Walcott, Jersey Joe
One of the most persistent boxers of the 20th century, Jersey Joe Walcott refused to give up his dream of winning the world heavyweight title. Long after most boxers would have abandoned all hope, Walcott battled on. On July 18, 1951, he became, at the age of thirty-seven, the oldest boxer ever to become the heavyweight champ, knocking out Ezzard Charles in the seventh round to finally take the title he had so long pursued. For more than four decades, he held the distinction of being the oldest boxer to win the heavyweight title, until 45-year-old George Foreman won the crown in 1994. After retiring from the ring, Walcott remained active in boxing as a referee and later became chairman of the New Jersey State Boxing Commission. Sadly, his tenure in the latter position was marred by charges that he had taken bribes. Despite this stain on his reputation, Walcott will forever stand as an inspiration to dreamers everywhere that perseverance can pay off.
Born in Merchantville, New Jersey
He was born Raymond Arnold Cream in Merchantville, New Jersey, on January 31, 1914. When he was only thirteen years old, his father, an immigrant from Barbados, died. Young Walcott quit school and began looking for any kind of work he could find to help
support his family. Not long thereafter, he stopped in one day at Battling Mac's Gym in Camden, New Jersey, where he soon became a regular, sparring with some of the fighters who called the gym home. He was just a skinny kid and nothing particularly remarkable as a boxer in those early years, but he stayed with it and began fighting on the club circuit of southern New Jersey and nearby Philadelphia.
Walcott made his professional boxing debut in 1930 at the age of sixteen, knocking out Cowboy Wallace in the first round of a match in Vineland, New Jersey. He won his next five matches before losing, on November 16, 1933, in a rematch with Henry Taylor in Philadelphia. Early in his professional career, the young New Jersey boxer decided his last name of Cream seemed wholly inappropriate for a fighter who hoped some day to be a champion. He decided to borrow the name of his father's favorite boxer from the islands, Joe Walcott, a former welterweight champion who was also known as the "Barbados Demon." To personalize his new name, he added "Jersey," to signify the state of his birth.
Blackburn Takes Over as Trainer
Over the next several years, Walcott fought in dozens of matches, winning most of them but losing occasionally. However, boxing failed to provide a dependable source of income. After he married and started a family, Walcott was forced more and more to take jobs outside the ring to make ends meet. His ring career took a positive turn after the unschooled Walcott began to work with trainer Jack Blackburn, who helped to teach him more about the art of boxing. His association with Blackburn ended abruptly when the trainer received an offer from a couple of gamblers to come to Chicago to train an amateur champion named Joe Louis . As a condition for accepting the job, Blackburn wangled an invitation for Walcott to accompany him and join the gamblers' Chicago stable of fighters, but Walcott came down with typhoid and was unable to make the trip.
Without Blackburn's guidance, Walcott's boxing career once again seemed to lose direction. He continued to box when he could but was forced increasingly to work at low-paying jobs outside the ring to support his family. Walcott began to lose hope. Then came a call from Blackburn, telling him that Joe Louis, training for a fight with Max Schmeling , was looking for sparring partners. Walcott eagerly headed for the Louis training camp, but on his very first day on the job, he dropped Louis with a left hook, abruptly ending his stint as sparring partner.
Loses to Four Top-Ranked Fighters
The situation grew even gloomier for Walcott in the latter half of the 1930s. Four times during that period, he squared off against one of the ten top-ranked fighters—Al Ettore in 1936, Tiger Jack Fox in 1937 and 1938, and Abe Simon in 1940—in his weight class, only to lose every match. By the early 1940s, Walcott was working in the Camden shipyards, and his boxing career seemed all but over. He fought only five matches from 1940 through 1944, one of which was his loss to Simon. Salvation came in the form of Felix Bocchicchio, a Camden area sports club owner and gambler. Bocchicchio offered to manage Walcott, who at first refused, saying, "Fighting never got me nothin' before, and all I want now is a steady job, so my wife and kids can eat regular. I'm over 30 and just plain tired of it all."
|1914||Born in Merchantville, New Jersey, on January 31|
|1927||Quits school to help support family after father dies|
|1930||Turns professional on September 9|
|1941-45||Works in Camden, New Jersey, shipyard, fighting rarely|
|1945||Embarks on comeback trail under guidance of promoter Felix Bocchicchio|
|1953||Retires from boxing|
|1965||Officiates at Ali-Liston fight on May 25|
|1994||Dies in Camden, New Jersey, on February 25|
Fortunately for Walcott, Bocchicchio was not so easily dissuaded. He bought food and coal for Walcott's family, got the boxer's license renewed, and finally persuaded Walcott to give it a try. Jersey Joe returned to boxing with a vengeance, winning eight of his nine bouts in 1945, three of them against top ten fighters Joe Baski, Lee Murray, and Curtis Sheppard. The following year he beat top ten contender Jimmy Bivins, following which Bocchicchio lined up a fight for Walcott with another leading contender, Lee Oma, in Madison Square Garden. Walcott took the match in a ten-round decision. Later that year he experienced something of a setback, losing to Joey Maxim and Elmer Ray in back-to-back bouts. But Walcott bounced back in 1947, beating Maxim in January, Ray in April, and Maxim again in June.
Walcott Almost Upsets Joe Louis
Prominent boxing promoter Mike ("Uncle Mike") Jacobs in late 1947 set up what was supposed to be a ten-round charity exhibition match between World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis and Walcott. It turned into a title match after the New York State Athletic Commission ruled that any match of more than six rounds with Louis had to be for the title. Odds makers gave Walcott little chance against the Brown Bomber.
Before a sold-out crowd of 18,000, Walcott suckered Louis with a right-hand lead and then dropped him with a left hook in the very first round. Spectators were incredulous, applauding wildly for the plucky Walcott. Walcott wasn't through. In the fourth round, Louis, confused by the "Walcott Shuffle," which involved shifting the feet around so that first the left and then the right were the lead, and pivoting the body to match, was dropped again by the challenger.
Perhaps sensing that he was comfortably ahead on points, Walcott took it easy on Louis in the final rounds of the fight. Nevertheless, boxing fans, as well as Louis, were all convinced Walcott had cinched the fight. Referee Ruby Goldstein agreed, observing, "Walcott punched his ears off." But the two judges—Frank Forbes and Marty Monroe—gave the fight to Louis.
Years later, Walcott recalled: "After the fight, Joe put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, 'I'm sorry.' I looked across the ring, and I could tell that Louis thought he had lost the fight. In fact, he wanted to leave the ring, but his handlers held him back."
The following year, on June 25, Louis and Walcott met once again, although this time Louis was clearly the dominant force, knocking out Walcott in the 11th round. Shortly after winning his rematch with Walcott, Louis announced his retirement from the ring. The retirement of Joe Louis after just over eleven years as heavyweight champ set the stage for a match between Walcott and Ezzard Charles for the now-vacant World Boxing Association heavyweight title. The two faced off on June 22, 1949. Walcott lost a 15-round decision to Charles and promptly announced his retirement. Manager Bocchicchio had other ideas for Walcott, who was now 35. The two took a short vacation together, after which they issued a press release announcing that Walcott had changed his mind and would continue his boxing career. Walcott won a match in Sweden against Ollie Tandberg and once again hinted at retirement. Again, Bocchicchio persuaded him to continue boxing.
Wins First Four Matches of 1950
In 1950 Walcott won his first four matches of the year, only to lose to Rex Layne on November 24. He also lost his first rematch with Charles on March 7, 1951. But on July 18, 1951, Walcott made boxing history when he knocked out Charles in the seventh round to become the oldest boxer ever to win the world heavyweight title. In 1952, Walcott fought a series of exhibition bouts with Jackie Burke before squaring off against Charles once again on June 5. Walcott successfully defended his title, winning a fifteen-round decision over Charles. Just over three months later, however, Rocky Marciano knocked out Walcott in the 13th round to take the heavyweight title. In a rematch with Marciano on May 15, 1953, Walcott was knocked out in the first round. Just after his second defeat by Marciano, Walcott announced his retirement from boxing.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1930||Won first professional fight, knocking out Cowboy Wallace on September 9|
|1945||Won fights against top 10 contenders Joe Baski, Lee Murray, Curtis Sheppard|
|1946||Won fights against Jimmy Bivins and Lee Oma but lost to Joey Maxim and Elmer Ray|
|1951||Won heavyweight title against Ezzard Charles, July 18|
|1951||Edward J. Neil Trophy for Fighter of the Year|
|1952||Successfully defends title against Charles on June 5|
|1969||Inducted into the Ring Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted into International Boxing Hall of Fame|
Related Biography: Boxer Ezzard Charles
Ezzard Charles won the National Boxing Association heavyweight crown in a fifteen-round decision over Jersey Joe Walcott on June 22, 1949. But two years later, on July 18, 1951, Walcott turned the tables on Charles, knocking him out to take the heavyweight title for himself. The following year, Charles failed in an attempt to recapture the title from Walcott, who lost it barely three months later to Rocky Marciano.
He was born Ezzard Mack Charles on July 7, 1921, in Lawrenceville, Georgia. After a brilliant amateur boxing career, Charles turned pro in 1940 and went on to win twenty consecutive fights in the first eighteen months of the decade. He temporarily left boxing in 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Army. Charles eventually moved up in weight class and became the heavyweight champion from 1949 until 1951. His attempts to recapture the title, first from Walcott and later from Marciano, all ended in failure.
Charles retired from boxing in the late 1950s. In 1966 he was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease that before long confined him to a wheelchair. Charles died on May 28, 1975.
Walcott continued to live in the Camden area after leaving boxing. Shortly after retiring from the ring, he took a job as a parole officer for juvenile offenders. He later had a brief stint as a boxing referee, officiating at the second match between Cassius Clay (before changing his name to Muhammad Ali ) and Sonny Liston . He was widely criticized for his handling of the match. In the early 1980s, Walcott was appointed chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. During the course of his time on the commission, charges surfaced that Walcott had accepted bribes from undercover agents.
Walcott died at the age of 80 on February 25, 1994, in Camden, N.J. In one of his last public appearances, Walcott traveled across the Delaware River to Philadelphia in 1992 to attend the first outdoor professional boxing show since the 1950s. Speaking haltingly to the assembled crowd, Walcott said, "I tried to be a champion for everybody. I did my best. I tried to make a way for our young people." The deafening applause was proof that in the minds of the spectators anyway Walcott had succeeded.
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Sketch by Don Amerman
July 7, 1921
May 28, 1975
Boxer Ezzard Charles was born in Lawrenceville, Georgia. When he was a child, his family moved to Cincinnati, where he became interested in boxing. By the time he was sixteen, he had taught himself the rudiments of boxing so well that he won fortytwo amateur fights in a row—including two Golden Gloves and the AAU National Championship in 1939—before turning professional in 1940. His ascending career was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army, but after Joe Louis announced his retirement as undefeated world heavyweight champion in 1949, a title match was set up between Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott. Charles won the title in a fifteen-round decision on June 22, 1949. He held the title from 1949 to 1951, successfully defending it in 1950 against Joe Louis. Despite this victory, Charles did not receive the recognition many felt he deserved. He depended on his boxing skills and ability to score points rather than delivering one powerful knockout punch and thus was criticized by some for lacking a harsh fighting instinct.
Charles lost his heavyweight title on July 18, 1951, when he was knocked out by Joe Walcott in the seventh round of their third fight. Three years later, on June 17, 1954, he lost a grueling fifteen-round decision to Rocky Marciano, and in a rematch later that year Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round. Charles retired from boxing in 1956, with two brief, unsuccessful comeback attempts in 1958 and 1959. From 1940 to 1959 he fought in 122 bouts, winning 96 of them. In 1966 he was stricken with a muscle-debilitating disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was confined to a wheelchair. Charles died on May 28, 1975, at the age of fifty-three. In 1987 he was named the ninth greatest heavyweight of all time by The Ring.
See also Boxing
Rust, Art, Jr., and Edna Rust. Art Rust's Illustrated History of the Black Athlete. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
Obituary. New York Times, May 29, 1975, p. 38.
linda salzman (1996)