As a young pugilist, Floyd Patterson got knocked down many times – and that was before he turned professional. Yet he persevered and became one of the greatest boxers of his generation, assembling a record of 55-8-1 and winning the heavyweight championship belt twice before he retired.
Prior to becoming a boxer, Floyd was a petty thief and truant, running away from home and living in subway tunnels as a child. Sent to reform school, Patterson took up boxing and eventually became the world champion. But after one particularly devastating title defense loss, Floyd let his inner demons take hold, falling into depression, and not leaving the house for a month.
With sheer resiliency, Floyd literally fought back, reclaiming the championship belt that he had lost the year before. More on that later.
Floyd Patterson led an amazing life, full of the struggles, knockdowns, and bootstrap pulling that Americans seem to love so much. His life was characterized by the power of determination and grace of redemption.
Life is not necessarily a boxing match, but the lessons that Patterson taught are timeless. We have all been knocked down, and some have even been counted out prematurely. "They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most,” Floyd Patterson once said, “but I also got up the most.”
That is the more significant test – to continue rising to your feet, at first kneeling like a child, against the roar of the crowd, many of whom have bet against you and revel in your pain. Push the palm to the floor and with a shaky hand slowly push one knee off the mat. The crowd continues to howl, and you cannot discern friend or foe. The mind is not yet clear, the ringing in your ears and double vision a residual hangover from so many struggles, past and present, creating an imbalance and a desire to succumb to inertia. But you struggle to your feet, knees trembling and wobbly, and grab the rope for balance and strength. You gingerly make it to your feet before the bell clangs and look to the referee for guidance. You have done your part. Will you be able to continue the fight?
Ten years before Patterson ever threw a punch, and 3,600 miles across the pond, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stated that “Man simply is, and is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” Sartre indicated that when we choose, we are, in effect, making a choice for all mankind:
“When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. To choose is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be.”
This profound sense of responsibility for mankind is the cause of our despair. The freedom to choose – in fact, the actual responsibility to choose -- both defines our being and creates our angst. Sartre continues:
“In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively. Nevertheless, when one says, “You are nothing else but what you live,” it does not imply that an artist is to be judged solely by his works of art, for a thousand other things contribute no less to his definition as a man. What we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of undertakings, that he is the sum, the organization, the set of relations that constitute these undertakings.”
Sartre’s optimistic yet scary existential belief, manifested in the grit and perseverance of the pugilist Patterson several years hence, compels us to act and assigns responsibility for those actions. Like Floyd Patterson, we are free to create and define our world, our essence. We are free to get back on our feet and serve as a positive example to others, or we are also free to lead a destructive life and wreak havoc. The choice is ours.
Along the way, however, it is invaluable to have a helping hand – one who can support you when weak, encourage you when down, and point you in the right direction, always.
The title fight, you ask? Patterson lost the heavyweight championship to Ingemar Johansson, after being knocked down seven times in one round. Johansson became a national hero in Sweden as the first Swedish heavyweight champion. In the rematch the following year, a driven Patterson knocked out Johansson, who lay on the ground, motionless, for nearly eight minutes. Patterson went to Johansson’s side, picked up the battered foe, and carried him to his corner.
Despite the fact that Patterson beat Johansson again a year later, the two men remained great friends throughout their lives. Patterson himself became a folk hero of sorts in Sweden for the aforementioned kindness and humanity he displayed in the second fight. A symbiotic friendship between Patterson and Johansson was born.
Patterson, the former petty thief, truant, and depressed soul ultimately cultivated a life of redemption through his kind actions and helping hands.
While there is no evidence to suggest that he was an adherent of Sartre, Floyd Patterson, when viewed through the prism of his life's choices, serves as an existential portrait for mankind to cherish and follow.