Fight insider recalls gentle champion
NEW YORK, May 12 (Reuters) Boxing historian Bert Sugar recalled former champion Floyd Patterson as one of the nicest people he ever met, and a heavyweight with the quickest hands ever seen when he hit his prime.
''He was one of the nicest, most gentle people I've ever met,'' Sugar said about Patterson, who died yesterday at 71 after a long bout with Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer.
''As a heavyweight he was a small man, but he made up for it with probably the quickest hands in heavyweight history up to Muhammad Ali.'' Sugar, author of numerous sports books and a former publisher of Ring Magazine, told Reuters in a phone interview from his suburban New York home that he got to know Patterson in 1974 when he wrote a book with him called ''Inside Boxing.'' ''We remained good friends up to his illness,'' Sugar said.
''When he was New York State athletic commissioner you began to see it,'' he said about the onset of Alzheimer's. ''Forgetting things.'' Sugar said Patterson, whose family moved to New York from the south when he was a child, was saved by boxing.
''Boxing made him a whole person. He was a troubled kid. He would run away from home and sleep in alleys, in stairwells. He found a direction through boxing.
''As a young kid he had moved up from North Carolina. He couldn't cope with everything. He found a life through boxing.
Patterson hooked up with New York trainer Cus D'Amato, who taught him the peek-a-boo style of holding his hands high over his face to protect himself and disguise his attack.
Boxing took Patterson to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, where he won Olympic gold as a middleweight.
Four years later, at age 21, he knocked out Archie Moore to become the youngest heavyweight champion up to that time.
His quickness and boxing skill gave him the edge over many heavyweights, but his weak chin and relatively modest physique made him vulnerable to big punches from true heavyweights.
''When a middleweight gets hit by a heavyweight's punch, he goes down,'' Sugar said.
Patterson was floored seven times when he lost his title to Ingemar Johansson in 1959. One year later, he knocked the Swede out to become the first heavyweight to regain the crown.
After the fifth-round knockout, Sugar said Patterson provided ''one of the gentlest moments I ever saw in sports.'' ''He has just knocked out Ingemar Johansson to regain the title, and he actually carried or dragged the limp body of Johansson back to his corner. He leaned down and pulled him up and took him to the corner.
''This was a wonderful man.'' Patterson later adopted a young boy who aspired to be a boxer and helped mould Tracy Harris Patterson into a world super bantamweight champion. He also counseled troubled children for New York State family services.
''I once did a book on boxing's greatest fighters, listing the top 100 fighters pound-for-pound across all weight classes. I couldn't rate him in the top 100,'' Sugar said.
''But if I made a list of the 100 nicest athletes I ever met, he'd lead the list.'' REUTERS AY SSC1429