The new heavyweight champion of the world fell to his knees in the ring at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and murmured a brief prayer.
"Thank God," Jersey Joe Walcott said before arising to shake hands with ex-champ Ezzard Charles and inquire as to his victim's health.
No one could blame Walcott for expressing gratitude on the night of July 18, 1951. At 37, he was the oldest man at the time to win the heavyweight title, and his moment of triumph came after four failed attempts.
Boxing history remembers Walcott and Charles as two mediocre champions who bridged the gap between Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, but Walcott deserves better. When it came to perseverance, he was perhaps the all-time champ.
Throughout a career spanning 23 years, Walcott was a squat, relentless plugger who wore down opponents and finished them off with a devastating left hook that seemed to come from nowhere.
That punch put Louis on the canvas three times in two bouts and even floored the usually immovable Marciano. But its most important application was to the chin of Charles on that steamy evening in western Pennsylvania.
Charles, a classy boxer but not a particularly hard hitter, beat Walcott in June 1949 to win the title vacated by Louis earlier that year and did it again in March 1951. Most observers expected the same result in their third bout — the champion was an 8-1 favorite — but Walcott was ahead on most cards after six rounds. Then came the lucky seventh.
"I knew I could hit him with the left hook," Walcott said afterward. "I've known it ever since I fought him in March."
As veteran boxing writer Al Buck described it in the New York Post, the knockout punch "seemed to explode on Charles' chin. The champion crashed face downward on the canvas and was struggling to his feet as referee Buck McTiernan shouted 10. [Then] Ezz staggered toward the ropes and fell on his back. In his seventh defense, he had lost the title."
Charles' reaction: "It was a sucker punch," meaning presumably that he should have known the danger posed by Walcott's hook and kept his right hand up.
Was this a case of divine intervention? Walcott certainly thought so.
"I read my Bible before the fight," he said in his crowded dressing room. "I prayed between every round. I asked God to help me."
And how did Jersey Joe feel?
"I feel like I was only 21 years old."
Eleven months later, in their fourth meeting, Walcott won a 15-round decision over Charles. Three months after that, in September 1952, Jersey Joe became the first man to floor Marciano but ultimately lost the title on a 13th-round knockout. By the time he and Marciano met again in May 1953, Walcott was far, far over the hill at 39, but was knocked out in 2:25 of the first round, ending Joe's long career.
Walcott had held the championship for just 14 months — small reward for his long and agonizing pursuit. His final record was 53-18-1 with 33 knockouts.
Born Arnold Cream in Merchantville, N.J., in January 1914, the fighter won his first six bouts as a teenager and decided he needed a catchier name. His late father had been born in the British West Indies, which also produced Joe Walcott, a legendary welterweight in the late 19th century. So Arnold appropriated the moniker for his own and added the name of his home state.
Over the next seven years, Jersey Joe won most of his fights but lost to name opponents like Al Ettore, Abe Simon and Jack Fox. Louis hired him as a sparring partner before his famous second fight with Max Schmeling in 1938, but Walcott was booted out of camp after flattening Louis in a workout.
World War II interrupted Walcott's career, but he gained attention after the war by beating the prominent likes of Jimmy Bivins, Lee Oma and Joey Maxim. These victories finally earned him a title bout against Louis, who was beginning to show his age, in December 1947. Walcott floored the champion in the first and fourth rounds and seemed well ahead at the finish. Louis was leaving the ring in despair when the result was announced — he had won a split decision that was booed loudly by the crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The following year, Louis knocked out Walcott in the 13th round. That seemed to end Walcott's days as a contender, but Louis' surprise retirement in 1949 resurrected his career. When Charles beat Walcott twice, the first time in a bout for the vacant title, Jersey Joe again appeared finished. But then, seeking a "safe" fight for their champion, Charles' managers gave Walcott a third chance in Pittsburgh. Bad move, guys.
After putting away his gloves, Walcott worked as a referee — he was the third man in the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston title fight of 1965 — and later became chairman of the New Jersey Athletic Commission, enduring as a lonesome symbol of the best in his often dubious sport. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, four years before his death at 80.
Charles' life proved tragic after his ring career ended in 1959. He held several menial jobs and labored briefly as a pro wrestler before being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's disease, and dying in 1975 at 53. Fittingly perhaps, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year as Walcott. His lifetime record was 89-25-1 with 50 knockouts.
Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles were not great fighters, but 56 years ago this week they were the protagonists in one of boxing's greatest upsets, as well as providing the most dramatic moment at Forbes Field until Bill Mazeroski's 10th-inning, walk-off home run won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates.