Floyd Patterson is my favorite heavyweight champion, and lived in Great Neck for a short while in the mid-’60s. Here is the second installment on Floyd, from my future novel, All Roads Lead To Great Neck.
Patterson found himself sitting on the couch of Dr. Herbert Goodman’s office. He came in disguise. Patterson was well known to suffer depression. After he lost to Liston the first time, he left town. He left the country. Humiliated, he disguised himself in a mustache and fake whiskers and lost himself amongst the peasants of Madrid. That he lost to Liston twice, first-round knockouts, was inexplicable. It questioned his very existence.
Dr. Goodman was no Cus D’Amato. There were those who regarded psychiatrists as modern-day sages, respected like rabbis were in the old world. Men of wisdom and learning. Could Goodman, who’d twice punched Floyd Patterson in the back, be such a man? Brilliant in resolving mysteries of the human psyche, but an imbecile at the supermarket?
“Would you prefer to sit? Or lie down. It’s your choice,” said Goodman.
“I’ll just sit, this is fine,” said Patterson, averse to the prone position.
“There’s a chair if you want to sit.”
“No, this is fine.”
Patterson smoked Camels, which he once called “a fighting man’s cigarette.” There was an ashtray on a stand by the couch. Patterson lit one up.
Goodman already knew, from the sports literature, the history of his patient. Raised in the slums of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, Patterson shined shoes at the corner of Fulton and Kingston. At P.S. 93 poor Black kids laughed at his shabby clothes. Street gangs harassed him to the point where he quit school. He hid in subway tool sheds at the end of the Brooklyn line for hours at a time. He slept upon a bed of rumpled pages from the Daily Mirror and Journal American. Papers that would one day celebrate his victories. That’s where he got away from it all. Out in the Shed instead of Up on the Roof.
Patterson walked the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant aimlessly, riding subways to nowhere. He couldn’t read. At 10 years old he was arrested and then arrested again and again for stealing. Cops knocked him around.
But then he was accepted at The Wiltwyk School in upstate New York, for Negro juvenile delinquents. Eleanor Roosevelt was on its board of directors. The school turned Patterson around. He would continue to raise money for this school in later years, with Mrs. Roosevelt herself.
He used the Peek-a-Boo style developed by that boxing mystic and mensch, Cus D’Amato. His most famous maneuver, the “gazelle punch,” was a leaping shot where he uncoiled the left hook. It seemed like a strike learned from snakes. An unorthodox move, it should have been easy to counter. But it wasn’t. At 21 years of age, Patterson became the youngest man ever to gain the heavyweight championship. And the first to regain it. But the championship came somewhat by default, after Marciano retired undefeated. Not by “beating the man who beat the man. . . ”
He was Catholic Athlete of the Year that first great season in 1956, congratulated by the pope. Another great Catholic would soon call upon him. President Kennedy met Patterson at the White House and pressured him not to even fight the emerging Sonny Liston. So did the NAACP. Nobody, Black or white, wanted a hardened ex-con holding the title. When the match became inevitable, Liston the Bear was heavily favored. In the public eye, Liston represented the darkest forces of Negro fear. Patterson represented the Good Negro, a white knight, the righteous world vs. Liston’s underworld and mafia.
After Patterson lost to Liston, JFK reportedly threw out the autographed photo Patterson had given him.
Patterson then spoke out strongly, bravely, against Cassius Clay joining the Nation of Islam, considered a racist, segregationist, whitey-hating cult.
“I have no respect for the Black Muslims,” he said at the time. “They’re a colored Ku Klux Klan. They’re out for revenge more than anything else.” He believed Clay was brainwashed. Patterson stood up for Middle American values. Many Blacks abandoned him, as they did Louis Armstrong, calling him that proverbial Uncle known as Tom.
Patterson’s Peek-a-Boo style, which Jose Torres now utilized under D’Amato, even seemed Uncle Tommish, compared to Ali’s daringly low-held hands. He lost twice to Ali, who taunted and mocked him as an Uncle Tom before and during both fights. Eldridge Cleaver and the Nation of Islam called him the slave master’s puppet. He was subjected to insults and outrageous symbolic metaphors, as the ring circus bestows. A Lazarus Negro beaten by the New World Order of Liberated Black Man.
He felt like he was drowning. There were so many psychiatrists as neighbors, why should he not try one? Goodman’s office was in town on Schenck Avenue. He summoned the courage to book an appointment.
“Bell and Howell is up four points,” said Patterson. There was a pause, then Goodman spoke.
“A good stock?”
“Yeah, one of my favorites. I gotta watch ’em like a hawk.”
Another long pause.
“Why the false whiskers and mustache? Are you embarrassed to be seen here?”
“Okay,” said Goodman. “That’s understandable.”
“I didn’t even tell Sandra, my wife.”
“What would she say?”
“Well, I’m supposed to be this tough guy and everything. And here I am. Like a coward.”
“You think coming here is cowardly?”
Patterson found it odd that such apprehension should be questioned or probed. A man coming to another man, presumably to confide intimate feelings—didn’t that signify weakness, something less than manly? Were patients really supposed to let down their guard? Patterson felt like he was compromising the psychological defenses drilled into him by Cus, leaving himself wide open. What would D’Amato think? Playing peek-a-boo with a psychiatrist. Talk to your priest, he'd say. But the church only asked for donations, a hundred-fold more than Goodman’s fee.
And so it went—fragmented, evasive chat interspersed with long silences. This was Goodman’s office, his kingdom, not the kingdom of the square, four-sided Everlast ring. But after a few sessions, the gloves came off.
“When my daughters were little—I’ve got four kids. They didn’t know what I did for a living. Sandra and I told them the object was to push the opponent down. And sometimes it was daddy who got pushed down. You know, Jeannie, when she was just seven, she saw the second fight with Sonny on closed-circuit TV. My daughter saw that.” And here Patterson shut his eyes, having a moment. A box of Kleenex was on the table, and Goodman reflexively reached for it.
“No,” said Patterson, waving off the Kleenex. He lit another Camel.
“It doesn’t feel so bad, getting knocked out. Kinda good, actually. Floating around in your head, not sure where you are. Looking up at all those cheering people, like you’re surrounded by some family, blowing one of them a kiss. And then you start to realize what happened.”
Patterson’s humiliation from losing to Liston twice in first rounds was a personal disgrace that never left. All that heavy training for nothing. Total sacrifice, deprivation, living like a monk. If he’d been frolicking at the Deauville or Fontainebleau instead, both fights probably would have gone more rounds. Why should there be such shame that a fighter with spectacular achievements should instantly be demoted to bum, after falling to bigger men, bigger men whose time had come. Did Liston have some voodoo demon clouding Patterson’s mental vision?
“After the second fight with Sonny, I wanted to go back and spar with him privately,” Patterson confided to Goodman, who remained cool as a cucumber. “I woulda paid him a million. Just to prove I could go more than one round. To show myself. I still can’t get him by phone.”
Patterson may have beaten the living the shit out of Liston on another day. Or not. But now, four years after the fact, of course he could. He’d meet him on the street, anywhere, even outside of Irving’s. But there were no third chances. Liston was no longer considered in serious contention, possibly shooting junk, to boot. This was hell to live with. Hell.
Patterson waited for Goodman to say something, anything.
“You felt impotent,” said Goodman.
“. . . Yes.”
Patterson went on about the press, the barroom hecklers, the bigmouths with bellies who never stepped into a ring...they goaded and taunted fighters, constantly challenging their macho, slighting their achievements, berating them as pieces of shit unless they beat yet someone else. They even called Floyd a coward. If a fighter lost twice, the jokes were relentless. (“Magillacuddy’s on his back so often, they should sell advertising on the bottom of his shoes.”) How could anyone who’d been heavyweight champion ever be considered a failure? The public proclaims a fighter a failure the moment he hits the canvas? Well, Floyd felt like one.
“I always wanted to talk to other fighters who’ve gone through this, but I don’t know how to even start. Who should I ask? Maybe Ingemar. I never even looked another fighter in the eye at weigh-in. They said it was ’cause I was a coward. But if ya look at the guy and he smiles—and I did this once in the amateurs—well he had such a nice face, I smiled back. So what business did we have fighting?”
Patterson was wary of one subject, a rumor about psychiatrists he’d heard: That they would reduce a patient’s behavior to the sum total of his toilet training. Such questions would never fly in D’Amato’s camp. What toilet training? The Pattersons were poor, they were illiterate, it was Bedford Stuyvesant, it was Brooklyn in the fucking 1930s. They wiped their asses with newspapers. The moment Goodman so much as broached the subject, he was outta there.
"You have to understand what it is like to be champion of the world and then not to be champion," he said. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. When I looked up from the mat and saw John Wayne there in the crowd. This famous American hero had come to watch me fight and I was losing the title to another country. To Sweden. In only the third round. Ingemar and me, we’re great friends today, you know.”
“Well, you got it back the next time,” said Goodman. But Patterson didn’t seem to acknowledge that, only the loss. He’d just lost to Clay, whom he refused to call Muhammad Ali. Ali would give him a second fight in a few years, and after losing again, at least Ali would graciously say that Patterson possessed more boxing skills than any other fighter he faced.
“You define yourself by the losses, rather than the wins,” noted Goodman.
Patterson shrugged. “There’s this crazy guy in town, I saw him at the bagel store. Pure white hair, combed back. He slapped the woman he was with, and you just don’t do that.”
“I think I know about that fellow,” said Goodman, in a rare divulgence of outside hearsay. “He’s a procurer.”
“Great Neck has a pimp?”
“Apparently. Just one. How did you react?”
“Well, I just kind of stood there, staring. I interrupted. But then I thought, if he slaps her again, I’ll give him the left hook. He had it coming. But I just stood there. What am I supposed to be, the Sheriff of Great Neck?”
“Nobody expects that.”
“Yes they do. I expect it. It happens all the time, but I can’t get involved. And then feel—”
“Why did you choose Great Neck?
“Well, you know, the education system and all that stuff for my kids. And it’s the Jews who’ve always stood shoulder to shoulder with us. The Catholic school nuns, they just wanted me to donate thousands for stained windows. I’d have to sell some of my Blue Chips. Either that or averaging down. I’ve been thinking of unloading a few thousand preferred shares of U.S Steel, they’re not performing like they used to.”
Patterson kept a Cessna jet at his command, and often left from Westchester airport to train alone upstate. Now he considered moving upstate, to New Paltz, to stay near his training camp. In training, he fought as if he were trying to recall an old dance step, and his mind wandered. Then he’d regain his grace.
“Sandra and I, we’re thinking of selling the house. I’m not even home, I fly the Cessna from Westchester to training camp. She wants me to retire. But I’m not going to retire. I want my title back. And she wants me there for the kids, it’s still their childhood. I do help them with their reading.”
“You haven’t mentioned anything about your childhood,” came Goodman.
“What, in Bed-Stuy? I couldn’t even read yet.”
“You mentioned that the Daily Mirror and the Journal-American were always present in your home,” said Dr. Goodman. The fighter felt his opponent just cut off the ring. “What role did the newspapers play?”
This was Patterson’s cue to cut and run. He stood up to shake hands and leave. He’d only seen Goodman several times. The psychiatric couch wasn’t for him. He just wanted to engage in the local cottage industry, see what it was like. Dr. Goodman saw Patterson one more time at the supermarket. This time he kept a respectful distance. Patterson’s young daughter was leaning against his arm.
“Stop that,” he said in a pained voice to the little girl. “You’re killing my arm.”
--Josh Alan Friedman