WASHINGTON -- It has been 36 years since a relatively unknown Swedish boxer named Ingemar Johansson stunned the boxing world by knocking down champion Floyd Patterson seven times on the way to winning the world heavyweight championship.
That was the first of their three title encounters, with Patterson winning the last two fights. Now good friends, who see each other at least twice a year, Johansson and Patterson yesterday recounted the days they monopolized the heavyweight crown while sharing the dais with ring legends Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer and Kid Gavilan at the annual "Fight For Children" charity boxing show.
Johansson, who turns 63 next week, retired from the ring at 30. He divides his time between Florida and Sweden while serving as a boxing commentator.
With his protruding belly, he is about 50 pounds over his best fighting weight. Patterson, 60, and recently named New York State boxing commissioner, is a fitness fanatic and looks as trim as the 182 pounds he weighed the night he faced Johansson at Yankee Stadium in their first bout.
The Swede was a 4-1 underdog, based mostly on his unorthodox training regimen. Johansson defied all the rules by having his girlfriend Birgette, plus his family, accompany him to his camp in Grossinger, N.Y. Boxing writers reported that Johansson spent considerably more time in private with Birgette than with his sparring partners.
"I never believed you had to be a Spartan to prepare for a fight," he said. "I felt more comfortable in camp with my family and friends."
Johansson had studied enough films of Patterson -- and the "peek-a-boo" defensive style that manager-trainer Cus D'Amato had devised for him -- to feel confident he could set up the champion with straight lefts and finish him with his right hand, which ringside reporters later dubbed "The Hammer of Thor."
That bludgeoning right had Patterson bouncing off the canvas like a yo-yo until referee Ruby Goldstein came to his rescue in the third round.
"No one ever hit me as hard as Ingemar," said Patterson, fully aware he was later twice flattened in the first round by Sonny Liston.
"When I heard the referee say, 'Neutral corner,' I thought he was talking to me. I was completely out of it. The third time I got knocked down, I looked across the ring and saw John Wayne at ringside, sitting at an odd angle. That's when I realized I was down."
When the fight ended, a humiliated Patterson thought to himself, "I'd give a million dollars if they'd cut a trapdoor in the ring and I could crawl through it to my dressing room. The walk through the crowd was worse than any physical pain I suffered."
In Patterson's mind, he had let down an entire nation by losing the title to a foreigner.
"I always fought for the people more than myself," said the former champion, who donned a disguise to flee Chicago after being stopped by Liston.
"I could accept defeat, but I had disappointed all my fans. After losing to Johansson, I hid in my house for three weeks.
But it was countless letters of support from Swedish fight fans that encouraged him to challenge Johansson a year later and regain the crown on a fifth-round knockout.
"Before the second fight, I was visiting Sweden on a promotion," Patterson recalled. "The people there remembered me from the time I won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
"When we were landing in Stockholm, I looked out the window and it looked like a huge mob at the airport. I told the stewardess, 'You've got a real busy airport here.' And she said, 'Those people are waiting for you.' "
Patterson is busy these days trying to revive the fight game in New York, once the mecca of boxing.
"With the support of cable TV, we can revive boxing in New York again," he said.