Despite a lifetime of hype and seamy associates, boxing was once a sport with universal appeal, admired for its macho honour and respected skill. There was only one “heavyweight champion of the world” and CTE might have been considered a typo or an acronym for a college degree nobody knew.
Today, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a death sentence bestowed mostly upon athletes who led with their heads, ultimately paying the ultimate price that concussions levied.
Often, athletes like the heavyweight champion of the world.
While the golden age of heavyweight champs was the era of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson, for people of my vintage the groundwork was laid by champions like Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. Their championship tripleheader gripped sports fans, groupies and even casual observers.
As a pre-teen mesmerized by championship fights on network TV, I was originally lured by aging light-heavyweight Archie Moore, moving up to fight Patterson for the title left vacant by Rocky Marciano’s retirement. Moore lost and Patterson, a pleasant boy/man of 21, had a new fan.
And then, along came Johansson, a Swedish playboy who flattened Patterson seven times in their first fight, making him a most unpopular heavyweight champ, just for upsetting a nice, young, African-American. When Patterson won the rematch he became the first fighter ever to regain the title, then he finished off Johansson in the rubber match. They fought 14 rounds, total, with 13 knockdowns. All three fights ended in knockouts.
Still aspiring to be a sports writer, the real “knockout” for me was meeting both of them, more than two decades later. Johansson owned a cheap-to-modest beach motel in Florida. I was on a soccer assignment, and drove up the coast to interview him. We talked about…
-losing twice to Patterson: “That’s in the past and I couldn’t change it — if I couldn’t change it then, I couldn’t change it afterwards.”
– being the last white heavyweight champ: “I would correct you on that…I wouldn’t say the last; I would say the latest; there will be another.”
– the movement to make boxing safer: “It is impossible to make it safer because as soon as you make something safer, the public will disappear, and you need the public.”
A few years after that, I met Patterson at the airport in Cleveland, by accident. There was no interview. By then, he was well into what was then called “punch-drunk” and now is called dementia. He fought it for nine more years, then he died.
Three years later, so did Johansson, also of dementia.