Lee Groves

Pete Rademacher: The most ambitious pro debut of all

On Saturday, two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko will fight as a pro for the first time outside the World Series of Boxing umbrella. Unlike many previous amateur stars who ease into the professional phase with a long series of record-building exercises, the 25-year-old Ukrainian has opted to take the fast track toward a major title – a really fast track.

The circumstances surrounding Lomachenko’s bout with Mexican Jose Ramirez project extreme confidence and ambition. Consider:

* The fight will be televised as part of the Timothy Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez pay-per-view undercard, about as big a stage as one can seek.

* Second, it is scheduled for 10 rounds – double the maximum distance of Lomachenko’s six previous WSB bouts, all of which went the distance.

* Finally, opponent Jose “Negro” Ramirez is one month younger, owns a more-than-respectable 25-3 (15) record and is coming off a 12-round win over Filipino Rey Bautista on “Boom Boom’s” own turf. Although the official verdict was split, Ramirez’s victory was so obvious that the local crowd booed the card that went for their countryman while cheering the two that went for Ramirez. Even more amazingly, the throng even chanted Ramirez’s name down the stretch. Therefore, Ramirez doesn’t think of himself as a pigeon for Lomachenko but rather he sees himself as an acid test armed with a winner’s mindset.

That said, if any fighter is equipped to handle the higher degree of difficulty, it is Lomachenko. Along with the gold medals, he boasts an out-of-this-world amateur record of 396-1 with the lone defeat – against Russian Albert Selimov – avenged not once, but twice.

What makes Lomachenko a potentially special pro is his superlative technique. Every punch is preceded by a series of upper body moves accompanied by nimble footwork. When he chooses to strike, a decision made with considerable forethought, he does so with a diamond cutter’s precision. He’s not known as a one-punch knockout artist but his speed and timing are such that he will score his share of highlight reel stoppages.

Lomachenko may well be the most technically polished fighter ever to invade the professional ranks, and that includes fellow two-time gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, who, after only 12 pro fights, is on many experts’ pound-for-pound lists. From all indicators thus far, Lomachenko has the potential to be at least that good – if not better.

Should Lomachenko beat Ramirez as expected, the plan is to immediately slot him for a WBO featherweight title shot against either Orlando Salido or Orlando Cruz, who will fight for the vacant belt on Saturday’s pay-per-view. Although there is a dispute as to whether that fight will be Lomachenko’s second pro outing (HBO is billing Lomachenko-Ramirez as his overall professional debut) or his eighth (Fight Fax counts his six WSB bouts as pro contests because they were conducted under pro rules and the fighters were paid), one can’t deny Lomachenko is biting off a far bigger chunk than most.

No fighter, however, will ever likely equal or surpass what Pete Rademacher attempted on Aug. 22, 1957 – to win the heavyweight championship of the world in his professional debut. His fight with Floyd Patterson at Seattle’s Sicks’ Stadium was a testament to Rademacher’s initiative and salesmanship, for he managed to turn a preposterous proposition into history-making reality.

Given the trajectory of the rest of his life before and after the Patterson fight, Rademacher’s achievement shouldn’t have been a big surprise. Throughout his life Rademacher set lofty goals for himself, then worked hard to make them come true. As an amateur fighter, the onetime Washington State offensive lineman compiled a 72-7 record that included a slew of regional, military and national titles and culminated with a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Following his retirement in 1962, it took Rademacher only nine years to rise from salesman to the president of the Kiefer-McNeil division of the McNeil Corporation.

Besides being an Olympic champion and successful businessman, Rademacher’s other roles in life include professional shooting instructor, boxing promoter and referee, Army officer, inventor, realtor and fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society. He also is a member of numerous regional Halls of Fame, for he was inducted by the three schools he attended (Castle Heights Military Academy, Yakima Valley Community College and Washington State University) as well as into the Central Washington Sports Hall of Fame, the Northwest Boxing Hall of Fame and the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. He also was honored as the outstanding alumnus from Yakima Valley Community College and Washington State’s Department of Animal Sciences in 2003.

Rademacher’s signature athletic deed required every ounce of his prodigious talents. His master plan was simple in theory but outrageous in practice – win the gold medal in Melbourne, then use his fame as the amateur heavyweight champion of the world to sell an immediate fight with the professional heavyweight champion.

Torn muscles in his right arm suffered during sparring a short time before the Games nearly derailed his Olympic dream but following a 12-day hospital stay a subsequent workout before Army officials confirmed he was fully recovered. Once the Olympics began Rademacher tore through the draw with wrecking-ball force. In the preliminary round on Nov. 29 he stopped Czechoslovakia’s Josef Nemec in two rounds and the next day he earned a berth in the final after knocking out South African Daniel Bekker in three.

The next day Rademacher won Olympic gold by crushing the Soviet Union’s Lev Mukhin in just 147 seconds. The knockout of Mukhin was a particularly impressive feat, for the Soviet was undefeated in 100 fights, had scored three of his own knockouts in the tournament and had overcome a pair of first-round knockdowns to score two of them. But Mukhin couldn’t shake off the three knockdowns Rademacher scored and as a result all doubts were erased about who was the world’s best amateur heavyweight. Three days, three knockout victories and the most cherished prize in amateur sport.

For Rademacher, the timing was perfect, for just nine hours later 21-year-old Floyd Patterson knocked out 39-year-old Archie Moore to capture the world heavyweight title vacated by Rocky Marciano. Rademacher was prepared to put his master plan into motion by making his intentions known then and there. However, a long-distance phone call from trainer George Chemeris in Seattle ended up altering Rademacher’s timeline. In the March 1990 issue of THE RING, Rademacher reconstructed the conversation.

“Don’t make any announcement, Pete,” Chemeris said.

“But you know my next fight is going to be for the heavyweight title,” Rademacher replied.

“Look, it’s my nickel,” Chemeris shot back. “It cost me a lot of money to call you, so let me talk. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Come back and we’ll talk about what we’ll do next.”

“You know what I’m going to do next,” Rademacher said.

“They’ll put you in jail,” the trainer declared.

Rademacher remained unmoved. In his mind he had valid reasons to take this enormous – and unprecedented – leap of faith.

“If Patterson beats Moore, Patterson’s a young punk kid and if Moore wins, he’s an old man,” Rademacher said in 1990. “I thought I could handle myself with either one because, mechanically, I knew as much as all of them.”

Rademacher reached out to established names to help him with his pursuit – Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey and veteran trainer Al Weill among them. All of them told him the same thing: “You can’t do it.”

But when Rademacher spoke to Patterson’s manager Cus D’Amato he got a much different reaction.

“Cus felt my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, ‘I know your record. Anyone who can flatten three guys in the Olympics has got to be a threat to anybody. You might hit Floyd on the chin and he’ll get knocked out. But you’re going to be ridiculed. I’m going to be ridiculed. They’ll put both of us in jail.’”

But the wily D’Amato then got to the critical question: “Do you have any money?”

Rademacher did – with some help, of course. He managed to persuade Melchior “Mike” Jennings, a sporting goods magnate from Columbus, Georgia, to give him the necessary financial backing.

“I said I would guarantee Floyd $150,000 for a shot at the title and that we should hold the fight in Seattle, because that was the only place in the United States that would allow it,” Rademacher said. After hearing this, D’Amato made a counter offer.

“The ridicule will be big,” he said. “Give me $250,000 and you got a deal, should Floyd beat Tommy ‘Hurricane’ Jackson. I also want $100,000 in escrow that says that if you win, we get the first shot at your title.’ So we signed a contract.”

Patterson fulfilled his end of the bargain by winning every round on all scorecards before stopping Jackson in the 10th. The Rademacher fight was scheduled just 24 days later in Sicks’ Stadium in Seattle. While Washington state’s governor Albert Rosellini was swamped with letters of protest, Patterson wasn’t concerned with the verbal slings and arrows. Nothing could shake his commitment or his confidence.

“I would never turn my back on something like that,” Patterson said in a 1990 phone interview. “I’m asked to fight an amateur for $250,000, which was a whole lot of money back then. I was criticized for it, but the bank where I put the money didn’t criticize me.”

From the moment the bout was signed Rademacher launched an all-out public relations blitz to sell the fight to the press and public. Every day at his training camp in Columbus, Georgia, Rademacher spent 35 minutes each day pumping up the fight to the assembled media. His salesmanship chipped away at their resistance and by fight week he somehow had created an element of doubt.

“I learned to handle the press by picking up the stuff the old-time guys used,” Rademacher told THE RING in 1990. “I turned them around and had them thinking I could win.”

He also persuaded the public that Patterson-Rademacher was a legitimate contest, for 16,961 curious patrons that produced a Northwest record $223,000 gate filled Sicks’ Stadium to see exactly what would unfold.

Despite Rademacher’s efforts, the odds-makers weren’t swayed. For the first time in history, a heavyweight title fight was declared an “out” proposition, meaning no odds would be posted. Either Rademacher was that prohibitive an underdog or the betting establishments decided they couldn’t risk the enormous pay-out a Rademacher victory would force.

The 22-year-old champion boasted a record of 32-1 (23) and was defending his belt for the second time. He was in the midst of an 18-fight winning streak after losing his only fight to wily former light heavyweight king Joey Maxim in just his 14th pro fight. Despite weighing 187¼ (a career high to date) he possessed crippling power as 13 of his last 14 wins came by knockout. The 6-1½ Rademacher enjoyed a one-and-a-half inch height advantage, a 14¾-pound weight pull and a six-inch reach edge but the gap in professional experience couldn’t have been more cavernous. While Patterson had never gone the full 15 rounds, he had fought 10 or more rounds three times. Though Rademacher appeared in solid condition, the fight was scheduled to go a full five times longer than he had ever fought before.

Despite the massive deficits that confronted him, Rademacher was calm – almost too calm.

“It was almost anti-climactic because I had been waiting 11 months for this fight to happen,” Rademacher told THE RING. “Making the fight was such a long shot, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have butterflies. It was there. The real battle was putting the fight together.”

Rademacher opened the fight jabbing out of a classic stance while Patterson rolled his upper body and occasionally sprung out of his crouch with powerful hooks. The taller Rademacher managed to keep Patterson at arm’s length by constantly firing jabs followed by hefty rights that earned the champion’s respect. As Rademacher settled in, his confidence rose noticeably and by the final minute he backed Patterson toward the corner with several power shots.

As the first round-ending bell sounded, Rademacher already had achieved one seemingly impossible goal – he actually won his first professional round from the reigning world champion, a world champion who would be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. He controlled range, maintained his composure and radiated a confidence far beyond what was expected of him.

But as surprising as the first round was, the second produced a shock that threatened to unhinge the boxing world from its axis. With a little more than a minute remaining Rademacher staggered Patterson with a cracking right to the ear, then floored him with a second right to the cheek.

For an instant, Rademacher thought he had achieved the impossible.

“I thought he was down for good,” Rademacher recalled. “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.”

But Patterson was nowhere near ready to surrender his crown, for he was up at former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran’s count of three. When Rademacher turned around and saw Patterson had arisen he knew much more work had to be done – more work than he felt capable of doing.

“Here’s the guy standing there, ready to go, and I thought, ‘uh-oh’ because I knew I couldn’t go 15 rounds,” Rademacher said.

Rademacher’s rocket right was a hard reality check for Patterson, who now knew he was in with a genuine threat to his title.

“He came out so fast,” Patterson said. “And I never realized he could punch that hard. I thought, ‘I don’t believe it. The guy can punch, so I better start putting pressure on him and get rid of him.’ I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous and I was hurt.”

Patterson reacted to the crisis exactly the way D’Amato had taught him – convert his fear into positive action. A little more than a minute into round three Patterson finally snapped out of his fog and staggered Rademacher with several well-timed power bursts. A right to the temple sent the challenger reeling toward the ropes and just before the bell a looping right left Rademacher sprawled near the neutral corner. Rademacher calmly took Loughran’s count on both knees before rising at nine.

Had this been a three-round amateur fight the 1956 Olympic heavyweight champion probably would have out-pointed the 1952 Olympic middleweight champion. Unfortunately for Rademacher, he was in a full-fledged professional world title fight and he still had 12 long rounds to go.

Rademacher bravely tried to engage Patterson at close range to open the fourth but Patterson’s faster and more powerful blows won all of the exchanges and his swaying upper body avoided most of the challenger’s fire. Rademacher resorted to roughing up Patterson along the ropes and in the clinches while the champion responded by biding his time before blasting several blinding power combinations over Rademacher’s lowered guard.

Entering the fifth Loughran – the bout’s only scoring official – had the fight even but the momentum was definitely in Patterson’s corner. Rademacher again started the round strongly by landing a neck-twisting right. An instant later a snarling Patterson lashed out with a lightning quick hook-right that sent Rademacher tottering across the ring before crashing to the floor. After the challenger hauled himself up at nine his house of cards – and his hopes for improbable glory – collapsed all around him.

A wicked combination capped by a right to the head decked Rademacher again. He sat on the canvas for the longest time before finally getting up at nine. A right-left to the head and a hook to the body caused Rademacher to stumble toward the corner and a right to the side of the head made him take a knee for the third time in the round and the fourth time in the fight. Again up at nine, Rademacher was put down for the fourth time in the round with an overhand right to the neck. Following another nine count, Rademacher appeared to be floored again with yet another power combination but this time Loughran chose not to count it.

Tired and hurt, Rademacher’s dream was in tatters but his will commanded him to fight on. He tried to fire his trusty right hand but now it lacked its previous snap and power. Still, he managed to make it to the bell. Under modern scoring rules it would have been deemed a 10-5 round – one point for winning the round and one point more for each of the four knockdowns.

Between rounds Loughran approached Rademacher’s corner and asked the fighter if he wanted to continue. Of course, the challenger said yes. Like a good Army man, Rademacher chose to soldier on despite the growing reality that he was involved in a lost cause.

Fighting slowly and carefully, Rademacher began the sixth by inducing several quick clinches. Patterson didn’t allow the ploy to last for long. A shoe-shine combination to the body set up a right to the jaw that drove Rademacher to a knee for the sixth time in the fight. Knowing the end was near, Patterson sauntered to a neutral corner with his head down. But just as he had after every other knockdown, Rademacher arose at nine and continued to come forward. He tried to fight back as best he could but his relatively feeble blows only found air.

A right uppercut shook Rademacher to his core and a three-punch volley drove him to the canvas for the seventh time. The challenger made it to his feet and proceeded to walk a few steps with his back to Loughran and Patterson. His slumped posture and dazed gait told Loughran the time had come to stop the slaughter. With just three second remaining in the sixth, Patterson retained his championship and Rademacher’s pursuit had reached a dead end. Rademacher brought up the possibility of a rematch at the post-fight press conference but the idea immediately was laughed off. The message was clear: You were lucky just to get this bite of the apple and you’re not about to get a second one.

Had Rademacher managed to keep Patterson on the floor in round two, he would have utilized the title in a most unusual way.

“I talked some friends in Georgia into financing this fight for me to start a youth-oriented company,” he told THE RING in 1990. “I told them that after I won the Olympics, if I could get a fight with Patterson and knock him out, we could get all the publicity we needed.

“If I had won, I never would have fought again,” he continued. “We would’ve taken this thing right up to the point where they would’ve stripped me and I would’ve retired. In the meantime, we would’ve gotten so much ink out of this thing that it would’ve gotten our youth program what it needed. When I lost, all that went down the tubes.”

While most fighters’ careers began at the bottom and worked toward the top, Rademacher’s started at the top and followed a roller-coaster pattern. Eleven months after losing to Patterson, Rademacher was stopped by old rival Zora Folley in four rounds, after which he went 6-0-1 in his next seven fights against softer competition before Brian London halted Rademacher in seven. Seven more wins – one of which was a 10-round decision over George Chuvalo – set up a fight with Doug Jones, who stopped Rademacher in five. Rademacher lost three of his next four to George Logan (KO by 4), Archie Moore (KO by 6) and Karl Mildenberger (L 10) before ending his career in April 1962 on a high note – a comprehensive 10-round decision over former middleweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olson.

It remains to be seen whether Lomachenko’s grand blueprint will produce the desired results or if it will suffer the same setbacks as Rademacher’s. In a way, Lomachenko’s intended career path embodies the sport as a whole – or at least it should. In the sporting pantheon boxing represents the ultimate gamble as well as the supreme example of rugged individualism. Lomachenko’s gambit is a bold and refreshing counterbalance to an age dominated by overcautious risk-management strategies.

If Lomachenko gets past Ramirez, wins the WBO featherweight title in his next fight and goes on to a lucrative Hall of Fame caliber career, he will be remembered as a revolutionary force. But if his grand scheme is blown to smithereens, at least he’ll be remembered as someone who took a risk and tried to reach for the stars. It was something Pete Rademacher tried all those years ago and all in all, it didn’t turn out badly for him, did it?

*

Sources: HistoryLink.org article by Glen Drosendahl, March 13, 2013

“Pete Rademacher: A Career That Began With a Climax” by Lee Groves, THE RING, March 1990

 

Photos / Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Jack Guez-AFP, THE RING

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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