CHICAGO -- Floyd Patterson was an undersized heavyweight champion in weight only.
"He ennobled the sport," boxing historian Bert Sugar said. "He was the kindest man I ever met."
A friend of Patterson's for 35 years, Sugar recalled the champion lifting up an opponent he had knocked out.
Patterson, who had Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer, died in his New Paltz, N.Y., home yesterday at the age of 71.
In his 20-year pro boxing career, he made up for shortcomings in weight and raw punching power with speed and courage, finishing with a 55-8-1 record and 40 knockouts.
Gaining the title and making most of his defenses in the 1950s, he boxed in an era when there could be only one heavyweight champion at a time and a man could hold that crown despite weighing less than 200 pounds.
Fighting at just over 182 pounds, the 21-year-old Patterson became the youngest man to win the title when he knocked out Archie Moore in the fifth round in Chicago on Nov. 30, 1956, in a bout for the championship left vacant when Rocky Marciano retired undefeated.
It was one of the highlights of a roller-coaster career that included losing his title in 1959 to Ingemar Johansson, who won by knockout after flooring Patterson an incredible seven times in the third round. A year later, Patterson avenged the embarrassing defeat when he knocked out Johansson in the fifth round. He thereby became the first heavyweight to regain the title.
He defended his title successfully six times, lost it twice and failed to regain it in three other title bouts.
"Floyd Patterson was a great champion in and out of the ring," said World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman. "I hereby dedicate my next fight against Oleg Maskaev to honor the memory of Floyd Patterson's great career."
However, part of his reputation was sullied in 1962 and 1963, when he met what looked to be boxing's next indestructible object. Sonny Liston, outweighing Patterson by more than 20 pounds both times, knocked him out in the first round at Comiskey Park to become heavyweight champ and then repeated the feat in the rematch in Las Vegas.
Many people, from his own advisers to President Kennedy, didn't want him to fight Liston, Patterson recalled, adding that he told the president "the title isn't worth anything if the best fighters can't have a shot at it. And Liston deserves a shot."
Boxing historian Hank Kaplan and Sugar admired Patterson's boxing skills behind his signature peek-a-boo style.
"Floyd was a small heavyweight, around just before the giants arrived," Kaplan said. "He was not able to take a great punch, had a suspect chin and was not a rugged guy. But he had other assets ... fantastic speed and the ability to adapt his stature and defensive skills to survive until he reached the top of his game."
"[I remember] standing next to him, watching him train, and thinking it was unbelievable that he was the heavyweight champion," Kaplan said.
Indeed, Patterson was a 165-pound middleweight when he won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
Muhammad Ali's storied career included knocking out Liston and Patterson twice each.
Despite Ali's relative ease in those bouts, his trainer, Angelo Dundee, recalled Patterson as "a remarkable fighter, with quickness."
Dundee also knew Patterson in his later role as chairman of the New York Athletic Commission, from which he resigned in 1998 amid early signs of Alzheimer's. Even then, he worked with a state agency counseling troubled children.
In 1987, Patterson was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame and he went into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
"[Patterson] was not only a great athlete and champion but a distinguished gentleman, role model and inspiration to us all," New York Athletic Commission chairman Ron Scott Stevens said.
Said Dundee: "He was good for boxing. As commissioner, he was cognizant of boxers' problems. He was a very special man. He will be missed."
Michael Hirsley writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun reporter Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.