Floyd Patterson, a sweet-tempered boxer who rose from a troubled boyhood to become the heavyweight champion of the world, died on Thursday at his home in New Paltz, New York. He was 71.
The cause was prostate cancer, Bill O'Hare, a family friend and spokesman, said in a telephone interview. Patterson had also suffered from Alzheimer's disease for about eight years.
In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Patterson, with five knockouts in five bouts, won the middleweight gold medal. Then, in a 20-year professional career, he won 55 bouts, lost eight and fought to one draw. His total purses reached US$8 million, a record then.
He won the heavyweight title twice, knocking out Archie Moore and Ingemar Johansson and becoming the first fighter to regain the title. He lost it twice, defended it successfully seven times and failed to regain it three other times. He generally weighed little more than 180 pounds, light for a heavyweight, but he made the most of mobility, fast hands and fast reflexes.
He was a good guy in the bad world of boxing. He was mild, sweet, retiring, reclusive, impassive and ascetic. He spoke softly and never lost his boyhood shyness. Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, who died in 1985, trained Patterson throughout his professional career and called him "a kind of a stranger." Red Smith, the New York Times sports columnist, called him "the man of peace who loves to fight."
Patterson acknowledged his sensitivity.
"You can hit me and I won't think much of it," he once said, "but you can say something and hurt me very much."
W.C. Heinz, the boxing columnist, found a fundamental difference between Patterson the fighter and Patterson the person.
"In expressing himself as a fighter," Heinz wrote, "Patterson knows almost complete security. Outside the ring, he knows no such security. A shy, sensitive soul-searcher, he volunteers little. He might be called a conversational counterpuncher. When he does speak out, however, it is with a purity reminiscent of Joe Louis."
Floyd Patterson was born Jan. 4, 1935, in a cabin in Waco, North Carolina, the third eldest of 11 children. His father, Thomas, was a manual laborer and his mother, Annabelle, was a domestic who later worked in a bottling plant until the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Above the youngster's bed was a picture of him with two older brothers and an uncle, all boxers. He often told his mother, "I don't like that boy," and once he scratched three large X's over his face in the picture.
He became a frequent truant who fell behind in school. At age 11, he could not read or write. He would not talk, and when someone talked to him, he refused to look the person in the face.
His mother had him committed to Wiltwyck School, a school in upstate New York for emotionally disturbed boys. His new teachers helped him learn to read and encouraged him to take up boxing there, which he did.
A year and a half later, Patterson returned home. He attended Public School 614 for maladjusted children and Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School before quitting after one term to help support his family.
At 14, he started working out at the Gramercy Gym on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a battered gym owned and run by the iconoclastic D'Amato. In 1950, he also started boxing as an amateur. In 1951, he won the New York Golden Gloves open middleweight title. In 1952, after his Olympic success, he turned professional.