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Pat Putnam, 75; Boxing Writer Broke the News About Ali Name Change

December 02, 2005|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Pat Putnam, an award-winning boxing writer at Sports Illustrated and other outlets who broke the news that Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, has died. He was 75.

Putnam died Sunday at a hospital in upstate New York, according to the Gleason Funeral Home in Schenectady. He had suffered complications from stomach surgery, friends said.

In addition to being known as a skilled writer and relentless reporter, Putnam was considered a master of the one-liner.

Before Sugar Ray Leonard would answer questions at a 1987 news conference prior to his match against Marvin Hagler, a ground rule was established: There could be no questions about the eye surgery that had nearly ended Leonard's career.

From the back of the media mob, Putnam's hand shot up.

"Ray," he yelled, "how many fingers am I holding up?"

Putnam's reporting career began at the Miami Herald in 1954 and ended on a boxing website, but in between, he spent 27 years at Sports Illustrated, where more than 50 of his 600-plus stories were featured on the cover.

He reported on a wide range of sports, including horse racing and pro football, but he was best known as the magazine's boxing writer. In 1982, Putnam was honored with the Nat Fleischer Memorial Award for excellence in boxing journalism.

His close friend Michael Katz, writing on maxboxing.com, called Putnam "the best boxing writer since A.J. Liebling, except I think [Putnam] knew the game a little better than the hallowed New Yorker scribe."

Putnam's scoop about Ali's name change came in 1964, when he wrote for the Miami Herald.

He attended Syracuse University, and served as a Marine in the Korean War, during which he received several Purple Hearts and endured 17 months as a prisoner of war. Putnam's wartime experience left him with only one lung and a lifetime of back problems.

But he never lost his sense of humor.

At a 1991 fight in Reno, the ring announcer was introducing celebrities to the crowd when Putnam yelled out that the announcer had better not forget New York Yankee Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio.

The announcer obliged, encouraging the crowd to give a big Reno welcome to the Yankee Clipper. They did so while swiveling their necks to spot the baseball legend.

The only problem was, DiMaggio wasn't there. Except in Putnam's mischievous mind.

Before a 1989 middleweight fight, Iran Barkley complained that his opponent, Michael Nunn, had insulted him by calling him ugly and saying he had "the brain of a turnip."

Responded Putnam: "Which one are you objecting to?"

Boxing historian Bert Sugar recalled a Las Vegas fight in which Detroit's Thomas Hearns came down the aisle toward the ring accompanied by a large and unsavory-looking entourage.

"Well, at least Detroit will be safe tonight," Putnam said, according to Sugar.

Katz recalled visiting the grave of a friend, Bob Waters, with Putnam.

Looking at Waters' grave, surrounded by flowers, Putnam said, "Looks like Bob just won the Kentucky Derby."

Putnam was buried Thursday in his hometown of Schenectady.

He is survived by a daughter, Colleen; a son, Shawn; and four grandchildren.

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