"Jersey" Joe Walcott
He was the portrait of persistence, the ultimate late bloomer; and at an age when most boxers of his era would have been comfortably settled into retirement, Jersey Joe Walcott reached the pinnacle of his ring career.
“I always felt in my heart that God would give it to me”, Walcott once said about his long and bumpy quest for the heavyweight championship. His world title finally came in 1951, after a long career that included four failed attempts to take the crown, but Jersey Joe Walcott was never deterred from his dream. He just kept plugging along until he reached the top.
Jersey Joe was born Arnold Raymond Cream on January 31, 1914, in Merchantville, NJ. His parents were poor Barbadian immigrants who struggled to support their twelve children. So, young Arnold Cream entered the work force early, selling milk on the streets, and later working the docks.
By 16, he became a professional boxer and renamed himself after the former welterweight champion known as the “Barbados Demon”, who fought out of the family homeland before Cream was born. Eventually the “Jersey” was added to his new name, and the legend of Jersey Joe Walcott began.
In his first bout, September 9, 1930, Walcott scored a quick knockout of Cowboy Frank Willis at Vineland, NJ, and earned the winner’s purse of $15. However, this quick win did not set the pace for the remainder of his career. Joe toiled as a club fighter for years before making headway. “I was fighting 17 years before I made more than $300”, Walcott recalled. Twice he interrupted his career to earn money in more traditional ways. But by 1935 he was in boxing to stay.
In 1936, Walcott (11-1) took his first step up in competition, and faced the far more seasoned Al Ettore (52-7-2). The result was a resounding KO loss for Jersey Joe. But Walcott picked himself up, and continued to chase his dream.
He faced many fine fighters along the way, scoring victories against the likes of Willie Reddish, a young Elmer “Violent” Ray (twice), Curtis “Hatchet Man” Sheppard, and Jimmy Bivins. But his rise was stalled by losses to Billy Ketchell, George Brothers, Tiger Jack Fox (twice), and Abe Simon.
In 1946, when he lost consecutive fights to a mature Elmer “Violent” Ray and the world-renowned Joey Maxim, Walcott’s career seemed to be going nowhere, despite his 41-11-2 record. However, Jersey Joe wouldn’t be counted out yet.
He bounced back by posting another victory over Ray, sandwiched between two wins against Maxim, earning Walcott his first crack at the title.
On December 5, 1947, Walcott faced the legendary Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden for the heavyweight crown. Louis brought a dazzling 56-1 record into his 24th defense, but Walcott fought the fight of his life. He dropped the champ twice, and appeared to do plenty for the win. Louis even left the ring in disgust before the decision was announced. But Louis was given the decision, leaving Walcott with another disappointment. “He came to me after the decision was announced and said, ‘I’m sorry Joe; you won it.’”, Walcott claimed often through the years. Louis always denied having said that.
His excellent performance earned Walcott a rematch with Louis, but the Brown Bomber proved his greatness by coming off the floor to halt Walcott in round eleven.
Back to the drawing board, Walcott rebuilt his career with a 5-1 run before facing Cincinnati’s Ezzard Charles for the heavyweight title vacated by Joe Louis. Charles beat Walcott by decision and repeated with another win over Walcott four months later.
The pair was matched again on July 18, 1951. At 37 years of age, Walcott was given little chance for an upset. However this time Jersey Joe delivered. A crushing left hook in round seven brought the patient fighter from Merchantville the biggest prize in sports – the world heavyweight championship.
In 1952, Walcott beat Charles in their fourth fight, and then lost the title to Rocky Marciano. After dropping a rematch with Marciano, Jersey Joe retired with a final record of 51-18-2 (32 KOs).
After his boxing days, Walcott was a referee and appeared in the film “The Harder They Fall”. Later he became the Sherriff of Camden County and served as long-time Chairman of the NJ State Athletic Commission. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Walcott, the father of six children, died February 25, 1994 in Camden, NJ.