Time Tunnel: 50th Anniversary of Rocky Marciano VS Jersey Joe Walcott
by B. R. Bearden
Today, Sept. 23rd, 2002, is the 50th anniversary of Rocky Marciano taking the heavyweight crown from Jersey Joe Walcott with a 13th round, come-from-behind knockout. It was the kind of win that makes a champion, one punch changing the course of heavyweight history.
Champion Joe Walcott, though 37 years old, was in excellent shape and by all accounts of the time was considered a late-bloomer, a fighter with a late prime, such as Lennox Lewis is showing. Marciano was considered a strong, tough, but crude brawler who stood little chance to beat the slick Walcott in the opinions of many of the experts of the time. For those who don't know of Walcott, or just know his age when he lost to Marciano, and think that tells all you need to know, read up on the man. He was a superb boxer. He did a baffling move with his feet called the Walcott
Shuffle, which Ali would copy and rename. It was a shift of his feet, first one, then the other leading. He didn't change from righty to southpaw as some try now, but he confused his opponents with his footwork. His grandson says even Bruce Lee studied films of Walcott for the way he moved his feet. Watch a film of Jersey Joe, then a Bruce Lee film and you can see the similarity.
His jab was a work of art. Ring magazine once did a frame by frame comparison of Walcott's jab and Ali's jab at similar stages of their careers and found that Jersey Joe threw four jabs in the time Ali threw three. And they were more in the nature of the jabs of Larry Holmes or Joe Louis, striking with power behind them.
He also had a sneak left hook, which Ezzard Charles called a "sucker" punch. He would do his foot moves, move his shoulders, then come out of nowhere with the hook. He dropped Joe Louis with it twice, he dropped Marciano with it, and he knocked Ezzard Charles out with it.
When Louis was training to fight Schmelling the first time, Walcott was hired as a sparring partner. In the first round of sparring he dropped Louis. They fired him; a bad mistake. If they'd kept him around, he might have showed them why Louis was so hittable; instead they had to let Schmelling show them in the ring when he beat Louis from pillar to post and knocked him out in 11.
When Walcott fought Louis for real years later in 1947, he showed he still had the Brown Bomber's number. He dropped Louis twice, closed his left eye, and was declared the winner by the referee, the crowd, and Louis himself. However, the two judges were too much Louis fans to let him lose on decision and gave the fight to Louis. He had actually left the ring in defeat when the judges declared he was the winner and not Walcott.
Marciano, on the other hand, wasn't a smooth boxer. He was a brawler, a tough, give-and-take Italian-American kid who counted on brute strength and endurance to win fights. He was the ultimate attrition fighter, a swarmer who could throw 85+ punches a round and keep it up for a full 15. His training methods are almost legendary, a fanaticism with conditioning that shut out family, friends, and the outside world for much of his eight years as a fighter. He pushed himself beyond the limits of almost any other fighter who ever lived, till he was an unstoppable machine that never tired and never backed away. Archie Moore said he was the best conditioned fighter of that entire era, in any weight class. Boxing experts agree he was the best conditioned heavyweight champion of them all. His opponents LaStarza, Walcott, Charles, and Moore all said the same thing, "He never stopped punching."
Later champion George Foreman said, "The bell would ring and Marciano would be on you. The bell would ring to stop the round and he'd quit. The bell would ring again and he'd be right back on you. He was relentless." He threw punches from all angles, with equal power in either hand, and all were meant to do damage. He broke bones when he hit. LaStarza tried to cover up against him, an early rope-a-dope, and Marciano beat his arms till he broke the bones in the elbows and ruptured the blood vessels in the forearms. Roland had to have operations on both arms after the fight. He hit
big Rex Layne with a right hand that sent his mouth piece flying. His front teeth went with it. As one of his handlers said, "His front teeth were sheared off at the gums."
He hit Lee Savold with upper cuts that drove his teeth up into his jaw, requiring hospitalization. He put Carmine Vinga into a coma and ended his career. After their fight, Archie Moore was asked which of Marciano's punches had hurt him. He said, "Man, they all hurt!" He added, "After fighting Marciano, you feel like you've been beaten with a blackjack or hit with rocks." It would be the fearsome punching power and willingness to take punishment of the challenger against the experience and excellent boxing skill of the champion. Just as with Ali and Frazier in years to come, it was the fight fan's dream match, the boxer against the slugger, the contrast of styles that often lead to the best fights.
When Walcott was matched against Marciano, the odds slightly favored the younger challenger, but the odds had been 5-1 against Joe when he knocked out Ezzard Charles to take the title. Most of those in the know expected Walcott to beat Rocky, too. Walcott and his manager continued work on setting up a fight in England for after the Marciano fight. Others were jockeying for position to claim the next bout with Jersey Joe.
Walcott said of Marciano, "If I can't beat this bum, take my name off the record books. I guess he can punch, but he's got two left feet. He can't box a little bit. I've never seen anybody easier to hit." Such was Joe's opinion of Marciano before the fight. Afterwards he would concede, "With all respect to Joe Louis, Marciano hits harder."
As a strange aside to the fight, the word spread through the underworld that Marciano would not be allowed to take the title, unless he knocked Walcott out. Walking to the ring, Rocky was told by a detective Weill had hired to look into the rumors, "You can't win a decision. You have to knock him out to win." Some time later, word came out that even the referee, Charley Taggert, was bought.
There were other odd occurrences. Marciano was one of the coolest, most confident men to ever fight. Like Joe Louis, he would sleep in the dressing room before the fight. In the Walcott match, they had planned on waking him 45 minutes before fight time to warm up. But, he was woken when someone ran to the dressing room and said, "They're starting the fight early. He has to be in the ring in 15 minutes!" With no time to warm up, coming out of a sleep, Marciano was hurried to the ring.
In the first round Waclott caught Marciano with two left hooks. The first lifted Rocky's right foot off the canvas and put him off-balance. The second one dropped him. Walcott knew it was a solid punch, it had knocked out Charles and dropped Louis twice, but he didn't realize how strong Marciano was. Archie Moore, who was there, said of it: "Walcott, you could see his chest swell five inches. He just turned around and walked away. He turned his back. That's where he lost his man right there. Man been in the ring long as Walcott and me, he knows where the ropes is. He knows where the corner is. He don't have to turn around. Walcott turned his back, then went over to the ropes thinkin' he just wait for the man to count him out. He swung around again ... man was on his feet. Marciano didn't take a count. Got right up!" Moore said Walcott jumped in surprise, something the film didn't catch as it was focused on Marciano. "But he looked, jumped. He lost his rhythm right there. He was out of the rhythm of his fight."
The referee started counting, Marciano's corner was yelling for him to take the eight count, but Rocky got right up. The referee later said he knew Marciano wasn't hurt because just as he started to count Marciano rose to a knee, looked across at Walcott, and said, "You son-of-a-bitch! I'll get you!"
The fight that followed was classic. Walcott the master boxer moving, jabbing, hooking, and Marciano boring in, throwing punches from all angles. It was the matador and the bull, and though the bull was getting in his licks, the matador was making him pay a blood price. By round 6, despite the knockdown, Marciano was 4-2 on the referee's card, 3-3 on one judge's and 3-3 on the others. It was a close fight. But coming back to his corner in the 6th, after a clash of heads, Marciano complained, "There's something in my eyes. They're burning." When he came to his corner after the 7th round, Marciano said, "My eyes are getting worse. Do something! I can't see!"
"We suspected it was some kind of medication used on Walcott," Allie Columbo, Marciano's cornerman, said. "But we didn't know what to do about it. We just kept trying to wash the stuff out of his eyes, but they seemed to be getting worse all the time."
"What're they doing? What're they doin' to Rocky?" Al Weill, his manager, yelled at the referee. Then referring to Walcott he demanded, "Check his gloves, check his gloves! They've got something on his gloves!" Rather than check the gloves, referee Taggert ordered Weill to sit down and shut up or he'd have him removed from the arena. On the TV broadcast version of the fight you can hear the exchange clearly, yet Taggert claimed afterwards he wasn't aware of any vision problem Marciano was having, nor did anyone ask him to check Walcott's gloves.
"It seemed like Walcott had some stuff between his neck and shoulder where I rested my head when we got in close. Every time we came together, my eyes would start smarting again," Rocky later said. But Hall of Fame promoter Sam Silverman said, "They blinded him in his own corner. I was sitting ringside, right next to them. I think it was poor work, a mistake by his own handlers, that blinded Rocky. Whatever they used on his head got into his eyes."
If so, the substance was a caustic mix called "dynamite". It would burn the skin, closing a wound during a fight. Afterwards, the damaged skin tissue needed to be removed by a surgeon to prevent a bad scar. Dynamite could cause permanent eye injury if it got in the eyes. From the 7th through the 10th rounds Marciano was virtually blind. Some said medication, the "dynamite" used to seal the head wound he received from an accidental butt or to seal a wound on Walcott, did it. Others said something was put on Walcott's gloves. Whatever it was, for those 4 rounds Marciano was unable to see Walcott and took a terrible beating.
"Walcott had the legs of a twenty-year-old," Silverman said. "He was having the best fight of his career. He must've put Rocky into two hundred head-on collisions. It was one of the worst lickings I ever seen a guy get...The poor kid couldn't see. He was getting the shit punched out of him."
Rocky said, "I couldn't see Walcott at all...couldn't see the punches coming. The only time I felt safe was when we were touching, so I kept following after him to get in close." Walcott would later say, "If there was something in his eyes, it had to be medication."
Rocky's corner washed his eyes out between rounds, dousing them with ice water, and slowly they began to clear. By the 10th round he was able to see Walcott and by the 11th his eyes were clear. In films of the fight you can see Marciano rubbing his eyes with his gloves every time Walcott clinches with him and in still photos his bloodshot eyes are obvious. Ali would suffer the same fate against Liston over a decade later.
As Marciano's eyes cleared, he came after Walcott with renewed fury, heedless of the damage he received from his charges. He was after blood. In the 11th, Walcott went all out to finish him, and Marciano took a battering. At one point, Walcott held with his right hand and delivered a series of powerful left hooks to Marciano's head. The challenger, mad with frustration, took the punches and never ceased to throw his own in return. Walcott learned, as did all others who made it into the later rounds with Marciano (and there weren't many who did), that Rocky never tired. His incredible stamina, his super-human conditioning, made him able to absorb unbelievable amounts of punishment and still retain his strength.
In the 13th, Walcott stepped back to the ropes and did a shift to sucker Marciano into range, and threw a right. At the same time, Rocky started a right of his own. Marciano's landed first, snapping Jersey Joe's head around. He slumped to the floor, one arm briefly dangling over a rope. The
referee counted him out, then rolled him onto his back, still unconscious. There were many at ringside who thought he was dead. As The Ring, December 1952 issue said, "While Charley Daggert kept counting over the fallen champion, there was never a twitch from Walcott as he lay crumpled on the canvas. The spectators looked on in awe. Many feared that old Jersey Joe had been fatally injured, so tense was his body."
The Ring issue said, "It wasn't so much old age that beat Jersey Joe. It wasn't a decrepit old man who faced the Brockton Block Buster. Walcott put up one of the best fights of his long career, a most remarkable one. Had he not been up against the ropes when the mighty crash felled him, he might have carried on to win the nod of the three officials. It was a miscalculation of a trick he often had used to good advantage that cost him the fight. With back against the ropes, he shifted his body in an effort to baffle his opponent, and that movement brought him in direct line for the
right that put him away."
It was the beating Marciano took during the fight, and especially those 4 rounds when he was unable to see the punches, and the later fight with Charles where he overcame a nose split in two to knock Ezzard out, that cemented his legacy as one of the toughest SOBs to ever enter a ring.
The scorecards at the time of the knockout read:
Walcott leading by a score of 7-4-1
Walcott leading by 7-5
Walcott in the lead 8-4
Rocky Marciano: Biography of a First Son by Everett M. Skehan
International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book
My own website: