That time a 0-0 boxer fought the real heavyweight champion
Now that the circus has left town, a week on, it is a good time to put some historical context to the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor event. It wasn’t the first time a 0-0 novice challenged a famous boxer (not one who came out of a two-year retirement either); it is not even the most historically significant occasion of a pro debutante challenging a champion-level boxer. That distinction goes to Pete Rademacher, who fought reigning world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, in his pro debut, back in 1957. Patterson was the reigning and undisputed champion, when there was only one champ and the belt actually meant something. Not only that, the 0-0 challenger knocked the heavyweight king down. So, already that created more drama than Mayweather and McGregor managed to produce – but more on that later…
Somewhat confusingly, I did not hear a lot about the Patterson-Rademacher meeting in the buildup for the Mayweather-McGregor bout, maybe, because it did not fit the narrative, that McGregor’s challenge was inherently unique. As there were a week ago, loud voices said the fight would be a mismatch and called for its abolition. One of the loudest was former heavyweight hero Joe Louis, who stated the fight would be “the worst mismatch in boxing history.” Some congressmen even sent an official request to Washington Governor Albert Rossellini, asking him to step in legislatively. They claimed the bout “amounts to no more than pre-planned slaughter and would perpetrate a farce and imposition on boxing fans.” Lets give Rademacher a bit more credit than that; he had just won the Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne games, knocking out all three of his opponents.
The main motivator, as is the case with almost any one-off event, for the champion, was money. Patterson was the only heavyweight champion but was having conflicts with the Mob-affiliated IBC sanctioning body (sound familiar?). So, his Hall of Fame trainer and manager Cus D’Amato listened to all offers. The most lucrative, a guaranteed $250,000 purse, came from the self-managed Pete Rademacher. No matter what contender Patterson lined up as an opponent, he was never going to get that kind of guaranteed money. It was simply an offer too good to turn down. Unlike Conor McGregor, Rademacher built up the fight by downplaying his ego. Rademacher played the “Ah, shucks” good ‘ol boy, from Washington State, who just works hard for opportunities. He was actually exceedingly coy and finance-savvy. Legendary New York Times writer Gay Talese called Rademacher “a phenomenal salesman, who is frightfully glib.”
Rademacher, a newly-minted American celebrity, secured the $250,000 guarantee, convincing a group of 22 wealthy Georgia businessmen to advance the purse in lieu of gate receipts. Undoubtedly, it was a strange achievement for the West Coast boxer but Rademacher did make friends in that region while serving in the Army as a lieutenant. Also, given the era and location, it’s not a stretch to imagine some donors held racial views that would like to see a “Great White Hope” succeed. Rademacher then hired local promoter Jack Hurley, who scaled Triple-A club Sicks’ baseball stadium to accommodate 25,000 fans, allowing for a $400,000 windfall. Or, as the United Press International news service reported, “for the privilege of witnessing a slaughter.”
Though well planned, it was not a foolproof arrangement. Hurley failed to license rights for live radio or television coverage. The television was explainable; the bout was scheduled to start at 10 p.m., making closed-circuit television providers balk due to the three-hour time difference between Seattle and population centers on the East Coast. However, radio was an integral part of title fights in that era, making it a lost source of revenue. They tried to gain support from within the industry but only retired former world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano answered the call, offering to help Rademacher train. I suppose he was a forerunner to Paulie Malignaggi.
Almost everyone saw through the act, which did not prevent the vast majority of media and boxing insiders from condemning the charade. Boxing legend Nate Fleischer (THE RING Magazine founder and lifelong boxing addict) called it “the greatest mismatch in boxing history.” As the fight date approached, similar opinions were shared on the front, and editorial, pages of newspapers nationwide. The Seattle Times’ headline announced, the day before the fight, “While The Boxing World is Seething, Patterson, Rademacher Are Resting.” Followed by, “No Betting Odds on Weird Match,” the day of the fight. The United Press called Rademacher “the most confident sacrificial lamb.” Not an absurd comment, if you consider this was scheduled to be a 15-round fight, a distance on which not even Conor McGregor would have been foolish enough to agree.
There was a bit more inherent drama in the Patterson-Rademacher bout, mostly because Patterson had a notoriously brittle chin. The second most famous boxer named Floyd was taking a bigger chance than Mayweather, given the 28-year-old Rademacher (sporting a 72-7 amateur record, at the highest level) had an excellent right hand. In that era, boxing was, of course, much more popular. It was on every sport fan’s mind, with the heavyweight championship still held in high esteem, and the champion was expected to act accordingly. As a consequence, Patterson was heavily derided and is another reason to admire the always amiable Patterson. He took all the criticism, although Cus D’Amato tried to cajole the press, answering every condescending or plain rude question with a smile.
It was Patterson’s second defense of a once-vacant title he won by beating Archie Moore, and he was in no mood to take chances, though Patterson admitted, in his autobiography and subsequent interviews, that it was hard to get up for the challenge mentally. He told Sports Illustrated, “I’ll knock him out with the first punch if I get a chance. I’m not going to take a chance on losing my crown by carrying him.” Patterson had to overcome physical challenges too, since Rademacher possessed a significantly longer reach (77 to 71), and weighed in 15 pounds heavier. Those attributes gave Patterson difficulty early, losing the first two rounds because of Rademacher’s jab and counter-punching. Sound familiar?
The real shock came at the end of the second round, when Patterson was hit by a right cross, sending him to the canvas. For that brief moment in time, it looked like the boxing world was going to implode – as did a ringside spectator, who reportedly went into cardiac arrest at the same time. The fan probably did not have any money on the fight, since Las Vegas was not offering odds or taking bets. Some did play the 10-to-1 odds with local bookies but the Associated Press quoted one Seattle resident as saying, “Nobody is betting – while sober.” It was a momentary lapse for Patterson, who rose at the count of four. A new sense of urgency and focus rose with him, as well, dominating every second of the fight from that point forth.
The exhilaration was fleeting for Rademacher, who could not take advantage of his big opportunity, most likely, because he lacked the experience of being in a fight of this magnitude, or just experience as a professional, in which boxers were allowed to attack more vigorously than in the amateur game. After Patterson, more embarrassed than hurt, dusted himself off, he proceeded to punch Rademacher into submission. By the time the referee, and sole judge, Tommy Loughran (a Hall of Fame boxer himself) stopped the massacre, Rademacher had been knocked down seven times in four rounds. This left Loughran to say of Rademacher, “He is the most courageous fighter I have ever seen.”
There was one other big difference between the Patterson-Rademacher event and the one millions witnessed in high definition, thanks to pay-per-view television. When the fight ended, and everything was tallied up, Rademacher lost money for the opportunity to fight for the world heavyweight title. Only 16,961 people made their way to Seattle to attend the spectacle, producing a gate of $243,030. Also, unlike McGregor (in all probability), Rademacher continued to box, though he never recovered from the bad start, losing by fourth round knockout to heavyweight contender to Zora Folley in his second outing. Rademacher finished his career, five years later, with a middling record of 15-7-1 (8). But it’s also a boxing record that will be hard to break.
There were other boxing farces. Such as George Foreman fighting five men (one after the other in three-round bouts, if they lasted) on the same night, Muhammad Ali’s strange showdown with wrestling champ Antonio Inoki and NFL linebacker Lyle Alzado were forgettable absurdities. Part-time boxers Mickey Rourke and Mark Gastineau did their part to humiliate themselves (Rourke not so much), and bring the sport down simultaneously, in gross mismatches that somehow made television. So, dear boxing fan, don’t be surprised if more fights like Mayweather-McGregor crops up in the future, since boxing follows the money and as the most basic and raw of sports attracts the masses sporadically. Just hope it can be held under wraps and pass more silently than Mayweather vs. McGregor did.