Obituary: Jersey Joe Walcott
Monday 28 February 1994
JERSEY JOE WALCOTT was a great heavyweight in the decade immediately following the Second World War, a decade dominated by two of the greatest sporting figures of all time, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Walcott fought both twice - and almost beat both.
But Walcott was more than a 'nearly man'. In Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, on the night of 18 July 1951, he produced a classic feint, followed by a perfect left hook to the chin of Ezzard Charles, the man who had succeeded Louis as champion. Charles crumpled spectacularly to be counted out 55 seconds into the seventh round.
With that moment of supreme artistry Walcott became the oldest man to win the world heavyweight championship. He was 37 years and five months old. The record, in spite of recent efforts by George Foreman, still stands.
Walcott's full fight record will never be known. He was born Arnold Cream in Merchantville, New Jersey, in 1914, and his early bouts went unreported. He was certainly boxing professionally by 1930. He took his ring name from Joe Walcott of Barbados, who held the world welterweight title at the turn of the century.
Throughout his youth, he did nothing to suggest he deserved to bear the old man's name. He was a club fighter, working the circuit in New Jersey and Philadelphia. These were the years of Joe Louis's scorned 'Bum of the Month Club', in which the champion put his title on the line with a frequency that alarmed traditionalists but gave a string of lesser fighters a chance to tell their grandchildren they fought for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Jersey Joe wasn't even good enough to get into the club. Abe Simon, who was a member, knocked him out in six rounds in 1940.
By 1944 Walcott's career had long dried up. He was just another statistic on the state welfare list, with a wife and six children he could not feed. To combat poverty, he took up boxing again in earnest at the start of 1945. Amazingly, he began to get results. He out-pointed the quality heavyweights Joe Baksi, Lee Oma and Jimmy Bivins and won two out of three against the future light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim.
When a Louis-Walcott fight was proposed the New York Commission said it could only be an exhibition. Pressure from Mike Jacobs, the promoter, and Louis, who as usual was strapped for cash, made them relent.
The public and bookmakers voiced the commission's original fears. Even at odds of 15-1 for Walcott, there were few takers. Nevertheless, a crowd of 18,194 filed into Madison Square Garden, paying a house record of dollars 216,477 in December 1947.
Walcott, the supposed fall guy, was a revelation. He dropped Louis twice and danced clear of most of his ponderous attacks to collect what seemed a clear 15-round decision. In fact, to howls from the crowd and shrieks of disbelief from the Walcott corner, Louis was given a split-decision win. 'Those boos went right down to my bones,' admitted Louis.
In the re-match in June 1948 Walcott again floored Louis but was knocked out in round 11.
Louis retired but Walcott went on. Twice he lost title fights with Ezzard Charles, a good champion who suffered because he succeeded a great one. But on that summer night in Pittsburgh in 1951, more than 20 years after he began fighting for a living, Walcott found his place in history.
He did beat Charles again but then lost the title to Rocky Marciano in Philadelphia in 1952. Marciano, a crude slugger with a mighty right hand, was on the floor in the first round and badly cut. The bell saved him in the 11th. But in the 13th he landed the right hand he christened 'my Suzy Q' and Walcott was knocked out, at first suspended on the ropes and then sliding to the canvas like a rag doll slipping off a shelf.
'I felt the great, deep hurt of losing a fight that was so one-sided,' he said.
In the return Walcott was a shot fighter. He lost in one round and retired.
A devout Christian and family man, he kept his links with boxing for the rest of his life. He refereed the second fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in 1965 when Liston was knocked out by a so-called phantom punch in the first round.
In later years he was the New Jersey state boxing commissioner. He was still an occasional visitor to big fights even after a fall from a crowded ring apron in the late 1980s had disabled him.
A few years ago at a big fight the ring announcer Michael Buffer introduced him with typical boxing overkill.
'Here with us tonight is a man who was so great they named a whole state after him - ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jersey . . . Joe . . . Walcott]'
The giant crowd stood as one to applaud.
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