Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History.
Raised in an impoverished Brooklyn family, young Floyd Patterson struggled. Shy, virtually illiterate, and often truant or stealing food, Patterson ended up in reform school. Surrounded by supportive instructors, he was introduced to boxing — and it helped him rebuild his life. His skill swiftly catapulted him to the top. A protégé of Constantine (Cus) D’Amato, the teenage Patterson won the 1952 middleweight Olympic gold medal. At age 21, he become the youngest world heavyweight champion, holding the title for three years, then regaining it in 1960 — another first. Along with his hallmark “peek-a-boo” style, his sportsmanship stood out in gestures like helping an opponent up off the mat or refusing to gain an “unfair advantage” by watching a future opponent train.
There were battles outsides the ring too. Patterson strongly promoted civil rights and integration, despite opposition. In 1957, a hostile crowd of white locals impeded his arrival in Fort Smith, Ark., where he had a scheduled stop on an exhibition tour. A priest — himself an integration supporter — intervened, bringing Patterson and his entourage to the church and hosting them at the rectory. Soon after, Patterson demanded integrated venues for boxing.
He later traveled to Birmingham, Ala., standing with Martin Luther King Jr. amid death threats, and he decried his opponent Muhammad Ali’s embrace of the Nation of Islam for its divisive outlook on race, stating that it “preach[ed] hate and separation instead of love and integration.”
While heavyweight champion, Patterson converted to Catholicism in 1957. He later joined the Knights of Columbus in New Paltz, N.Y., and became, in biographer W.K. Stratton’s words, “a mainstay” of Knights’ events. He also helped the parish by distributing holy Communion at the local nursing home, calling himself “the eucharistic minister with the biggest hands.” Despite his love of his sport, he once mused that if the Church forbade boxing, he would give it up. When an interviewer later recalled these words for Patterson and asked if his faith was still as strong, he replied that it was even stronger.
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