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A Lone Star Memory

Harris, from Cut N' Shoot, Texas, hasn't forgotten title bout he lost to Patterson 45 years ago in L.A.

June 16, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

In his mind, Roy Harris can still see Floyd Patterson looking up at him from the canvas.

In his heart, Roy Harris can still see himself winning.

When heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and challenger Vitali Klitschko square off Saturday night at Staples Center, it will have been 45 years since Harris and Patterson faced each other in the last heavyweight title fight held in Los Angeles. Patterson, suffering from a form of dementia, has little or no memory of that night. But for Harris, now 70 and in his 31st year of practicing law, the memory remains painfully clear.

"This is someone I should have beaten with ease," says Harris by phone from Buena Vista, Colo., where he is vacationing. "I think about the fight all the time. I have never stopped thinking about it."

Perhaps it's Harris' memory that is faulty. Doesn't he remember being knocked down four times? Doesn't he recall the deep cuts suffered over both eyes, the blood streaming down his face and trickling out of his nose, the 14 stitches he required? Didn't his father, Big Henry, and his trainer, Bill Gore, order the fight stopped after 12 rounds?

"The doctor," Harris concedes, "was afraid my eyeball was going to come out."

And he still thinks he should have won?

Yes, he insists, if he hadn't overtrained and lost too much weight. He was forced to put back on 20 pounds over the last two weeks.

And how did he do that?

"For the week leading up to the fight," he says, "I drank two bottles of beer every night. And I don't even like beer."

*

The Los Angeles sports community, and much of the rest of the country, was in shock over the weekend leading up to the fight, held on a Monday night. On the previous Thursday, Red Sanders, the popular, vibrant, 53-year-old coach of the UCLA football team, seemingly in good health, had collapsed and died of a heart attack.

The weekend papers were filled with memories and tributes.

The focus also was on the Coliseum where, on Saturday night, 73,164 filed in for the annual Times Charity preseason football game between the Rams and the Washington Redskins.

On Sunday, the Coliseum was site of a doubleheader between the Dodgers, newly arrived from Brooklyn that year, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The fight was scheduled for Aug. 18, 1958, at Wrigley Field (the Los Angeles version of the Chicago landmark), which the Angels of the Pacific Coast League called home.

And despite everything else going on that hectic, tragic weekend, the public was intrigued by the match, even though most viewed it as a mismatch.

If Patterson were a heavyweight today, he would be in Roy Jones' class in terms of size and weight if not skill, but in those days of smaller, lighter heavyweights, Patterson, who weighed 184 1/2, fit right in.

He would have been a perfect match for Rocky Marciano on the scales. In the ring, however, it might have been another matter. But fortunately for Patterson, he didn't have to face Marciano, who had retired three years earlier.

Patterson had won the vacant crown -- yes, there was only one heavyweight title in those days -- by knocking out Archie Moore in the fifth round of a 1956 bout.

Since then, Patterson had beaten Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, a lightly regarded pro, and Pete Rademacher, a highly regarded amateur, to improve his record to 33-1 with 24 knockouts. Rademacher, after winning Olympic gold as a heavyweight in the 1956 Games, got a heavyweight title shot in his first professional fight. He obviously wasn't ready. Patterson knocked down Rademacher seven times, the knockout blow coming in the sixth round. But Rademacher also managed to put down Patterson once, further calling into question Patterson's right, at 23, to be Marciano's successor.

Harris too had questionable credentials. Although he was ranked third in the world and was undefeated at 22-0 with nine knockouts, he had fought mostly stiffs and never stepped into a ring outside of Texas.

His most impressive victory had been a decision over Willie Pastrano the year before.

But Harris also was coming off a six-month stint in the army, which, while keeping him in shape, certainly didn't allow him to stay in fighting shape for the heavyweight champion. While Patterson trained in Oceanside, Harris was secluded in the San Bernardino Mountains at Arrowhead Springs where he went on a vigorous, high-protein diet.

Harris was largely unsupervised because his trainer, Gore, was busy elsewhere, working with another fighter. When Gore showed up in Arrowhead two weeks before the fight, he was stunned. Harris weighed 174 pounds.

"I'm going to call this off," Gore told him. "You're not going to be able to fight. You won't have any energy."

No way, Harris told him. "I might never get another chance to fight for the heavyweight title."

With an awkward style, a lack of knockout power and a disturbing lack of speed, Harris didn't have much of a chance that night. So little chance that he was installed as an 8-1 underdog.

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