LONDON (Reuters) - Ingemar Johansson provoked merriment rather than trepidation among the hard-bitten American sportswriters before his 1959 world heavyweight fight against Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium.
The former laborer from Gothenburg, who died on Friday at the age of 76, would brandish his right fist after training and proclaim “No man can stand up to Toonder.”
As “Toonder” (thunder) was never displayed against his sparring partners, nobody was in a position to judge. The invisible right was dubbed “the Hammer of Thor,” after the Norse god of thunder and the press quickly became more exercised by the presence of Johansson’s girlfriend Birgit Lundgren in his training camp.
In those days prize fighters were supposed to enter the equivalent of a monastic retreat and Rocky Marciano, who had retired undefeated three years earlier as world champion, was appalled. “This guy will ruin the American training methods,” he mourned.
The genial Johansson was unworried. “She can type but she can’t cook,” he explained helpfully.
Patterson, the 1952 Olympic middleweight champion, had beaten the aging Archie Moore to win the heavyweight title. He fought with his hands held high, the so-called “peek-a-boo” stance and he, at least, was taking the fight seriously.
“I saw Ingemar as the kind of fighter who finally would be my stepping stone to complete acceptance as a champion by the boxing press,” Patterson wrote in his 1962 autobiography “Victory over Myself.”
The fighters took each other’s measure in the opening two rounds with no sign of “Toonder.” In the third, Johansson’s right fist exploded through Patterson’s defense and felled the American, who rose shakily to his feet at the count of seven. It was a temporary reprieve only as Patterson was knocked to the floor six more times before referee Ruby Goldstein stopped the fight.
Patterson was devastated, Johansson celebrated with Birgit and a headline in a New York newspaper on the following day expressed the city’s amazement in an era when boxing still captured the popular imagination. “Ingo — It’s Bingo,” it read.
Before the rematch in the following year, Patterson trained diligently. “Ingemar was the real crossroads of my career,” he wrote. “If ever I was in danger of becoming the mixed-up kind of person again that I used to be as a kid, that was the point.”
In the fight at the Polo Grounds, Patterson evaded the right and knocked Johansson unconscious in the fifth. The Swede revived in the dressing room, where the film star Liz Taylor was in attendance.
Patterson won the third and final fight in 1961 after Johansson’s right had felled him twice in the first round.
Patterson went on to lose twice to the fearsome Sonny Liston, both times to first-round knockouts. Johansson retired after outpointing Briton Brian London in a non-title fight.
In retirement, Johansson and Patterson became friends. Johansson made several films and in a 1992 interview with Reuters said it was money rather than glory which had enticed him to fight professionally.
“Today I wouldn’t turn to the sport at all,” he said. “I would play tennis instead. Boxing is too dangerous.”
Additional reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Padraic Halpin