This morning we welcome another new writer to Bad Left Hook, as James Foley looks back on the night in 1947 when Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott met for the first time.
Jersey Joe Walcott, one of the sport's genuine all-time greats and arguably most underrated talents, was certainly involved in his share of boxing history. He was the unconscious recipient of what is widely considered the most devastating knockout punch ever thrown, courtesy of Rocky Marciano in 1952. He played an infamous role in the "Phantom Punch" controversy of Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston II in 1965. Walcott was the referee on that fateful night, a bumbling performance that ranks right up there with the recent work of Joe Cortez. And Jersey's classic four-fight series with Ezzard Charles (1949-1952) will never be forgotten. But to capture the essence of Walcott, the man and the fighter, you have to check out his electric performance in 1947 against then heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
It's important to note the backdrop of this championship fight. This was post-world war II Louis, not the prime beast of 1938-42 who had obliterated every one of his challengers in an unrivaled stretch of divisional dominance. He officially returned in 1946 after more than four years out of the ring to face former foe Billy Conn. The rematch to their classic battle of 1941 was as uninteresting and vapid as the first fight had been phenomenal, as Louis rather routinely knocked out the much smaller man. He followed that up with a first round drubbing of unworthy contender Tami Mauriello. Louis then took a year off, flirted with retirement, and returned to face his next slated challenger, Walcott, on December 5, 1947.
Walcott was something of a journeyman going into the Louis fight, coming off two wins over future light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim. Jersey Joe was never an easy out, a genuine defensive warlock with profound power in his right hand. But he often fought on short notice and could rarely afford to dedicate himself entirely to training anyway, with a large family to provide for and the East Coast fight circuit not lucrative enough to pay the bills. At this point, he was more of an opponent. Certainly for Joe Louis, even an aged "Brown Bomber" who had been out of the ring for a while. Reports had Wolcott anywhere in the ballpark of a 20-1 underdog. This was still Joe Louis, the greatest heavyweight champ of all time, with a record of 56-1 (48 KOs) coming in, the lone defeat more than a decade removed and spectacularly avenged.
Walcott came into the fight with a less glamorous account, reading 44-11-2, including blemishes against such talents as George Brothers, Roy Lazer, and Johnny Allen who entered the contest with a mark of 11-15-1. Wolcott had also been knocked out by the grizzly bear Abe Simon. Simon, a big heavyweight by today's standards at 6'4" 250 lbs, was knocked out (not down, out) approximately twenty times in two violent losses to Louis. Looking at common opponents didn't paint a rosy picture for Jersey Joe.
Both men were listed as 33 years old, Walcott born just months before Louis. Of course, Walcott's birth-date might be more disputed than Dikembe Mutombo's, with claims he was actually three years older than listed. Even Louis later scoffed at the notion of them being the same age. Weight-wise, bear in mind, there was no cruiserweight division in those days. Either you made 175 lbs or you were a heavyweight. Walcott weighed around 190 most of his career, Louis 205ish in his prime but generally came in over 210 in the post WW2 stretch. In the ring on December 5, the official weights were 194.5 and 211, a 16.5 lb advantage for the champion, Louis, also visibly quite the more imposing man.
At the opening bell, Walcott begins his dazzling routine. Constantly moving behind the jab, the craftsmanship and artistry of Jersey Joe is evident from the get-go. The head movement and footwork superb as he dodges or blocks everything thrown his way early, sticking Louis with the jab and occasionally launching a right over the top. The pivotal moment happens about a minute in, embodying what would unfold over the next ten rounds of the fifteen-round fight. Louis catches Walcott with a jab and Jersey Joe shuffles back to the ropes. Louis unleashes a good-looking series of punches but suddenly the champion's on his rear end, the victim of a right-hand counter. Louis pops quickly to his feet, seemingly unfazed, but this was no flash knockdown.
The slow-motion replay is telling: The six-punch, showy display of firepower from Louis actually transpired like this: 1) Jab dodged 2) Jab dodged 3) Big right-hand blocked by shoulder roll 4) Left blocked (arm/shoulder) 5) Right missed (head) 6) Short-left blocked (arm).....and then Walcott throws three hooks from the ropes, right-left-right, the third of which smacks Louis flush on the cheek and knocks him to the canvas. A modern day parallel, an obvious one, would be Floyd Mayweather. Think back to De La Hoya launching those eye-catching flurries then replays showing that actually nothing landed clean. Ironically though Walcott might be best known as a knockout victim, he actually belongs among the all-time defensive greats, one of the slickest fighters to ever grace the heavyweight division.
The ensuing rounds offer more of the same, with Walcott moving around the ring, dictating the fight, Louis a bit sluggish in pursuit. A blueprint of defensive ring generalship. Walcott is peppering Louis with jabs and more damningly getting his feet planted to land some solid rights. In the fourth round, Louis charges in with a left-right but somewhere in between Walcott lands a monster shot right on the button, sending his pursuer crashing down again. Louis quickly comes to a knee and smartly takes the count but he is dazed. Walcott can't capitalize as Louis holds on to finish the round.
More mastery from Walcott in the sixth and seventh, just picking the still-wounded, tentative Louis apart with jabs, left hooks, and big rights. Walcott slips punches, dodges the half-hearted assaults he does face, and constantly bobs his head to make an elusive target. By the eighth round, Jersey Joe is practically showboating, posing in front of the champion then dodging aside, landing lefts and rights from angles. The footwork looks choreographed. The constant upper body movement from the shoulders to the head befuddles Louis and stifles his attack on all fronts.
After a few rounds of Louis mounting little pressure, Walcott seems to go for it in the ninth, standing and trading with the monster-puncher, treading that same treacherous road old Billy Conn waltzed down six years prior. Louis finally has a few good moments in these toe-to-toe exchanges, but Walcott is getting off too. Walcott goes back to boxing in the tenth, the embodiment of the simple defensive tenet: a moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one.
If there were any signs of Louis getting frustrated, in the twelfth he shoves Walcott away from a clinch and things briefly get a little testy before the two tap gloves. Louis appears recovered by the thirteenth and the tone of the fight changes. Louis becomes more assertive in his stalking while Walcott turns more obviously defensive, circling the ring much faster and throwing less, mostly working behind the stick. It was a classic late-fight-lead protection move that would soon backfire horribly.
Louis swept the final three rounds on all three scorecards. The activity rate of Louis was apparently too compelling, but on closer examination of many of the exchanges, it was still Walcott getting the better of it. In the fourteenth, Louis has Walcott backpedaling. Louis throws four punches, three of them completely ducked and one mostly blocked. Walcott manages to get in a big left hook counter and actually knocks Louis back a step. Regardless, in the final three rounds, Louis seemed like the guy trying to fight while Walcott looked like a guy stalling for the final bell. Louis was given the benefit of the doubt on those rounds.
Even so, you had to believe Walcott had won at least eight of the first twelve rounds to clearly earn the win. For large swaths of the fight, it was nothing short of a boxing clinic with the champion Louis on the receiving end. Yet soon followed the grim pronouncement for poor, lovable Jersey Joe: Louis the winner by split-decision. Only legendary referee Ruby Goldstein dissented, with a 7-6-2 card for Walcott, overruled by scores of 8-6-1, 9-6 for Louis. Awarding Louis nine rounds is utterly unfathomable. You would be hard-pressed to find six.
The reaction in the ring when the verdict was rendered is priceless. Louis had already apparently tried to flee to the locker room, perhaps expecting the loss. When he was announced the winner, he was brought back into the ring as Walcott's exasperated corner-men expressed their disbelief with exaggerated gestures, one throwing his hands helplessly to the sky, the other smacking himself in the head repeatedly. Louis, towel draped over his head, approached Walcott and simply said, "I'm sorry, Joe." What he meant was debated as the two appeared on The Way It Was thirty years later.
If any fighter was humble enough to admit defeat, especially after so much time, it would have to be the dignified hero Joe Louis, right? WRONG! Louis coyly claims to have been unaware there was even a controversy:
"I didn't think I lost the fight. I had no idea...."
He wasn't particularly impressed with his performance though:
"I know I boxed a bad fight, but I also know Walcott did a lot of running too."
Walcott had a slightly different recollection. "I'm surprised to hear the champ say this. When they called him back in the ring and gave the decision, the champ came over to me, which I considered a real privilege and a high honor for him to be so honest about the outcome. He grabbed me by both hands and said to me ‘I'm sorry, Joe', meaning to me that he was acknowledging then that he had lost the decision."
Why did Louis say he was sorry?
"I tell everybody that," just a standard Brown Bomber post-fight consolation, according to Louis. As Louis continued to profess his ignorance of any controversy, Walcott pressed him:
"Are you serious, Joe?"
"You can't be." And Walcott turned his head and chuckled. At that point, even Louis showed a mischievous twinkle in his eye that suggests he knew he had been the beneficiary of something that night, even if his tremendous, well-earned pride would never allow him to come out and say so.
Walcott got a rematch in 1948. This fight followed the same script for many rounds. Walcott was again effective with a slick, jab-oriented, defensive style. Only this time, Louis rallied back to savagely put Wolcott's lights out with a vintage left-right, left-right combination, battering Wolcott into the darkness for an eleventh round knockout in the last great performance of the greatest heavyweight of all time. Walcott can't claim that title, though he did later become the heavyweight champion when he toppled Ezzard Charles in their third fight with a brutal left hook to the chin, an all-time great knockout entry in its' own right. But there's no disputing the events of December 5, 1947 in my book. Jersey Joe beat Joe Louis, plain and simple. Louis may have been past his prime but there was undoubtedly greatness in the ring that night, in the form of the challenger. The sublime alchemy and finely tuned craft of Jersey Joe Walcott was on full, majestic display.