Patterson vs. Ali, the Culture War That Wasn't

The 1965 heavyweight title fight between Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali was billed as an intraracial battle between a good guy and a dangerous black radical. Like much in Patterson's life, the truth was disguised.

by Brian Blickenstaff
25 November 2016, 8:23pm


When I think about Floyd Patterson, I don't think about his flying left hook – which, whenever I see it, seems like something from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! – or the fact that he was the first person ever to regain a heavyweight title. I don't think about his Olympic gold medal, or his brutal defeats at the hands of Sonny Liston, or his famous loss to Muhammad Ali, 51 years ago this week.

Instead, I think about his disguises.

In the late spring of 1965, the New York Times published a piece written by Gay Talese, with the headline "Disguises Cost Patterson $3,000 Annually" (which is roughly $22,750 today). The story is full of details about where and when Patterson wears disguises (essentially, everywhere and always), and features some great photos, too. He's clean-shaven in the first, seated while a makeup man in a light-coloured sweater applies a disguise to his face. In another photo, he wears a fedora and a ridiculous goatee. In the third, he is unrecognisable in a full beard and sunglasses; the caption says, "Patterson has been using disguises since his 1959 defeat by Ingemar Johansson" – the first time he lost his heavyweight crown. That's nearly six years, or more than $15,000 worth of disguises.

Imagine pretending to be somebody else for six years. Imagine paying the equivalent of $113,750 just so nobody would know who you are.

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The disguises made practical sense. As a heavyweight champion during at least some of those years, the man was as recognisable a celebrity as there was in his time. He was also a person who, like so many athletes, came to represent something in the public conscious that was not entirely of his own design.

The soft-spoken Patterson was an outspoken civil-rights supporter and a proponent of integration. President John F. Kennedy championed him as a kind of model citizen – which, by all accounts, he was. In the middle of the Freedom Rides and the Albany Movement, as James Meredith began school at the University of Mississippi, Patterson became a symbol of black America that white America could tolerate. His 1962 title defence against the "thug" Sonny Liston was portrayed in the press as a battle of good versus evil. Patterson lost, felled in the first round by a left hook that a Sports Illustrated writer described as "a diesel rig going downhill, no brakes." He then lost the rematch, counted out just 2:10 into the fight after being knocked down three times.

The image bestowed on him by Kennedy stuck, however, and as Patterson – now struggling against a "loser" label – went disguised in his private life, publicly he fought on. By 1965, he was preparing for the biggest fight of his life, another chance at the heavyweight title, this time against a man who played the villain (and was vilified) like few others in sporting history. On 22 November 1965, Patterson fought Ali.

The bout featured a buildup unlike anything previously seen, with Patterson and Ali slinging insults at each other in the papers and in person. Patterson had already been critical of Ali. Just over a year earlier, he published a story with Milton Gross in Sports Illustrated titled "I Want to Destroy Clay." Ali had only recently changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he denounced as his slave name; a new convert to the Nation of Islam, he also opposed integration. Patterson, a Catholic, accused Ali harming the black cause, and refused to call him by his new name (as did many newspapers at the time).

"I am a Negro and I'm proud to be one, but I am also an American," Patterson said in Sports Illustrated. "I'm not so stupid that I don't know that Negroes don't have all the rights and privileges that all Americans should have. I know that someday we will get them. God made us all, and whatever He made is good. All people – white, black and yellow – are brothers and sisters. That will be acknowledged. It will just take time, but it will never come if we think the way the Black Muslims think.

"They preach hate and separation instead of love and integration. They preach mistrust when there must be understanding. Clay is so young and has been so misled by the wrong people that he doesn't appreciate how far we have come and how much harm he has done by joining the Black Muslims. He might just as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan."

Ali, meanwhile, seized on Patterson's good guy, white-palatable image, repeatedly calling him an Uncle Tom. In the most memorable episode leading up to their fight, Ali showed up at Patterson's gym, surrounded by press. Cameras rolled as Ali presented Patterson with six carrots and two heads of lettuce and called him a "rabbit," a knock on Patterson's signature flying left hook.

Ali entered the ring as the reigning champion and a 3-1 favourite; he not only outweighed Patterson but had a seven-inch reach advantage. The fight went 12 rounds, and Ali at times seemed to toy with his smaller opponent. "Like a little boy pulling off the wings of a butterfly piecemeal," New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte wrote that evening, "Cassius Clay mocked and humiliated Floyd Patterson for almost 12 rounds tonight until the referee halted their heavyweight championship bout because the challenger was 'outclassed.'"

While Ali absolutely dominated the proceedings in Vegas, he also never really went after Patterson with power. And that's because Patterson was hurt – he had slipped a disk in training camp, but didn't cancel the fight. (It was also a difficult time in his personal life: Patterson's long-time trainer died shortly before the fight, and his marriage wouldn't last another year.)

As W.K. Stratton, a Patterson biographer, explained in a 2012 interview, Ali "knew that Floyd was hurt, and to his way of thinking, it would bring him no pride to injure a man who was already hurt. So he essentially backed off, waiting for the fight to be stopped. But the ref let it go on. Patterson was perplexed. Floyd said later that he'd never been hit with such soft punches."

After the fight, Patterson continued to call Ali "Cassius," but according to Stratton, Ali never took it as the insult everyone assumed it to be. Ali had great respect for Patterson, who had won Olympic gold eight years before Ali's 1960 medal. Ali took Patterson's public persona and turned it into a marketing ploy. It worked to great effect.

In the post-fight news conference, Ali praised Patterson for his bravery, saying in typically hyperbolic fashion that Patterson should get "honors and medals" for "the spot you was on, a good, clean American boy fighting for America." Ali had played the bad guy in the pre-fight build up. He'd beaten White America's fighter of choice, and now he challenged all his haters. "They should make sure you never have to work another day in your life," he continued. "It would be a disgrace on the government if you had to end up scuffling somewhere."

Unlike so many fighters, Patterson never scuffled, in part because Ali ensured he didn't. The two men fought again in what wound up being Patterson's final professional bout, in 1972, which he lost in seven. By that time, he was in a tough financial spot. This run-up to this fight was far less contentious. It was a final cash grab for Patterson, and from Ali a kind of gift.

How long Patterson went on wearing disguises, I can't tell you. Patterson died in 2006, with a record of 55-8-1. He achieved great success early in his career, but never against the biggest names of his sport later on. He was called a loser, a forgotten champion, an Uncle Tom, and boxing's gentleman. He's remembered by the press and many observers as good but not quite great, which is hard to argue with. Ali, however, disagreed. According to Stratton, Ali listed Patterson, the opponent he pulled apart wing by wing, among the four best fighters he ever faced. He didn't need to hide.

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