Pete Rademacher fights for the world heavyweight championship in his first professional bout, on August 22, 1957, in Seattle's Sicks' Stadium.

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 3/13/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10343

On August 22, 1957, Yakima Valley native and Olympic boxing champion Thomas Peter "Pete" Rademacher (b. 1928) fights for the world heavyweight championship in his first professional bout, facing Floyd Patterson (1935-2006) in Seattle's Sicks' Stadium. It is an unprecedented event in boxing history and focuses national attention on Seattle at a time when the city has no major sports teams. And it is conceived and arranged by none other than the challenger himself.

Rademacher was a four-time Northwest Golden Gloves champion, national amateur champion, and Washington State College (now University) graduate who was continuing his boxing career while serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was in the army hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia, recovering from an arm injury suffered while qualifying for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, when he had an audacious idea. He started thinking about winning the gold medal and then doing something no fighter had ever done, making a direct leap from the amateur ranks to a professional title fight.

Rocky Marciano (1923-1969) had retired, leaving the heavyweight championship up for grabs. Archie Moore (1916-1998) and Floyd Patterson were scheduled to fight for the title on November 30, 1956, in Chicago. Moore was 39, old for a boxer, and Patterson was 21, extremely young for a championship contender. Rademacher figured he could beat either one.

Winning Olympic Gold

Just nine hours before Rademacher was to fight for the gold medal in Melbourne, Patterson defeated Moore in Chicago, becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history. When trainer George Chemeres (1914-2002) phoned Rademacher from Seattle to wish him luck shortly before the gold-medal bout, Rademacher told him that he expected to win and then would announce that he wanted to fight Patterson next. Chemeres called the plan crazy and told Rademacher to say nothing about it at the Olympics.

Rademacher scored a first-round technical knockout against Russian boxer Lev Moukhine (sometimes spelled Mukhin, 1936-1977) to win the gold medal. He kept his plan to himself that night, but soon set out to make it a reality.

Unlike virtually every other boxer, Rademacher planned to be his own manager, counting on his persuasiveness to launch his professional career in historic fashion. He started by approaching Melchior "Mike" Jennings (1917-1985), a wealthy sporting goods store owner in Columbus, Georgia, whom he had met while stationed at Fort Benning. Rademacher told Jennings about his plan to fight Patterson. Jennings, a backer of Boys Clubs of America, was interested in helping kids, and Rademacher convinced him that they should join forces in pursuit of both goals.

Arranging the Title Fight

After Rademacher was discharged from the army in March 1957, Jennings formed a corporation called Youth Unlimited with other Georgia investors and installed Rademacher as vice president, with a salary of $200 a week. Youth Unlimited was intended to make a profit so it could invest in ways to help youngsters strive to achieve their dreams. It also was established to provide funds to help Rademacher achieve his dream.

Rademacher knew Patterson would never agree to fighting an amateur unless he was guaranteed a substantial payday. With the financial support of Youth Unlimited, Rademacher reached out to Cus D'Amato (1908-1985), Patterson's manager, to try to arrange a championship fight in Seattle. D'Amato needed convincing. Once he got past the sheer brashness of the idea, he rejected a guarantee of $100,000. Rademacher and Jennings rounded up more money and went to New York City to make an offer of $250,000 in person. D'Amato agreed, but wanted assurance that Rademacher would have no hometown advantage besides being the crowd favorite. He picked Tommy Loughran (1902-1982), a well-respected referee and former light heavyweight champion from Philadelphia, to officiate the fight.

With a deal in hand, Rademacher hired Jack Hurley (1897-1972) as the fight's promoter and Chemeres as his trainer and cornerman. Decades later, Rademacher remembered Hurley's initial reaction to the scheme: "He said, 'What have you been smoking?' I said, 'Pipe dreams. How about it?'" (Drosendahl interview). On June 22, 1957, Hurley announced the title match, saying it would be held in August at Sicks' Stadium, home of the Seattle Rainiers baseball team. The date was later set for August 22.

Howls of Protest

News of the unprecedented match -- essentially an amateur fighting the champion -- triggered an uproar. The National Boxing Association refused to sanction the fight. Other officials said it shouldn't be allowed. The Washington State Boxing Commission initially voted against sanctioning, but relented later when a new commissioner swung the vote.

Almost universally, boxing writers and insiders scoffed at Rademacher's chances. Even Seattle Times sports editor Georg Meyers, who had covered Rademacher at the Olympics, doubted the local boxer's future as a pro. In a column that ran six days after the gold medal bout, Meyers described Rademacher as "a somewhat shopworn heavyweight" and added, "Even for an amateur world champion, 28 is no time to be thinking of beginning a career in professional boxing" ("Too Old ..."). As the Patterson fight approached, Meyers wrote that Rademacher had yet to show a true knockout punch, noting that he had not put any of his Olympic opponents down for a full 10-count, and suggested that hopes for a Rademacher victory were preposterous ("Big Pete's ...").

Rademacher welcomed the controversy, figuring it helped create interest in the fight. Mismatch or not, it attracted some of the nation's top sports writers. They came to Seattle and filed regular updates. Rademacher rented a cabin near North Bend and set up a training camp in Issaquah. Patterson rented a cottage on Star Lake in Kent and practiced in a ring outside Kent Junior High School, using a trailer for a dressing room. Sparring matches drew big crowds.

Making a Good Impression

Both camps had daily press conferences, and the challenger generally impressed the writers at these give-and-take affairs. He was polite, thoughtful, and uncommonly well-spoken for a boxer. Although some writers figuratively smirked at his corporate title, Rademacher came across as executive material and he was indeed running his camp. Besides that, he seemed remarkably confident. "I won't be afraid," he said at one press conference. "I've never been afraid in the ring. I am big, I am strong, and I have felt men being hurt from the bones in my fist. And Patterson is only a man" (Watson, 105).

As fight night approached, the Seattle newspapers ran more and bigger stories, including predictions by Hurley of a sellout (25,000) and a record-setting gate. The official weigh-in on the day before the fight rated a front-page double banner headline in the next day's Seattle Times: "Patterson Weighs in at 187, Rademacher 'Light' at 202." It was accompanied by a half-page photo showing the boxers watching an official adjust the scales at the Eagles Auditorium. The caption said several hundred fans were there to watch.

The fight itself drew 16,961 paying customers. The best tickets cost $20; general admission went on sale that afternoon for $10. Posters advertising the event had specified there would be no live television or radio coverage, Hurley's idea to try to boost the gate. The promoter also aimed spotlights at the hill beyond the stadium's outfield fence, hoping to keep hundreds there from watching for free.

Fighting for the Title

Because all his previous fights were amateur contests, Rademacher had never gone more than three rounds. The title fight was scheduled as a 15-rounder, five more than he had ever done even in practice. His endurance or lack thereof thus became the focus of strategy for both camps. The challenger would try to use his size advantage to pressure Patterson from the opening bell and go for a quick knockout. The champion planned to weather any early barrage by fighting defensively and wait for Rademacher to tire before trying to finish him off.

Things started well for the challenger. Rademacher controlled the early action and even floored Patterson briefly in the second round. When the champ went down "the thousands rose with a mighty roar and got their money's worth then and there," Dick Sharp wrote in the next morning's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "The rest was almost an anticlimax" ("Patterson Wins ..."). Indeed. Patterson looked "a little sheepish" at having hit the deck for only the second time in his career (Watson, 113). He quickly got up, somewhat warily, and then began to take over the fight.

As Post-Intelligencer sports editor Royal Brougham put it, "The fast-punching Negro boy from the sidewalks of New York proceeded to show why he is the best fighter in the world" ("Patterson KOs ... ").

Patterson knocked down Rademacher in the third round. He knocked him down four more times in the fifth round and again early in the sixth. Each of those times the challenger stayed down, saving his strength until the count reached nine, and then continued to fight. Finally, as time was running out in the sixth round, he went down for a seventh time and was counted out. "It had been exciting at first, and then it petered out in dreary punishment," observed legendary sports writer Red Smith ("Pete, Referee ..."). In the final round, Brougham wrote, "the totally exhausted challenger was reeling on rubber legs like a defenseless giant" ("Fight Wasn't Waste ...").

Almost Triumphant in Defeat

Rademacher had lost his bid for the championship, but won widespread admiration for his courage. A Post-Intelligencer story under the byline of Loughran, the referee, said Rademacher had "the heart of a lion and take it from me the guy is a formidable opponent in the ring. I'll state here and now that the fight was not a mismatch as so many people thought it would be" ("Pete Rademacher Proved ...."). Rademacher's mistake, Loughran concluded, was that he did not rush in and try to finish off Patterson after knocking him down.

The challenger also won respect for his post-fight demeanor. "He was groggy and reeling as deputy sheriffs all but carried him to his dressing room, but he had a sense of unprecedented achievement to bear him up, too," Martin Kane wrote in Sports Illustrated. "And 20 minutes after that he was once again the man in the gray flannel boxing trunks, serenely poised and issuing concise, precisely phrased statements to a somewhat embarrassed press, most of which had predicted he would last no more than a round or two, some of which had demanded bitterly that the fight be banned" ("And the Veep ...").

Rademacher emerged from the fight with a slight bruise under one eye but otherwise unmarred. In fact, he was almost triumphant. He had engineered the unprecedented and performed better than expected. "I'll never have another thrill like I had tonight if I live to be a hundred," he said ("Fight Wasn't Waste ...").

National Publicity for Seattle

Youth Unlimited lost money on the event, attendance falling some 8,000 short of capacity. As Associated Press reporter Whitney Martin put it, "As far as the promoter, Jack Hurley, is concerned, it was a case of the operation being a success, though the patient died. From the standpoint of publicity, and of the bout being better than expected, everything was fine" ("Rademacher Made Chumps ...").

Coverage of the fight reflected its importance in Seattle sports history. Having the advantage of being the morning newspaper at the time, the Post-Intelligencer went all out with banner headlines on both the front page and lead sports page, stories by half a dozen writers, and a total of 17 photos. Newspapers nationwide carried accounts of the spectacle.

Locally, the fight's significance was recognized immediately and remembered for decades. In a column that ran in The Seattle Times four days before the bout, Meyers wrote that the approaching matchup already had "generated more national publicity than a dozen Gold Cups," the national hydroplane racing championships that were Seattle's biggest sports events at the time ("Missiles From ...").

Twenty five years later, in his memoir Digressions of a Native Son, Emmett Watson wrote that "for a few brief weeks in the summer of 1957, Pete gave Seattle a luminous, festive glow that this once-drab city had never enjoyed before. ... All alone, Rademacher lifted Seattle into world prominence with one brief sports event" (95). And five years after that, in a column marking the 30th anniversary of the fight, Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports editor John Owen declared, "There has never been a sporting event before or since that has focused such national attention on our city" ("The Title Fight ...").


Sources:

Emmett Watson, Digressions of a Native Son (Seattle: The Pacific Institute, 1982), 94-116; Dan Coughlin, "Rademacher: Why Not Start at Top?" Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 21, 1977; Sheldon Ocker, "How Pete Hustled the Heavies," Akron Beacon Journal Sunday Magazine, August 21, 1977, pp. 5-8; Glenn Drosendahl phone interview with Pete Rademacher, January 23, 2013; Georg N. Meyers, "Fat Guarantee Wins Rademacher Title Bid," The Seattle Times, June 23, 1957, p. 47; Meyers, "Too Old to Cry? Pete Has a Reason," Ibid., December 7, 1956, p. 34; Meyers, "Big Pete's 'Big Punch,' How Big is It?" Ibid., August 15, 1957, p. 29; Meyers, "Missiles from the Mailbox, Pete's Pals Protest," Ibid., August 18, 1957, p. 51; Vincent O'Keefe, "Patterson Still Heavy Favorite," Ibid., August 18, 1957, p. 51; Red Smith, "Pete, Referee Did Their Own Counting," Ibid., August 23, 1957, p. 25; Whitney Martin, "Rademacher Made Chumps of Critics, One Admits," The Seattle Times, September 1, 1957, p. 23; Martin Kane, "The Champ Meets a Veep," Sports Illustrated, August 19, 1957 (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1133284/index.htm); Kane, "And the Veep Sat Down," Ibid., September 2, 1957 (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1133225/index.htm); Royal Brougham, "Patterson KO's Pete in Sixth," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 23, 1957, p. 1; Dick Sharp, "Patterson Wins By Knockout in 6th," Ibid., August 23, 1957, p. 24; John Owen, "Fight Wasn't Waste of Time for Challenger," Ibid., August 23, 1957, p. 25; Tommy Loughran, "Pete Rademacher Proved Himself Courageous Man Against the Champ," Ibid., August 23, 1957, p. 29; Owen, "The Title Fight at Sicks' Stadium," Ibid., August 20, 1987, p. B-1.


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