IN LATER YEARS, and in certain of the early ones, Ingemar Johansson ate with more hands than he punched with. But that right mitt, when used in the ring anyway, earned him all the fame he'd ever need. The burly Swede, who died last Friday at the age of 76, called his right fist "toonder and lightning" for its concussive power, although not all his opponents either heard or saw it coming. He used it to forge a record of 28--2 with 17 knockouts, one of them most notably delivered on a rainy night in Yankee Stadium.
It was there in 1959 that Johansson, regarded more as a merrymaker than a contender, brutally upset Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship. Johansson, who had largely trained in New York nightclubs, knocked down the decidedly more monastic Patterson seven times in the third round. "It was," Gay Talese later wrote, "a setback for austerity." But Johansson failed to make any more of a case for profligacy beyond that. If he had been cavalier in approach for his first fight, he was deliberately dissolute for their two rematches, each won with increasing ease by Patterson. By their third bout, writer A.J. Liebling suspected Johansson was enjoying a training table of "creamed chicken, strawberry shortcake, cherry cheesecake."
The first Patterson fight remained the high point for Johansson, who was a limited fighter at best. He returned to Sweden a national hero, completely absolved of the shame incurred at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he had been disqualified in the final for lack of effort, and was likewise excused a paltry attempt to rebuild his career. He retired soon after, in 1963, those last Patterson fights the only losses of his career. He was, by all accounts, both beloved (he ran a number of businesses in Sweden) and well-fed (he ballooned to 267 pounds before taking up the marathon). And, even for so scant a career, well-remembered. He had fists, after all, that made weather.
RIVALS Johannson (right) and Patterson would become friends.
JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN (SI COVER)