Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you. – Matthew 5: 43-44. King James translation.
Floyd Patterson earned a massive amount of money by violent means. He stepped into rings with the intention of beating his opponent senseless.
Yet, he was a marvelous contradiction who brought the lofty idea of loving your enemy to inspiring reality. Patterson ruled the boxing world as heavyweight champ for most of six years, from 1956 to 1962, but he was a gentle man blessed with the best kind of imagination.
An imagination for kindness.
When I lived in New York, I’d occasionally talk by phone with Patterson, who lived in solitude along the Hudson River. He’d tell boxing stories, and I’d listen. It’s been over two decades since I spoke to Patterson, who died in 2006, but I still savor his stories, especially this precious one I’m going to share with you.
Patterson grew up in a tiny brownstone in Brooklyn crammed with his mother, father, eight brothers and two sisters. It bothered him to see the family refrigerator so barren of food, so he filled it with meat.
One problem: He placed the meat under his coat at the corner grocery store and departed without paying. This felonious habit earned him a long trip to a youth detention center.
He seemed on his way to nothing, or worse. He struggled to read. Typical teenage teasing left him deeply hurt.
“You can hit me, and I won’t think much of it,” he said, “But you can say something and hurt me very much.”
Boxing rescued him. His hands were quick, and his courage and obsession with training were boundless. He won Olympic boxing gold in 1952 and returned home to a parade on the same Brooklyn street where he once stole meat.
For a decade, virtually everything went his way. He got rich. His face and fists were on the covers of magazines.
Then Sonny Liston, owner of 14-inch fists, crashed into Patterson’s life. Liston, one of 14 children, first gained attention for his punching power by beating the heaven out of unlucky souls who failed to pay gambling debts.
Liston weighed 215 pounds to Patterson’s 188. Liston’s right hand ranked among the most punishing in human history. Liston was known as “The Bear.” A wise bear would have fled from his fists.
Patterson had not a chance. Liston delivered two brutal beatings, which lasted a total of 4 minutes, 16 seconds, and ended Patterson’s reign as an elite boxer. In the final stretch of the second smackdown, Patterson was on his knees, seeking and failing to find his balance.
“He was like a man reaching for the alarm clock while he was still asleep,” Liston said.
But Liston’s days were numbered, too.
In 1965, Liston was the favorite to defeat a lovable loudmouth named Cassius Clay. The world soon would know this charismatic dancer as Muhammad Ali. Clay quickly pounded Liston into submission and howled with joy as he flung his gloves to the skies.
Clay humiliated Liston the same way Liston once humiliated Patterson.
Here’s where the sweetness of the story arrives. Here’s where Patterson stunned me years ago with his imagination for kindness.
From ringside, Patterson watched the brief fight. He watched with an intimate understanding of the pain invading Liston’s heart, and he knew the enemy who had stolen his title needed his help.
Patterson walked through the Maine night to Liston’s hotel room. He knocked on the door, and a huge man with a beaten face answered. Liston was enduring a typical fate for losers. He was alone.
Patterson told Liston his true friends would stick by him. Patterson knew this. His loss to Liston sifted all that was true from all that was phony in his life.
“Sonny,” Patterson said, “you haven’t really lost anything.”
Then Patterson shook Liston’s mighty right hand, the very hand that once beat him senseless.