Musing with Cecil Buffington
June 26, 2010
"Toonder and Lightning."
It was June 26, 1959. ~ Between 9:00 and 10:00 pm.
I edged closer to the small, orange colored Zenith radio. The static made it almost impossible to hear the announcer as he called the blow-by-blow description of the World Heavyweight Championship fight. It was between the current World Champion Floyd Patterson and his challenger Ingemar Johansson of Sweden.
This was the same radio upon which I had listened to my first University of Georgia football game back in 1955. ( the Dawgs and Vanderbilt ), the 1956 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers featuring Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider ( the Yank's won the series 4 games to 3 with Don Larsen tossing a perfect game 5 ), and the 1957 Georgia Tech-Georgia game where Theron Sapp and the Bulldogs finally broke an eight year losing drought ( Georgia won 7 - 0 ) to their hated interstate rival.
That little radio would be my constant companion after school and sometimes deep into the night hours from 1955 until around 1965. Much of my entertainment until after my senior year at Jefferson High School was spent listening to sporting events and Top 40 songs on that little Zenith. To this day, I don’t recall what ever became of that radio? If there was a Cecil Buffington Hall of Fame, I'd want that radio to be the first item in.
I found myself gravitating toward sports in a big way in those early years. I had been a fan of baseball, basketball, football, and track and field for several years. Now professional boxing had caught my attention. I had never been much of a boxing fan, but something about Ingemar Johansson fascinated me. He brought color and interest to what I felt was the most boring sport of the time. He was an articulate white man that traveled the world with a beautiful lady always at his side. He captivated America sentiments in a way that had never been seen before in professional boxing.
Johansson had earned his shot at the world heavyweight crown when he Knocked out top ranked contender Eddie Machen in the first round of their elimination match on September 14, 1958. Johansson downed Machen three times, finally flattening him for a knockout at 2:16 of the first round. Johansson then signed to fight champion Floyd Patterson. I would read about him every day in the Atlanta Journal. An interest in that boxing match was quickly building up.
You didn’t hear many negatives about Floyd Patterson. He was never mentioned as being connected to any mob activities, as many fighters were. Nor did he have a reputation as an embarrassment to the boxing game as were most of the others fighters of that time. The biggest complaint against Floyd Patterson was that he was just not very controversial. He was dull.
Johansson was a colorful figure. He trained for the fight in up-state New York. He called his right fist "toonder and lightning." He said it was for its concussive power. Eschewing the monastic training regimen favored by Patterson and other fighters, Johansson trained at the Catskill Resort of Grossingers. He didn't seem to train particularly hard, and was often seen at night spots with his attractive "secretary" Birgit Lundgen. Lundgen would become his wife in 1960.
Accordingly, he entered the ring on June 26, 1959, as a 5-1 underdog.
I eagerly awaited the fight all day. I was involved in several arguments at Jefferson Day Camp over my desire to see Johansson win. Some of my camp-mates called me a traitor for wanting a Swede to win over an American. I stubbornly stood my ground.
That night, I listened intently as Johansson spent the first two rounds of the encounter retreating and flicking a light left jab at the champion. In the third round, Johansson threw a wide left hook that Patterson blocked with his right hand. When he moved his right hand away from its protective peek-a-boo position before his chin, Johansson drilled him with a short, powerful right hand. Patterson went down, arose on unsteady legs and was out on his feet. Johansson followed up his advantage and sent Patterson down 6 more times in the round before the bout was stopped by referee Ruby Goldstein.
The papers were full of Ingemar Johansson articles. As a result of winning the championship, Johansson won the Hickok Belt as Top Professional Athlete of the Year and was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year".
Less than a year later, on June 20, 1960 at New York's Polo Grounds, Johansson faced Patterson in a rematch. In the fifth round, an apparently overconfident Johansson was caught by one of Patterson's trademark leaping left hooks. He went down. Johansson beat the count, but a second hook slammed him to the canvas unconscious, his left leg twitching from a trapped nerve, as Patterson became the first man to regain the heavyweight title.
I was somewhat disappointed, but Patterson had promised Johansson a rematch if he won. I knew a third match was going to happen somewhere down the road.
The pair met again for the decider, at the Convention Hall in Miami on March 13, 1961. Johansson, weighing 10 pounds more than when he won the crown, knocked down Patterson twice in the second round, but was stopped in the sixth. It was a great fight that I once again fought through the static on my little Zenith to hear.
My interest in Boxing pretty much faded after the third Patterson-Johansson fight.
I did, however, remain a fan of Ingemar Johansson.
Johansson returned to Sweden, where he regained the European title in 1962 with an eighth-round defeat of the Welshman, Dick Richardson. In 1963, Johansson was knocked down in the final seconds of his bout against Britain's Brian London. Although declared the winner on points, he never boxed again.
Johansson enjoyed a successful career as a heavyweight. When he retired in 1963 he had a record of 26 wins, 17 by knockout, and only 2 losses, both to Floyd Patterson.
A shrewd businessman, with interests that included trawling and construction, Johansson divided his time between Sweden and America. Although professional boxing was banned in Sweden in 1970, Johansson remained involved as a commentator and columnist. In 1982, he completed the New York Marathon with his old rival, Floyd Patterson.
Patterson and Johansson, after their third match, remained close friends throughout the remainder of their lives.
In 2000, the Swedish Spots Academy selected Johansson as Sweden's third-best athlete of the 20th century, behind tennis great Born Borg and Alpine skiing great Ingemar Stenmark.
In 2002, he was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
He suffered from Alzheimer's disease and dementia since the mid 1990s. He lived in a nursing home in Kungsbacka while his health continued to deteriorate. In the later stages of his illness, he was reunited with his second wife, Birgit, who was at his side when he died on January 30, 2009, from complications following pneumonia. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living heavyweight champion at 77.
June 26, 1959 between the hours of 9:00 pm and 11:00 pm. ~ Where was I ? ~ I was listening to an event that has always been one of the high-lites of my youth. I was listening to the first Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson fight on my little orange Zenith radio.
Floyd Patterson Fight First Fight
Floyd Patterson Fight Second Fight
Floyd Patterson Fight Third Fight
Johansson stands over a fallen Patterson in 1959 at Yankee Stadium.