The main thing the fight between Floyd Patterson and George Chuvalo proved was that either of them will be taking his life in his hands if he gets in the ring with Cassius Clay—or Sonny Liston.
Patterson, who has been fighting erratically for 13 years, demonstrated clearly that he still does not know how to protect his belly. Chuvalo, who has fought erratically for only eight years, has not learned how to protect his head—although against Patterson the knowledge was not desperately needed. The former champion hit Chuvalo with a number of spectacular combinations, all to little effect. Maybe this is because Chuvalo"s head is made of Portland cement—or maybe it is because Patterson's punches are made of marshmallow.
The sellout Madison Square Garden crowd (19,100) saw a high-class club fight, but on the premise that the principals are supposed to rank among the best heavyweights in the land it would be hard to rate their encounter better than mediocre.
Chuvalo, a burly, broad-faced Croatian by way of Canada with thick arms and a muscular body, had a simple strategy devised by his wispy trainer, Ted McWhorter.
"We want to hit to the belly," McWhorter said sadly after the fight. "We going to hit to the belly until Floyd, he bring he arms down, then we hit to the head. But Zach Clayton [the referee], he stop George when he is hitting Floyd in the stomach before he can start hitting him in the head. It was not fair, and we would like to fight him again."
Indeed, Chuvalo was much more effective in the close fighting than was Patterson. He slammed Floyd in the belly with the impact of a man tamping dirt with a four-by-four, but Patterson, although he winced now and then, did not seem to mind too much.
"I think I proved after 13 years tonight that I can take a much better punch than you gentlemen have given me credit for," he said to the assembled press in his crowded dressing room. "He hit me well at times—in the belly and on the chin. Several times these punches hurt me, but never seriously. I thought at one time in the fight I was behind, and my corner told me so—I guess somewhere around the eighth or ninth round. They told me—I guess it was just before the 10th round—that if I would start punching and become more aggressive I could win."
Unfortunately for Chuvalo, Patterson's decision to become more aggressive coincided with Chuvalo's decision to begin punching to the head. Since Chuvalo is not a very skillful headhunted, he left himself open for Patterson's combinations in the last two rounds. This error cost him both rounds and probably the fight.
"We lost some big points in the last round," said McWhorter. "But we got to get some big hits in to the head if we want to win and that is what we trying to do. We can't fight the way we want to fight—bim, bim, bim to the belly, then up to the head, because Clayton, he stop after we get in a few hooks to Floyd's stomach. So we can't hit down there and then come up. We got to come up as soon as we can."
Chuvalo, who had been effective with a body attack through the first six rounds, virtually abandoned that tactic late in the fight. Since Patterson is not a body puncher—or an infighter of any kind—this resulted in the two of them clinging morosely to one another for seconds, with no blows struck until Patterson would break away with a quick rat-a-tat-tat on Chuvalo's impervious face.
"I was surprised he doesn't hit any harder," Chuvalo said. "I would like to fight him again. Zora Folley hits harder than he does. Floyd never hurt me once."
Patterson had two plans for this fight; he had to settle for the less aggressive one. He wanted, if he could, to beat Chuvalo at his own game, fighting in close and tying up the Canadian if he could. He discovered early in the fight that he was not strong enough to do this. So, he adopted the kind of strategy he should have used against Sonny Liston. He is normally a fighter who moves in; in this case, he moved back, and that may have been one of the reasons that his punches lacked their occasional sting.
"I trained to fight him his kind of fight," Patterson said. "I wanted to throw a lot of punches. I wanted to lay inside and trade with him and then box from the outside. But when I tried to fight him inside, he always got the better of it. So no matter what I did I had to stay outside and box."
In pursuit of these tactics Patterson retreated steadily around the ring with Chuvalo plodding doggedly after him. Early in the fight Chuvalo scored with swinging right and left hand punches, countering most of the time and most of the time countering under Patterson's leads. Again and again, when the two fighters were in a tight clinch, Chuvalo worked his right hand loose and swung it like a pendulum into Patterson's left kidney until Clayton forced the fighters apart.
"The kidney punches didn't hurt me," Patterson said. "All the energy he wasted throwing those punches tired him in the long run, in my opinion.
"He caught me with several punches that hurt," Patterson went on. "They came in barrages. He'd get me with a good one and follow up with some strong punches. But I said to myself, 'You can't be knocked out.' And I wasn't."
After the fight Chuvalo had some inconsequential cuts on his face and a burgeoning mouse under his right eye, but he maintained that none of Patterson's punches hurt him.
"He moved more than we figured on," McWhorter said. "We figured he going to come in more. But he kept backing away all the time. Next time we fight him, maybe we going to press more. And get another referee. You got to let the man fight inside. Long as he got one arm loose, he got the right to fight. You take away his fight when you don't let him do that. You making him fight Floyd's kind of way and he ain't that kind of a fighter."
It was, despite everything, an exciting encounter, although it failed to live up to its atmosphere of a momentous sporting occasion. Any bout in which the combatants can hit and are not particularly good at protecting themselves is bound to be interesting. Chuvalo's only defense is a right hand he moves up beside his head to absorb some of the sting of a left hook; he does not bob or weave or slip punches. Patterson moves more than Chuvalo, but he is woefully open to punches to the head with a right and to the belly with either hand. If he intended, as he said, to prove his ability to take a punch (Chuvalo's that is), he succeeded; but it seems extremely doubtful that he can take the kind of punishment either Clay or Liston is capable of inflicting.
"I never got him flush on the jaw," Chuvalo said wistfully after the fight. "I know I hurt him, but most of the time I was punching too high. I don't know why. It just happened that way."
He raised his hand and felt the mouse under his eye tenderly.
"He got me high most of the time, too," he said. "On top of the head or on the forehead. Never on the chin. Once in the eye. This one. But that didn't hurt when it happened. I would like to get him again. If they would let me alone inside. I got a real right to fight inside, haven't I?"
Patterson, understandably, was a bit evasive about the rematch Chuvalo almost wistfully seeks. "I think I have fought and beaten the logical contenders," he said. "Now I deserve a shot at Clay. Clay told me I would be his next opponent after Liston. Or maybe even substitute for Liston if he can't fight in Boston. If the Clay-Liston fight goes through, I may have to fight again before I get Clay. Maybe I would consider a rematch."
Clay was on hand for this fight and leaped happily into the ring to congratulate Patterson—and share the spotlight. Clay did not seem to mind the loss of the only "white hope"—his own phrase—on the horizon.
"The articles written about white hopes are wrong," Patterson said seriously in his dressing room. "I think tonight proved that. I think I got more—at least as much, anyway—encouragement from the people as Chuvalo did. I think the crowd proved there is nothing to the white hope theory."
"Go Floyd, go Floyd," the crowd had shouted in thunderous unison several times during the fight, and Patterson—who had feared the home-town fans—felt at home again. But maybe Chuvalo did more to disprove the white hope theory than the crowd did.
Late in the fight Chuvalo went headhunting, giving Floyd a chance to demonstrate that he could take a punch—one of George's, anyway.