The controversies in recent years regarding boxers not making weight has angered many boxing fans and rightfully so. Whether it’s Floyd Mayweather intentionally coming in over the agreed weight limit against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2009, or Adrien Broner and Julio Cesear Chavez Jr. repeatedly demonstrating complete contempt for weigh-ins on more than one occasion, this disregard for one of the most basic obligations a boxer has seriously undermines the integrity of the sport.
Obviously there is an unfair advantage if one pugilist has made the necessary sacrifices to reach the required weight and the other has not. But that said, many boxing fans might be surprised to learn that many of the great boxers of the past regarded weigh-ins and weight advantages as things that had about as much bearing on their practice as the relative humidity or a boxer’s shoe size. True gladiators like Sam Langford, Mickey Walker and Jimmy Wilde never turned away a challenge, no matter how much their adversary weighed.
So it was for the first Joe Walcott, not to be confused with heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott who decades later named himself after the legendary ring warrior. Born in the Barbados, the original Walcott grew up with his family in Massachusetts where as a youth the future champion worked at various jobs including helping to sweep up in one of Boston’s many fight gyms. It wasn’t long before Walcott began training and sparring and his natural athletic abilities came to the fore. He turned pro in 1890 at the age of 17 and within five years had established himself as one of the sport’s most fearsome battlers, the writers of the day pegging him as the hardest hitting welterweight in the world.
Walcott’s abilities stemmed in large part from his physical gifts which had nothing to do with size and weight and everything to do with natural strength, power, stamina and durability. Standing under 5’2″, Walcott sported a massive upper body for his stature with an 18 inch neck, a 41 inch chest, and long, powerful arms. Nat Fleischer described him as a “sawed-off Hercules” and “an abnormally powerful puncher.” The National Police Gazette marveled at Walcott’s power, stating that one clean strike from Joe was equal to five from his opponent.
Similar to other great black fighters of the time such as George Dixon, Joe Gans and Sam Langford, it was difficult for Walcott to secure a chance at a world title or to get a fair shake. Having established himself as one of the best welterweights in the world, the current champion, Tommy Ryan, avoided him, forcing Walcott to try for Kid Lavigne’s lightweight title in 1897. Drained by the effort to make weight, Walcott dropped a close decision. The following year Walcott lost another close decision to fellow great “Mysterious” Billy Smith for Smith’s welterweight title. Walcott was given another shot at the welterweight belt in 1901 when he fought Jim (“Rube”) Ferns and Walcott won easily with a fifth-round knockout. He kept the title until 1904, when he lost to the legendary Dixie Kid by controversial disqualification (it was later established the referee had bet on Dixie) in the first world title match between two black boxers.
But as any boxing historian knows, championships had little to do with true boxing greatness during Walcott’s era. For example, boxing legend Sam Langford received only one try at a title, a 15 round war with Walcott which ended in a draw, but he is regarded by most as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Instead, it is Walcott’s many fights against much larger men that sets him apart as a genuine immortal of the ring. Frustrated by the difficulties in securing matches against the best welterweights of the day, Walcott issued public demands to fight the better big men instead, and when given the chance, Walcott, amazingly, routinely bested much taller and heavier fighers.
For example, Walcott’s manager, Tom O’Rourke, also handled heavyweight contender Sailor Tom Sharkey who twice went the distance with heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. O’Rourke stated that he had to stop Walcott from sparring with Sharkey because Joe kept knocking Sailor Tom down. The Aug. 28, 1895 Boston Herald reported that Walcott weighed 138 pounds against Dick O’Brien’s 150, but so confident was O’Rourke in his fighter that he waived the weight. Walcott knocked out O’Brien in the first round. In fact, Walcott beat a number of top middleweights including Jack Bonner, Tommy West, Kid Carter, George Cole, and Joe Grim. He fought light-heavyweight champ George Gardner twice, winning once by 20 round decision.
But perhaps the best example of Walcott’s amazing ability to defeat much larger men is his win over Joe Choynski, a truly formidable heavyweight who had competed with the likes of Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Johnson. Choynski outweighed Walcott by some 30 pounds and was a five to one favourite but Walcott showed his incredible power and strength in flooring Choynski multiple times en route to winning by a seventh round stoppage. The contemporary equivalent of this would be Floyd Mayweather or Shawn Porter taking on Adonis Stevenson or Marco Huck and winning by knockout. Just pause for a second and consider that.
Walcott’s ring immortality is based on such amazing feats, as well as the esteem he was held in by the fellow greats of his era. Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson rated Walcott, along with Langford and Fitzsimmons, as the most powerful hitter of his time. Langford himself paid Walcott the great tribute of ranking him the hardest puncher he had faced in his long career. “He was the hardest hitter I ever met,” stated Langford. “Never before or since have I been hit as hard and as often as that night, and I never landed more blows on a fighter than I hurled into Joe Walcott that night.”
In 1904, Walcott injured his right hand in a gun accident and did not compete for two years. He returned to the ring greatly diminished before finally retiring in 1911. Unfortunately, Walcott had lived fast, squandering his ring earnings on the usual vices. In retirement, he barely got by before being hired as a custodian for Madison Square Garden. He died in 1935 after being struck by a car.
Both Nat Fleischer and Charley Rose rated Walcott as the best welterweight of all time and historian Monte Cox states that his “success against men of much higher weights leads one to believe that no modern welterweight could have gone the 20 round distance with him.” Doubtless, he deserves to stand as a true, pound-for-pound ring great and perhaps the best “giant killer” the sport has ever seen. — Michael Carbert