THE pages of boxing’s history books show there was once another fighter who thought he could beat the world heavyweight champion on his professional debut. More than half a century ago, Pete Rademacher had the same impossible dream as Francis Ngannou. There were protests from the boxing authorities, the press and traditionalists, but, somehow or other, Rademacher got his shot at the championship – and, what’s more, he had one incredible moment of success.
In 1953, Rademacher, whose grandmother came from Finland, was an ex-fighter, a former Amateur Athletic Union champion who had retired to work on his father’s apple farm. The following year, he joined the Army and had a rethink. Rademacher decided he wasn’t finished with boxing just yet.
He had missed out on the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and made the 1956 Games in Melbourne his target. Back-to-back knockouts secured Rademacher’s place in the US Olympic boxing team and once in Australia, the knockouts kept coming.
Rademacher took all of 147 seconds to thrash Lev Mukhin in the final, dropping him the three times, and once the cheers had died down, Rademacher was asked about his future plans. Was he going to turn professional? Rademacher, whose father Herb fought professionally as Johnny Ray, was a month past his 28th birthday and answered: “I’m too old for that.”
Either he hadn’t yet conceived his plan or he didn’t want anyone to know what he was thinking. Because at some point Rademacher decided to turn professional and launch a hugely ambitious bid for boxing immortality, possibly within hours of winning his gold.
Hours after Rademacher triumphed in Melbourne, Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore fought for the world heavyweight championship left vacant by Rocky Marciano’s retirement.
Rademacher would explain his thinking years later, saying: “If Patterson beats Moore, Patterson’s a young punk kid and if Moore wins, he’s an old man. I thought I could handle myself with either one because, mechanically, I knew as much as all of them.”
Patterson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history at the age of 21 years, 10 months, 26 days, with a fifth-round knockout of 42-year-old Moore, and Rademacher reckoned he could beat him on his professional debut.
He spoke to Seattle manager Jack Hurley, who tried to dissuade him from the idea and Rademacher recalled his mother also scoffing at him, telling him he must have taken too many punches when winning the Olympics. Rademacher stuck to his plan and got the support of Joe Gannon, who had lasted the full eight rounds with Patterson in his pro career before becoming a boxing inspector.
And most crucially of all, he found 22 businessmen who would guarantee Patterson a purse of $250,000 for the fight, as well as $10,000 for himself.
Those figures interested Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager. D’Amato didn’t want to deal with fighters controlled by the International Boxing Club, a stance that froze out top contenders such as Nino Valdes, Eddie Machen and Zora Folley, and gave Rademacher a possible opening.
D’Amato knew the idea of fighting Rademacher would be considered ludicrous, telling him: “They’ll put us both in jail” before asking: “Do you have any money?” Rademacher offered $150,000 that D’Amato got him to increase by $100,000 and the challenger insisted the fight go ahead in Seattle.
He had been advised “that was the only place in the United States that would allow it.”
Patterson agreed to the fight. “As much as that could damage my prestige, it certainly couldn’t hurt my bank balance,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The fight would be held on August 22, 1957, at the Sticks Stadium, the home of the city’s basketball team, unless ‘Hurricane’ (Tommy) Jackson had his way. Patterson had to defend the title against him in a rematch 23 days before the Rademacher fight was pencilled in.
The Jackson fight was overshadowed by who Nat Fleischer, the editor of The Ring magazine, described as “the most talked-of person in sport.’
Who did Rademacher think he was?
The press described him as “a phenomenal salesman,” given that he had somehow managed to convince businessmen and the boxing authorities that he was a legitimate challenger for the sport’s biggest prize despite having only ever fought in the amateur ring.
There was more to admire about Rademacher than his abilities as a salesman.
Rademacher had been a Lieutenant in the Army and was also Vice President of Youth Unlimited, a Columbus, Georgia based organisation fighting juvenile delinquency.
To Rademacher’s relief, Patterson gave Jackson a beating, dropping him three times and stopping him in 10, an improvement on a points win recorded the previous year.
After the fight, Jackson went to hospital as a precaution, while 23 days later, Patterson was back in the ring.
Looking back, Patterson admitted fighting Rademacher so soon after Jackson was a mistake, but added: “Fighting an amateur for $250,000 is never a mistake for a man who makes his living fighting.”
He had been paid $46,910,11 for the Jackson fight and estimated his training expenses that year had totalled $119,890.78.
Who could blame Patterson for taking what he saw as an easy pay day.
The champion wasn’t alone on thinking that.
Fleischer had been at the Melbourne Olympics and was unconvinced of Rademacher’s capabilities.
Fleischer described Rademacher as “an unstylish battler of the mauler school” and reckoned his “punches were telegraphed… his defence was weak. He had no balance and was crude in his delivery.”
Fleischer liked Rademacher – wrote he was “polite” and had “a fine sense of humour” – and couldn’t doubt his self-belief.
Rademacher explained to Fleischer that his father had taught him the boxing basics as a boy and whether he had fought on the street or in the ring, he usually won.
He won 72 of 79 amateur bouts and of his seven losses, he had reversed five.
Rademacher went into the Patterson fight having knocked out his previous five opponents and Patterson was a young champion who knew there were those who doubted whether he was “big enough or vicious enough.”
There was also the possibility Patterson would be complacent when faced with a complete novice.
He would later admit he could lose interest in fights if he thought victory was a certainty and the bookmakers saw only one possible outcome when he faced Rademacher. The challenger answered the opening bell as a 50/1 outsider.
There was a crowd of 19,961, short of the 25,000 needed for Rademacher’s investors to break even, and four rounds into the fight, the impossible looked possible. Rademacher was ahead on points after dropping Patterson in the second.
Rademacher surely won the opening round by being busier with his jab and once he landed his right, he sensed victory.
He arced the punch onto Patterson’s jaw in the second, knocking him off balance. Rademacher let go a couple more and Patterson landed on his side. “I thought he was down for good,” said Rademacher years later. “I was screaming to myself: ‘Boy, we’re there! We’re there!’ I was prancing around the ring, showing everyone who the new champion was.”
The celebrations were cut short by the sight of Patterson getting up at the count of ‘two’ and the knockdown appeared to switch him on.
Patterson dazed Rademacher with a combination in the third and dropped him later in the round, but still, Rademacher took the fight to him in the fourth.
The decisive round was the fifth. Rademacher had Patterson backing up with a right and as he stepped in to throw more, Patterson lashed out with a blurring left-right, sending Rademacher down.
Down four times in that fifth round, Rademacher showed his determination by getting his head on Patterson’s chest at the start of the sixth. Patterson saw an opening and crashed a short right onto Rademacher’s jaw, sending him down for a sixth time.
Rademacher still wasn’t beaten. He dragged himself up at ‘nine’ and threw the next punch, a right hand that had whatever he had left behind it – and sailed harmlessly over Patterson’s head.
Rademacher got off the floor for a seventh time later in the round, but referee Tommy Loughran, the former light-heavyweight champion, obeyed the wishes of the challenger’s cornerman George Chemeres, who screamed at him: “That’s enough! That’s enough!”
Fleischer would write in his report that it had been a fight that proved “courage, conviction and self-confidence can carry one just so far and no farther.”
He wrote the challenger had been “trounced, whipped, beaten, belted and knocked out. But let it be said with emphasis, he wasn’t outgamed.”
Rademacher said afterwards he had “no regrets,” adding: “There’s nothing like starting from the top and working one’s way down.”
Rademacher became a successful businessman after retiring from pro boxing with a 15-7-1 record. He worked for a company that traded in swimming pool equipment and, on his recommendation, they employed Patterson for a spell.