Jersey Joe Walcott: Art on the Ring Canvas

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Arnold Cream made his boxing début in 1930, at the age of sixteen. By the time he was approaching forty he had failed to win a world title on four separate occasions and he had compiled sixteen losses on his professional record by 1951. He had lost cumulative years off of his career due to a broken arm, typhoid, and the need to work multiple jobs. A boxer with his record wouldn't even be allowed close to a championship in this day and age, but in1951, at age thirty-seven, Cream knocked out Ezzard Charles to win the world heavyweight title.

Cream's tale stands out as one of the most depressing and beautiful in boxing. If William Dean Howells was correct in his assertion that the American public loves a tragedy with a happy ending, you would struggle to find one more fitting in the annals of boxing. Arnold Cream's life was a smearing of tragedy, sprinkled with missed opportunities, set against a backdrop of constant poverty. His career both in the ring and out of it was a meandering mess. And yet, in the late 1940s Cream was able to turn around decades of miserable misfortune to claim what was still the most venerated title in sports. But it wasn't young Arnold Cream at whose feet Ezzard Charles crumbled, nor was it Arnold Cream's waist around which the heavyweight championship belt was strapped. No, it was those of Jersey Joe Walcott.

Due to the death of his father, young Arnold Cream was forced to take up work at the age of fifteen to provide for his ten siblings and mother. In spite of this he proved a promising youngster in the ring. Cream found himself under the tutelage of Jack Blackburn, a fearsome character who had spent time in prison for a shooting spree which killed three, but who had fought a litany of great boxers. In 1933, Blackburn had the idea to take Cream—now fighting under the Jersey Joe Walcott moniker in homage to the great Barbados Demon, Joe Walcott—around the country and figure out if he was 'the one'.

The Barbados Demon, Joe Walcott. A welterweight so powerful that he ran out of opponents and was forced to challenge heavyweights.

By 'the one' Blackburn meant a black heavyweight who could finally re-break the color barrier which had been placed in front of the heavyweight title after the race relations disaster that was Jack Johnson's heavyweight title reign from 1909 until 1915. Unfortunately, Jersey Joe was struck down with typhoid and Blackburn was soon tempted away by the prospect of working with another young black heavyweight, Joe Louis in Chicago. Louis turned out to be 'the one', and went on to become the greatest heavyweight champion in boxing history.

The Cream family suffered deeply through the depression and the early war years. With a wife and six children to provide for, Walcott's boxing career was a means to gain five to ten dollar purses in hope that it would ease the difficulty of living. In 1936, a year in which Jersey Joe broke his arm and was trying to feed his children on nine dollars of welfare a week, he still managed to rack up nine fights—six in the last six months of the year. He would work in a factory all day, eat little, and box in the evenings with little preparation or training. Fatigue came quickly to Jersey Joe Walcott through this time and many of his bouts turned into a battle against his blood sugar and empty stomach more than they were against his opponent. When asked by the Saturday Evening Post about his many retirements from the ring, Walcott responded: “I had the ability to succeed in the ring, but you can't do that with hunger gnawing at the pit of your stomach”. Walcott packed boxing in for the sixth time in 1941; it had taken too much from him and returned so little.

A racketeer named Felix Bocchicchio gave Walcott his big break, supplying Walcott with food and fuel enough to provide for his family and freeing the fighter up to train full time. The revolution in Walcott's ability when allowed to train like a professional, combined with lack of quality heavyweights through and following the Second World War made him a local favorite and by 1946, he was a favorite at Madison Square Garden. Walcott took nineteen fights between 1945 and June of 1947, and performed so well that his management began seeking out fighters that the champion, Joe Louis, had been steered clear of. With a pair of victories over the all-time great light heavyweight, Joey Maxim, and a victory over Elmer Ray, Walcott moved into position for a bout with Louis in December of 1947.

Jersey Joe was the very definition of 'savvy'. He lacked the physical gifts of many of his opponents, particularly as a small heavyweight and as an old man by ring standards. By the criteria of many coaches today, he wasn't even a particularly solid boxer—rarely throwing in combinations exceeding two punches and placing little value on volume. But Walcott's feet were magnificent. Reportedly a key influence on a young Cassius Clay, Walcott could do things in the ring that other men either couldn't or wouldn't dare do. And that was Walcott in a nutshell: he elevated boxing to an art. In the manly science of self defense, there are set methods, and things you never do. It is a game of rules of thumb. The art of boxing was what Walcott painted across the ring canvas as he broke every one of those rules and looked fancy doing it.

With Walcott's ascendancy to recognition, an old story began circulating that in 1936 Walcott had been brought in to spar with Joe Louis (in preparation for Louis' legendary first match with Nazi Germany's Max Schmeling) as something of a favor by old Jack Blackburn. Knowing Walcott was living below the poverty, $25 for a couple of rounds was a godsend. While both sides disagreed on the details, what is known is that Louis ended up on the seat of his trunks and was mightily embarrassed. Walcott promptly lost his gig as a spar mate.

But that tale did nothing to sway the betting odds or the common consensus that old man Walcott was about to take a fearful drubbing. While he'd built his way up to recognition on the circuit, Jersey Joe was still largely unheralded. Nat Fleischer, founder of The Ring and a man who was up on all the happenings in boxing recalled Walcott at the time of his first bout with Louis in Fifty Years at Ringside in the simple triplet: “veteran negro boxer” and proceeded to write nothing else about the challenger, focusing instead on the life and troubles of the champion.

The Walcott Shuffle

This would be Louis' twenty-fifth title defense. He hadn't lost a fight in eleven years. The papers had been calling Louis' title challengers the 'parade of bums' for years because if there was anyone decent out there, Louis had already beaten them. Jersey Joe was on the trailing end of that parade, and he'd been fighting since before many of them could walk. But Walcott, the 10-to-1 underdog, had been improved exponentially by being allowed to focus his efforts on fighting, while Louis was returning from fifteen months off. In fact, the bout was originally slated as a ten round exhibition until public pressure forced the bout to be changed to a championship fight over fifteen rounds.

When Louis moved Walcott to the corner and began his usual methodical combination punching in the opening round, Walcott rolled with the punches, ducked behind his shoulders, and returned with a wild salvo which put the champion on the mat. Eyebrows were raised, but Louis was always a slow starter. He'd been dropped numerous times by big bangers who caught him early, but invariably he battered them senseless after the opening minutes.

What Walcott showed that night was a revelation. In between his usual rhythmic bounces across the ring, and the occasional kicking out of his legs behind him as he jigged around to his left with his jabs, Walcott showed a very specific technique time and time again. It was one which worked perfectly on Louis precisely because he was so technically sound, and it demonstrated how much of an 'anti-technician' Walcott could be.

Louis' style had always been economical. His feet were a means of ferrying him across the floor, little more. He'd throw long, probing jabs out, but he didn't like chasing opponents. Louis was at his best when they were either trapped against the ropes and unable to give ground, or stopped on their own terms and threw punches back. That shuffling footwork kept Louis on balance and in position to slip at all times.

From the first minute of the bout there was a noticeable pattern in Walcott's movement—though it is one which has been largely uncommented on in the sixty years since the bout. Walcott would jab and lead hook as he moved around to the right, and after every handful of left moving jabs, he would cross his left foot in front of his right and retreat deeply on a slight angle to the right.

It seemed like a completely pointless movement. All crossing your feet does in a boxing match is put you off balance if you take a blow, gifting the other man an easy knockdown. Furthermore, at times Walcott was almost turning his back on Louis—his right hand was as far away from the target as possible until he had completely his return to stance. It wasn't a questionable tactical decision, or arrogance. It was downright stupid.

But Walcott was crazy like a fox. This long retreating cross step placed Walcott on a slight angle, and a good distance from Louis, forcing Louis to turn and to take an extra step if he hoped to land his right hand. It encouraged Louis to chase. Each time Louis' jab came out, Walcott slipped it and knew that Louis would be stepping in behind it to throw his right.

Consistently Walcott was able to slip the jab and beat Louis to the right hand, and this put a timidity in Louis which was rare to see. Following the fight, Louis gave a quote regarding slowing with age—but recalling that Walcott was older and slower than Louis, and seeing this strategy evidenced time and time again, the quote takes on new meaning:

“I could see the openings, but my right hand couldn't see them.”

The baits became even more flamboyant in the later rounds as Walcott marched from stance to stance, comfortably ahead on points in his mind, and with a passive opponent. Walcott even brought out his cross steps—backhanding a southpaw jab at Louis as he mocked the champion by completely abandoning stance to dance. Finally, in the last round, Louis came after Walcott, and Walcott skittered out of the way and dodged out of corners—knowing he had already won.

A cross step, a classical side step, and some lovely counter punching.

While the referee gave his vote for Walcott, the two ringside judges sided, almost unfathomably, with Louis. The arena erupted in boos. The judges had not saved Louis face by gifting him an undeserved decision; they had drawn further attention to how poorly he had performed. A rematch was demanded and promptly signed.

This time around Louis wasn't suckered in. Waiting on Walcott to lead, Louis slipped and attempted to land counter combinations. Suddenly, in the third round, Walcott lazily performed the cross step—now being touted by the press as 'The Walcott Shuffle'—and Louis fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Louis moved in behind his jab and as his feet shuffled up to position him for the right hand, Walcott rocked back in and belted Louis with his own right which sent the champion to the floor.

Jack Blackburn was long since dead, and many of Louis' closest advisers were no longer with him. Anyone who could have picked apart what Walcott was doing was certainly not in the champion's corner that night. Yet Louis always had such composure and stoic discipline that it was often mistaken for slowness. Louis returned to conservative counter punching and Walcott became more eager to force the champion to lead. Walcott was never much for trash talk, but he could infuriate with his actions in the ring. As the bout wore on he used his alternating side steps or a 'cakewalk' to stand in front of Louis and call the champion on in hopes of countering.

But it was Walcott's antics and eschewing of traditional boxing fundamentals which also served to undo him. As the match progressed, Walcott became more and more anxious to find an opening and ultimately overcommitted in his attempts to cajole a lead from Louis—eating a right hand which sent him to the ropes. Walcott went into his usual slipping and rolling, reportedly shouting to the referee that he was indeed fine. He then returned with a cracking left hook which hit Louis clean on the jawline. Except Walcott stood still to admire the effects. Louis was a combination puncher—it didn't matter if he got hit, the punches kept coming. A right hook immediately rung Walcott's bell, and a flurry of hooks followed.

As Walcott slumped to the mat, so did his dreams of the belt. He had been given two cracks at the world heavyweight title, he would certainly not receive another.

The Cincinnati Cobra

Yet another lay off followed as Walcott took a year to decide whether he was out of the boxing game for good. However, the retirement of Louis saw Walcott's efforts against the long time champion rewarded with a fight against Ezzard Charles for the vacant belt. Charles, one of the finest technicians in boxing history, out boxed Walcott and took up the heavyweight strap. Walcott tried everything he could think of, but Charles was too smart, too polished, and too well acquainted with the footage of Louis being felled by Walcott to fall into lunging at old Jersey Joe.

Walcott returned with a streak of four knockouts—an incredible rate for him as he was a banger but not a tremendous finisher—before fighting Charles again. In the second bout Walcott showed a new, more aggressive side to his style and hurt Charles' body, but was punished for his many overcommitments in an aspect of the game in which he hadn't fought much in the past. Charles took the decision. The boxing historian, John D. McCallum noted that Jersey Joe Walcott 'had no license whatsoever to be getting a third shot at Charles”, but in one of the few turns of good fortune in Walcott's life, Charles signed it anyway.

Perhaps Charles was out of challengers, the heavyweight division was desperately weak following the war and Charles had already defended his title eight times. Or perhaps he just appreciated the chance to hold the first heavyweight title fight in his home town of Pittsburgh, against a fighter he had already bested twice. The opening rounds were the same as in the other two bouts, with both men reluctant to lead and throwing non-committal jabs from too far away. Occasionally Walcott would sink a left hook to the body as Charles jabbed, but largely the fight was far from action packed. Finally, following the referee breaking one of the frequent clinches, Walcott strutted towards Charles, slipped the champion's jab, and landed the terrific left uppercut he had been testing out all night.

Walcott was finally the world heavyweight champion after an unprecedented five attempts at the title. Life magazine called him 'the most implausible heavyweight champion of the world'. The man who was living on nine dollars of relief a week was suddenly picking up a cheque for fifty thousand and being adored by the nation. In a fourth fight with Ezzard Charles, Walcott took the decision and had his first title defence in the books. Then it was on to new blood.

The Great White Hope

The heavyweight division had been in a pitiful state following the Second World War, but with Rocky Marciano's victory over the returning Joe Louis, it seemed like there might be a 'Great White Hope' for the heavyweight title. Marciano was a clumsy boxer who lacked ringcraft and held one of the shortest reaches of any heavyweight boxer in history, but when the fight reached the inside, Marciano was one of a kind.

Marciano entered the bout as an eight-to-five favourite—a rare occasion of the challenger being the betting favourite in a heavyweight title fight—while the old timers of the sport tended to favour Walcott when pushed for an opinion. It was youth and aggression versus ringcraft and experience. Some pointed to the success of Lee Savold, a lesser boxer and also an old man by prize ring standards, who had given Marciano fits simply by using movement to facilitate his long blows, and tie ups to stall Marciano out in his preferred range. Others pointed to Walcott's preferred pace being markedly lower than the one which Marciano put on his opponents even when losing bouts.

Walcott surprised everyone, including Marciano, by leaping straight in to trade blows with the crowding infighter. After hammering the notorious slow starter with some hard right hands, and tying him up, Walcott showed a new trick in his arsenal—a razor sharp short lead left hook. The champion had always played with the idea of leading with the left hook (a rare trait in true scientific boxers because of its slower path than the straight jab), but the left hook Walcott threw repeatedly against Marciano was different. Stepping in deep, as he would on his jab, Walcott threw the hook from almost chest-to-chest. It was a picture perfect technique for Marciano, because Marciano would always be stepping in to meet it. Walcott went to this technique time and time again after dropping Marciano with it in the opening minute, making sure to attempt to pivot off line each time he connected it.

Walcott's long lead left hook against Joe Louis.

Walcott's tight, pivoting lead left hook against Rocky Marciano. Notice how Walcott turns off line.

As the champion and an underdog against a young upstart, Walcott was startling in his aggression but sharp on the counter. Between the heavy leather there was the usual Walcott craft. His shoulder roll and reverse shoulder roll saw Walcott effortlessly evade or weather many of Marciano's blows. Indeed, Walcott fought off of the ropes with a rare efficacy in the early part of this bout. The last place one would want to be against an infighter ordinarily. 

The reverse shoulder roll is a peculiarity, as it involves pausing in a position with the hips full rotated and the right shoulder thrust forward. But it protected Walcott from counters when he got  lazy recovering his right hand.

But Marciano's grinding work and pace, and the champion's own decision to try for an early knockout soon caught up with Walcott. Where he had tied Marciano up with ease early on, Marciano's commitment to nuzzling his head underneath Walcott's and creating space to either wriggle his arms free or pound the champion's body was paying dividends.

As Walcott began to look obviously exhausted in the sixth round, the two men clashed heads, opening cuts on both. The seconds hurried to close the cuts and the substances used soon rubbed into the fighters' eyes as they got back to battling in the trenches through the seventh round. Marciano got the worse of it, and found himself reaching blind for Walcott. The next few rounds were an exhausting grind until the eleventh, when Walcott suddenly found his second wind and put together his best round of the fight. A right hand to the short rib had Marciano bent double as Walcott teed off against the Brockton Blockbuster's block. A.J. Liebling recalled that Walcott versus Marciano had four changes of lead on the scorecards.

With Walcott leading at the end of the twelfth round, Marciano was in a hole. He had been made to look foolish for the last two rounds, the old man was no longer tired and even when Marciano got him to the ropes Walcott was even getting the better of the exchanges from there. As Jersey Joe backed himself to the ropes ready to counter punch—which Liebling termed “milling in retreat”—Marciano shuffled in and delivered the shortest right hand of his career. It wasn't the old Marciano 'blind right', thrown overhead as he ducked into the clinch, it was a pure right straight thrown over a foot and a half. The purest of right straights by Jack Dempsey's criteria: Marciano's left foot stepping on the punch to ensure the transfer of weight from one foot to the other, in the direction of the blow.

Walcott melted along the ropes, and fell slowly to the floor. The referee continued counting even as Walcott's body gave to gravity and slowly spread, face down across the mat.  It was superfluous, the champion was a champion no longer. The reign of Walcott, a blip on the radar of the heavyweight division, was over. It seemed even more tragic to end a bout that many in the press considered the greatest heavyweight title bout they had ever seen witnessed with such a brutal knockout. Joe had done the work, he had survived Marciano's pace and pulled the fight back, only to be knocked flat by one punch.

Years later, Walcott was asked to compare the power of Louis and remarked that while getting hit by Louis, one always knew there were more punches coming, Marciano had a special kind of power. The kind of power which simply took a fighter out of the game with no chance to recover.

But all was not lost for Walcott. The tremendous first fight, which made it into more movie theatres than even Joe Louis' title bouts, led to the signing of a second. If Walcott could just avoid that one big blow for a couple more rounds, he could regain his title. He had the craft and he'd shown it through twelve rounds.

The rematch was one of the most peculiar fights in heavyweight title history. After the usual feeling out, and Walcott tying Marciano up as he moved in, Walcott was hit with another short right hand, this time as he was bending over. It travelled across Marciano's chest and stiffened the legs of the elder man. Walcott fell to the floor, grabbed the rope, sat up and looked off into the distance as the referee counted him out. At 'ten', Walcott rose, complained that the count had been fast, and then congratulated Marciano.  The spectators couldn't get over it. What had happened?

They say that Walcott gave up. It's more than likely that he did. Bert Sugar reported that despite being the challenger, Walcott was receiving two hundred thousand dollars more than Rocky Marciano. It was more money that Walcott had seen in his entire life. He took the count, he lost the fight, and he went home to the wife and family he had starved himself to provide for.

To the fight fan, that is abhorrent. It is sacrilege against the sanctity of the prizefight. To the man who knows the life of Arnold Cream, that might be the strangest happy ending in the business.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.


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