History is not always just, and it recalls descents more clearly than ascensions. Floyd Patterson will not be remembered as the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight championship—he was but 21 in that shining, forgotten hour—nor as the only man to win it back but as the haunted, vulnerable figure whom Sonny Liston twice knocked out in the first round. These bathetic spectacles have colored, perhaps with a false light, the rest of Patterson's career. In the beginning he was, above all, a passionate fighter, but after he became champion only once did he return to his violent ways—when he knocked out Ingemar Johansson in their return match.
If he had defeated Liston or at least given him a good fight, Floyd might have retired. Now he says he will fight again; he has already had offers to meet Doug Jones and Cleveland Williams. Floyd must satisfy what his manager-in-exile, Cus D'Amato, calls "his harsh pride." It is an attempt to redress history, but history is decided not only by the flow of events. It is founded often on inflexible opinion and Floyd's battle will be unequal.
In the days before the fight it was evident that Floyd, in his maturity, had lost the inflamed purpose that once carried him to victory, but he wanted a fit moment for his leave-taking. "Most of my fighting is based on my feelings," he admitted as he walked through the desert. "I don't seem to have as much viciousness as I used to. I'll never feel the way I felt when I fought Ingemar the second time. It's wrong to feel so vicious. I hated the feeling. I wanted that man's blood, and after I knocked him down I saw his legs begin to twitch. I was sickened with myself. I was jumping with joy and I looked down and I saw him lying there. I couldn't stop jumping but I thought to myself, nothing is worth another man's life. And I promised myself I'd never feel that way again."
Floyd shied stones for Charlie Brown and Whitey, the German shepherds that accompanied him. The sun had set but the mountains still held its light, purple and peaceably folded.
"I got a whole lot more out of boxing than security," Floyd said. "I've given all for one thing but I've been fortunate. I have gotten more in return than I have given. I have given up 12 wonderful years that I would give up all over again, and the only loss was missing my children growing up. My oldest daughter is 6 now. All told, I've seen her for one year. I've missed five years. Every time I go home she is an inch taller, a wee bit brighter. I want time to devote time to my children.
"I am no great fighter. I'm a capable fighter. I'm content and I'm satisfied. I never asked to be a great champion. I was the youngest to ever win the title. I was the first to win it back and I've earned $5 million. What the hell—pardon my expression—do I want to be a really great champion for? Does the public really believe that I am conceited enough...that greedy?
"Naturally, if some of the hunger leaves, some of the desire is gone. I was never interested in recognition. First of all, I loved fighting and it gave me something to belong to. When I was younger I was unable to look anyone in the face. I thought all men were better than me. They were like Presidents. I feel today that I am better than no one but no one is better than me.
"After marrying, I began to take boxing more seriously, and I became wary. Once, when I leaped through the air, I had all the confidence in the world. Guys would do nothing but wait for my leap and then try to do something, but they couldn't because I was too fast. I don't leap anymore. They say I look as fast but I feel a little slower. And I have become more compassionate. I guess, after a while, you get tired of hurting people. Boxing is for the young."
What has happened to Floyd Patterson is that he has grown up, but the past still hangs from his neck like a sea anchor. He is reluctant to emerge from what he calls "the orderliness" of his training camp, that simulacrum, yet he has made remarkable advances. He has bought a light plane and is taking flying lessons, whereas formerly he was terrified of flying. "When I fly," Floyd says, "I relax. I don't think of anything on the ground. My mind's in the sky."
Last May he went to Birmingham with Jackie Robinson. "I live with myself," Floyd explains, "look at myself in the mirror each morning. Whatever I can do to relieve my conscience I will do. You have to have respect for yourself. You have to put first things first. I'm not a politician and I'm not a leader. I just like to be an active participant, one of the crowd. But I have no respect for the Black Muslims. They're a colored Ku Klux Klan. They're out for revenge more than anything else."
He has also reached an entente with his brother Billy, who publicly and unjustly condemned Floyd after the loss to Johansson. "Billy came up to my camp," Floyd recalled. "He realized he had made a mistake. He's older and it's hard for him to accept the idea that I was successful in his occupation; he was a fighter before I was. I spent four years disliking Billy. Every time I thought of him, a cold, shivery feeling would come over me. I have a lot more peace of mind now that I'm not angry anymore. See how miserable it is to hate, so nice to take someone back. I will never hate anyone anymore. Birmingham basically revolved around the same things as my feeling about Billy."
After Liston knocked him out, Floyd received visitors in his bungalow. "Can I get anyone a drink of water?" he asked. "I am afraid that's the only thing we have in the refrigerator." He was asked how his flying was going. "I feel I've made real progress," he said. "Buster [Buster Watson, his co-trainer] isn't too sure, however. I had him up while I was practicing stalls and when we landed he gave me back his ticket."
Floyd walked his guests outside into the deeper dark under the cottonwoods, and thanked them for dropping by. He had made the hard choice: to go on, and we wish him well. But will he, in his search for redemption, only be giving more away?