World Heavyweight Champion: 1951-1952
Jersey Joe Walcott’s place in the history books is secure, simply on the grounds of having won the heavyweight crown at the age of 37. He was also a master boxer, someone who survived prejudice, self-doubt and financial hardship to take his seat at boxing’s top table.
Walcott was born Arnold Cream in Merchantville, New Jersey, on 31 January 1914. When he began boxing in 1930, his given name obviously wouldn’t do. Joe Walcott was world welterweight champion at the turn of the century and a hero of the young aspiring fighter. He adopted it, and added ‘Jersey’ in honour of his place of birth.
Fighting for peanuts
Like many excellent black boxers of his era, Walcott suffered from lack of opportunity. While Joe Louis carried all before him in the 1940s, Walcott often fought for peanuts. Promoters were very wary about the commercial implications of a title bout between two black fighters. When Louis took on John Henry Lewis in 1939, much was made of the fact that it was the first time two black men had contested the heavyweight title since Jack Johnson fought Jim Johnson 26 years earlier. The fact that the Louis-Lewis fight ended inside a round probably didn’t help the cause of Walcott and the other good black heavyweights who were around at the time.
By 1944 Walcott had lost belief in himself. He decided to quit the ring and take a job to support his wife and family. That could easily have been the last anyone heard of him. But he was persuaded to come out of retirement and enjoyed a fine run of success. Then, in 1947, he was sensationally catapulted back into the limelight as the 24th challenger for Joe Louis’s heavyweight crown. At 33 he was older than the champion and a rank outsider. It should have been a routine victory for Louis and a very nice payday for Walcott in the twilight of his career. In fact, he put Louis down twice in the early stages, and at the end of the 15 rounds most observers thought he was the clear winner. The referee agreed, but to everyone’s amazement the judges scored it in Louis’s favour. Even the champion thought that Walcott had been robbed. Walcott showed this was no fluke in the early rounds of the return match. This time, however, he succumbed to a classic Louis battering in the 1 I rh round. When Walcott also lost to Ezzard Charles for the vacant title, following Louis’s decision to retire, it meant that over an 18-month period he had been beaten in three successive heavyweight championship fights. At the age of 35, Walcott could easily have shuffled off the stage with his head held high. Not a bit of it. There followed another points defeat by Charles, then the two met for the third time – Walcott’s fifth attempt to win the title -on 18 July 1951.
Perfect left hook
Charles later recalled the night he lost his title. Of his seventh-round knockout he said: ‘Walcott drove a soft left jab to my belly. I fell for it. I dropped my hands and moved towards him. With the same motion he came through with as perfect a left hook as was ever thrown in the ring. It caught me on the button.’
A rematch was inevitable. Walcott and Charles met for the fourth and final time for the heavyweight title in Philadelphia, on 5 June 1952. For the third time it went the distance, with Walcott getting the decision on this occasion.
Next up for Walcott, less than four months later, came a young slugger by the name of Rocky Marciano. After twice getting the better of a craftsman and technician of Charles’s stature, Walcott was confident that skill would win out over the crude power that was Marciano’s chief weapon. He was very nearly right.
Jersey Joe Walcott
Born: Merchantville, New Jersey, USA.
January 31 1914
February 25, 1994
Height: over 6’ Weight: 197lbs 1951-1952
World Heavyweight Champion:
Record: Won 53 (33 Kos) Lost 18 Drawn 1