It was 1952, and ever since the great Joe Louis had relinquished his world title in 1948, the world championship of the big men had been lost in a storm of confusion. It would take an extraordinary fight and the sport’s only undefeated heavyweight champion to help boxing’s premier weight class regain coherence.
Before retiring, Louis had faced veteran Jersey Joe Walcott twice. Their first clash was one of the most controversial in history as the judges gave “The Brown Bomber” a narrow points win when virtually everyone else saw Walcott the clear winner. The aging champion’s mortality was clearly showing and when he announced his career was finished after scoring an eleventh round knockout of Walcott in the rematch, it seemed to all like the right decision. But shortly thereafter Louis was faced with a bill from the IRS for overdue taxes and the man who had donated hundreds of thousands to help the nation during World War II had little choice but to lace up the gloves again.
Meanwhile, Ezzard Charles had emerged as the new world champ with a points win over Walcott. He turned back the challenge of the comebacking Louis and went on to defend his title against the likes of Lee Oma and Joey Maxim, while Joe continued to fight, hoping for another chance for the title and another much-needed big payday. Instead, in October of 1951 he ran into a burly young slugger from Brockton, Massachusetts named Rocky Marciano. The two contenders battled in Madison Square Garden and nostalgic fans of “The Brown Bomber” fought back tears after Louis was knocked out by the younger, stronger man in round eight.
But earlier that same year Charles and Walcott had fought twice more, the rematch in Detroit yielding another decision win for “The Cincinnati Cobra,” but more than a few thought the verdict represented a second championship robbery inflicted upon Jersey Joe. So, Ezzard and Walcott made it a trilogy, this time in Pittsburgh, and this time old Jersey Joe scored a most historic win as with a lightning left hook in round seven he became the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
The following June Walcott beat Charles again, this time on points, while Marciano had scored four straight knockout wins to firmly establish himself as the division’s top contender. The stage was set: the two best heavyweights in the world were Jersey Joe and “The Rock” and their battle for the championship drew some fifty thousand to Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium and was beamed to a then-record fifty theaters in major cities across America.
Marciano vs Walcott inspired great public interest in part because opinions on who was more likely to win were sharply divided. For most, Marciano’s advantages in youth and power were too much for a ring-worn, 38-year-old veteran to overcome. But more than a few saw Walcott’s edge in experience, ring-smarts and technique as being the deciding factors. Jersey Joe was too old and used up, said some; Rocky was too callow and crude, said others.
For his part, Walcott dismissed Marciano as lacking the ability to give him a tough battle, let alone defeat him. To the veteran’s eyes, Rocky was an inexperienced and unschooled brawler, lacking in finesse and technique. “Write this down,” he growled to reporters. “He can’t fight. If I don’t lick him, take my name out of the record books.”
And for the better part of twelve rounds, Walcott and his backers were proved correct. Midway through the opening stanza the champion stunned the challenger and the huge crowd when he snapped home a vicious left hook and gave Marciano the first knockdown of his career. Rocky was up at the count of four but clearly hurt and took a beating for the rest of the stanza. Indeed, Walcott dominated the first three rounds of the match, testing Rocky’s chin repeatedly and making liars out of those who had dismissed him as too old to compete with the younger man.
But the challenger started to turn the tide in round four, finding his footing and bulling his way inside to launch his own offensive. It had been a fast-paced and bruising battle and the struggle only intensified as, through sheer brute strength and aggression, Rocky forced Walcott’s back to the ropes. There the two gladiators engaged in one ferocious exchange after another and in the sixth they clashed heads: the challenger suffered a cut on his scalp, the champion a slice over his left eye.
Naturally both corners applied solutions and coagulants to treat the wounds and at the end of round seven Marciano walked back to his corner declaring he couldn’t see. Something had gotten into his eyes and for the next three rounds he fought with impaired vision. Walcott didn’t need to be asked twice. He took full advantage of his vulnerable challenger, easily avoiding most of Rocky’s now inaccurate punches and then countering with precision, landing big shots again and again, opening up more cuts on Marciano’s face and raising swelling around his left eye.
It was proving a most impressive performance: the grizzled, 38-year-old warrior, a veteran of so many battles with so many great battlers, one of the very few to defeat the great Joe Louis only to be denied by the judges, was doing everything he said he would and out-boxing the younger, stronger man. After twelve bruising, fast-paced rounds he was in command, so far ahead on points that Rocky needed a knockout to win. Indeed, experience, skill and ring intelligence were proving too much for raw power and youthful exuberance.
And then it all came to a crashing end. Marciano answered the bell for round thirteen with malice in his heart, intent on turning the tide and finally imposing his will. He stalked the champion from a crouch, forcing him to retreat, and when Walcott’s back touched the ropes both men unleashed big right hands. It was akin to the stereotypical gunslinger duels from the old western movies, the two cowboys drawing their guns in the dusty street, each man firing a single killer shot.
As it turned out, Rocky was the quicker draw and he fired a perfectly timed lead right hook that barely traveled ten inches. The blow landed flush on the chin and turned off Jersey Joe’s brain with all the suddenness of a power failure. The instant that punch connected, the match, and Walcott’s reign as heavyweight champion, were over. Joe collapsed in sections into the ropes, his left arm, hooked over the middle strand, suspending him as Marciano landed a gratuitous left to the side of Joe’s head. The referee tolled the ten count as the now ex-champion’s insensate body slowly surrendered to gravity and came to rest on the canvas; he could have counted to a thousand if he wanted.
That short, vicious right hand would prove to be one of the most consequential punches ever thrown in a prize ring. A single blow not only erased Walcott’s lead on the scorecards, but also marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the heavyweight championship and the end of Jersey Joe’s Cinderella career.
Marciano vs Walcott II took place eight months later and those hoping for another dramatic and action-packed battle were left completely disappointed. Walcott was knocked out in the opening round, the defeat demonstrating that a single right hand had destroyed Jersey Joe’s confidence and finished him as a boxer. Rocky went on to rule the heavyweights for the next three years, imposing order on the chaos that had ensued after “The Brown Bomber’s” retirement. And years later, when asked about the toughest battles in his career, Marciano would point to that first brutal slugfest with Walcott as a grueling test he was grateful to have passed. — Michael Carbert