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.