convulsively, and blood oozed from his mouth and nose as referee Arthur Mercante counted him out at 1:51 of the fifth round.

The rubber match was, if possible, more exciting, evoking memories of the Dempsey-Firpo fight. Staged at the Miami Beach Convention Hall on March 13, 1961, it drew a crowd of 31,892, and a gross of $3.3 million.

A third fight for the heavyweight championship between the same two men was almost unprecedented; only Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott had duplicated the feat. The late Jimmy Cannon wrote that the two "are now experienced partners in violence, in the way a murderer and his victim are collaborators, each as important to the other in the act which destroys one of them. In some instances they resemble tragic Abbot and Costello … one has to be the straight man who degrades the other. The other must accept the humiliation. But the parts have not been assigned."

But, in a sense, the parts were assigned even before the first blow. Patterson had tasted humiliation in defeat and found it not to his liking. Johansson had also experienced defeat, but not the humiliation which attended it. Ingemar enjoyed being the heavyweight champion of the world, which is not the same thing as taking pleasure in winning fights. Winning was everything to Floyd; an end in itself. It was merely a means to Ingo.

Johansson, again the challenger, paid a heavy price for his indifferent training methods. He carried 206½ pounds into the ring, 11¾ pounds more than he had weighed for the second fight. The excess baggage was arranged in soft folds around his midsection and thick rolls around his thighs. Patterson, at 194¾ pounds, was 12¾ pounds above his weight for the first fight, but he carried the additional bulk well.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, taking note of Ingemar's poor condition, made him a 4-1 underdog, in spite of the best efforts of his internationally respected trainer, Whitey Bimstein, who had worked long and hard to stiffen the Swede's jab and add a right uppercut to his limited repertoire.

Both fighters came out jabbing in Round l, Johansson with a long, straight left like a spear, and Patterson with a peculiar jab which unfolded like a jackknife. Ingemar tried a right, just grazing the champion's chin. They exchanged jabs, and Johansson followed up with a wicked right cross that caught Floyd flush on the chin. Patterson went down, jumping up at the count of three, as if he were merely going through the motions of genuflection. Referee Billy Regan continued the count, stopping at eight as Ingo waited in a neutral corner. The "mandatory eight count" -- a relatively new innovation in professional boxing -- had been adopted, with the consent of both fighters, for the first time in a heavyweight title fight. By the time Regan stopped counting, Patterson appeared to be recovered.

Johansson made haste to change all of that. He came straight at Floyd with an ineffectual jab, followed by another jolt from the "Hammer of Thor" that stunned the champion. Johansson immediately launched yet another bolt of Swedish lightning, a sizzling right cross, followed by a left that knocked Patterson down a second time. This time the champion was hurt. "His eyes were glazed," referee Regan stated after the fight. Floyd took another mandatory eight count, just enough time for his remarkable powers of recovery to work their magic.

A replay of the first seemed to be unfolding. But wait! As Johansson waded in for the kill, Patterson reached down, somewhere deep inside, groping into the depths of his fractured confidence for a miracle. His hands -- hands as fast as a middleweight's -- flashed out with a right and a left. Johansson caught both punches with his face and went down; the first time since Dempsey fought Firpo, 40 years before, that both fighters had gone down in the first round of any heavyweight-title fight! The pro-Patterson crowd erupted as Ingo took a mandatory eight count. Floyd managed to get in one more hard left to the jaw before the bell sounded to conclude one of the wildest first rounds in heavyweight history.

Both fighters came out throwing lethal leather early in Round 2, "Like two animals from another age," wrote John Underwood of the Miami Herald. They exchanged jabs. They traded hard rights to the head. Over-anxious, they both slipped to the canvas. Johansson jabbed as Floyd came at him from his unorthodox "peek-a-boo" stance. Patterson launched a right that grazed Ingo's ear and another right that slammed hard into the same ear. Johansson came right back with a swipe from "Thor's hammer" that caught Floyd on the jaw. The Swede began to find the range with his jab, scoring with it four times before Patterson rushed in to dig a brutal right to the body -- the first effective body punch by either man in the entire three-fight series! They exchanged lefts and rights to the head, punishing punches calculated to end the fight, and Patterson ripped another right to Ingo's midsection and missed with a left at the bell.

Patterson came out jabbing hard in Round 3. Twice he jolted Ingo with his left, absorbing a short right to the jaw in return. Floyd jabbed again, a sharp punch that opened a cut over the challenger's right eye. As Patterson rushed in to take advantage, the Swede picked him apart with a left-right combination and another right over Floyd's jab. Two more Johansson rights were on target, but lacked firepower. Patterson forced his way inside. Johansson unloaded a right to the champion's head. Patterson came right back with a punishing left hook to Ingo's chin, and Johansson retaliated with another big right. Now both fighters were absorbing the kind of punches that had dropped them in previous fights.

A cut appeared over Patterson's left eye early in Round 4. Johansson was puffy under his left eye and bleeding from the gash over his right eye. Patterson opened fire with a right to the ear and another right behind it. He followed up with a ferocious combination -- ripping a left hook and a right to the head that sent the challenger back into the ropes. They went back to exchanging jabs. Patterson stepped in with a brutal left to the belly. Johansson scored with a left and a right to the head, but they were arm punches lacking in real power. The champion dug another left to Ingo's ribs. They traded jabs and Johansson followed up with a tremendous right to the head. "Thor's hammer" had struck again and Patterson was hurt, but upright. He came roaring back, whipping punches with both hands to the body and the head. Johansson seemed overwhelmed, unable to establish his very methodical attack. Floyd slammed a final right into Ingemar's jaw at the bell.

The pace slowed noticeably in Round 5. Johansson was beginning to tire, but Floyd failed to pursue either him or his advantage. They engaged in three minutes of jabbing, lngo's game, leaving the champion wide open for the big follow-up right. But it never came. Patterson moved inside late in the round, with a hard left hook to the body and a short left-right salvo to the head.

Johansson, was breathing heavily through his mouth at the start of Round 6, his flabby body now soaked with perspiration. Patterson seemed fresh and confident. He was winning the rounds and controlling the pace of the fight. The round started slowly with an exchange of jabs. Twice Johansson found the mark with his left. A right came at Patterson's jaw, straight and hard. Ingo let another one go, a heavy punch that snapped Floyd's head back! Patterson's corner went wild, screaming at him to watch out for the right.

The champion weathered the sudden squall and came back with a double jab. He missed with a right of his own, but quickly found the mark with a left to the body and a right to the head. Suddenly the Swede came alive, moving in behind his jab as Floyd backed off. A right flashed out at the champion's chin, but Floyd lessened its impact by backing away. Ingo unloaded his Sunday punch again, trying to knock Patterson into next week with another right. The blow was on target, but it lacked authority. Patterson retaliated with a left hook to the body, and missed with a right to the head.

They squared off at ring center. You could see the power swelling in Patterson and draining from the fat, tired Swede. Floyd lashed out with a leaping left hook that smacked into Ingo's forehead, just above the bridge of his nose, snapping his neck back. Two quick chopping rights to the temple followed it, knocking Ingemar to the deck. He struggled mightily and made it to his knees, balancing himself on his right glove as referee Regan tolled the fatal digits. At the count of nine Johansson tried to rise, but he lost his balance. As Regan counted "10," Ingo was scrambling to get up with one glove still touching the canvas. Johansson later complained that he had received a quick count, but films of the fight revealed that he was, in fact, given 11 seconds to rise. The end came at 2:45 of the sixth round.

Floyd Patterson had retained his title, but his lofty achievement proved to be only a setup for a great fall. Eighteen months later he was to climb into a ring in Comiskey Park in Chicago, where he meekly surrendered his crown to a man who played on his wavering confidence like Joshua at the walls of Jericho. There were those among the naysayers who said Patterson lacked courage after Sonny Liston manhandled him. But such was not the case. Courage and confidence are not the same thing. And, in the final analysis, Floyd was a first-rate fighter, but a second-rate heavyweight champion.

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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