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“How could the same thing happen twice?”: Liston v Patterson II, 55 years on

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A humiliation repeated

When Floyd Patterson lost to Sonny Liston in just two minutes and six seconds, he put on a fake beard and bought a plane ticket to Madrid. Humiliated, he wanted to become unknown. His trainer Cus D’Amato had been right all along; he should have ducked Liston. And yet ten months on, Floyd had chosen to try again. He didn’t have to enforce his rematch clause and there was, unsurprisingly, no great demand for it. But perhaps Patterson felt he had no choice; trying to avenge defeats is what fallen champions do, even when the odds look horrible.

Patterson gets a tepid welcome. First time around, he was the hero with the duty “to save boxing.” He didn’t and instead became the first world heavyweight champion to be knocked out in the first round. Patterson the person remains well-liked, but Patterson the boxer is widely doubted. So there’s some goodwill in this crowd but not much belief.

Loudly booed, Sonny Liston became the champion but stayed the villain. Any hope that the belt would redeem his reputation were ended when he woke up after that first fight to read Larry Merchant’s verdict: “So it is true—in a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win”. The crowd don’t care for him and he takes no interest in them, remaining hidden under his hoodie and offering no acknowledgment.

There is then the awkward ritual of the great and the good coming into the ring. They each soak up some applause and shake hands with the fighters, both of whom would presumably rather just be getting on with it. Marciano gets by the far the biggest ovation. Then it’s Ali’s turn. He’s far back in the arena so has a long way to come, moving briskly, arms raised, enjoying his moment. He ducks under the ropes, shakes Patterson’s hand, walks towards Liston, gives a comedy look of horror and ducks back out of the ring. He gets the laughs he’s looking for.

Patterson bounces on the balls of his feet; Liston is still. Twenty-one pounds is a stark difference, with Patterson looking almost skinny. Patterson bobs up and down while Liston walks him down. Less than a minute in and the champion is all over the challenger. He lands a jab, then a right and Patterson crouches. With no lateral movement, his head is an open target. A hammering left lands, an upper cut jags his head back, before a right sends him to the canvass. He leaps to his feet almost instantly.

Patterson understandably tries to cling on but he might as well be clinging onto a train. Again, Patterson freezes into the crouch and takes more shots. He grabs onto Liston’s right arm while Liston fires away with the left, before the ref breaks them up.

For the briefest of moments, Patterson fights back. He hurls a big straight right and it lands. No time to enjoy his success as Liston counters with a left hook that spins Patterson’s whole body. Liston then clubs away. This is demolition work, not artistry. Very few shots land cleanly, most hitting the gloves, but they hit hard enough. Patterson tries to get away but ends up down for the second time. Again, he’s up quickly.

Patterson looks barely responsive as he receives the standing count. In 2018, a ref would probably stop it here. The fight, however, is waved on and Patterson, exhausted and perhaps resigned to his fate, stands and waits as Liston approaches. He throws a desperate right but it’s the weary punch of a beaten man and Liston ducks comfortably. Liston goes to the body with a left before unloading a barrage. A short left hook ends the night, a modest punch to conclude a brutal display.

Patterson lays sprawled, eyes turned to the heavens. He strains to get into a sitting position but then stays there. The ref screams the count out inches from his face. He makes one final push but the “ten” comes just before he makes it to his feet. Over in two minutes and ten seconds; four seconds worth of progress.

Whatever his reputation, Liston shows some class in the immediate aftermath. He only briefly raises his arms in triumph before going over to embrace the dazed Patterson. In the post-fight interview, he generously and inaccurately says that Patterson came back “very strongly” after the first knockdown. Asked about his future plans, he says he wants to “get home to my lovely wife.” The interviewer goads him into saying that he could’ve beaten Patterson even quicker but his heart doesn’t seem to be in the boasting. He seems a little bit bored by it all. Then a manic Ali comes to the microphone.

He calls the fight “a disgrace”, promises to “leave the country” if he fails to beat Liston and concludes with: “I’m too fast, too pretty, I’ve got too much class for that bum.” It wasn’t long before everyone would find him mesmerising. Watching him here though and it’s easy to see why many at the time were looking forward to the surely inevitable prospect of Liston putting this brash prospect in his place.

Patterson would later tell Gay Talese that he would “give up anything to just be able to work with Liston . . . and to see if I could get past three minutes with him.” After this second rout, the best he could dream of was lasting more than a round.