Marciano v. Walcott II—the great anticlimax

 Jersey Joe Walcott, 1937 (CC BY 3.0)

Jersey Joe Walcott, 1937 (CC BY 3.0)

Few champions had ever gained more praise in losing their title than Jersey Joe Walcott did when he went down to defeat against Rocky Marciano on September 23, 1952, in Philadelphia, one of the great battles in heavyweight history. Marciano won the 13-round thriller, which saw multiple changes of momentum, with a single right hand that is itself one of boxing's most famous moments. The Philadelphia battle elevated the stature of both men with the public, and it wasn't hard to justify a second fight. 

Unfortunately, the rematch, on May 15, 1953, in Chicago Stadium, turned out to be a bitter disappointment. Perhaps the public had an inkling; only 13,000 fans showed up to see it. After two minutes of some light sparring, Marciano landed a left hook and then a following right hand as the 39-year-old Walcott backed up along the ropes. The right didn’t look like much; Walcott later called it a “push punch.” (You get a somewhat better sense of the punch here, which shows the climactic sequence from a different angle.) But the former champ collapsed to the canvas in a heap, heels flying up into the air. Then, as he sat on the canvas, holding a strand of rope with one glove and seeming cognizant, Walcott listened as the referee, Frank Sikora, tolled Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten. He rose just after “ten.” Sikora waved his arms to indicate that the fight was over. The crowd moaned.

For a few seconds, Walcott seemed unperturbed, but as people began booing, he turned to the referee, protesting that he had gotten up in time. Felix Bocchicchio, his manager, protested with him. The boos grew louder as Marciano stood off to the side, poised between attacking Walcott—should the action be resumed—or commiserating with him. Marciano's manager Al Weill jumped into the ring, too. He had seen Sikora signal that that fight was over, and he walked Marciano over to the referee and asked him to raise Rocky’s arm. Sikora did. Marciano was the winner by knockout at 2:25 of the first round.

 Front page of the New York Times, May 16, 1953.

Front page of the New York Times, May 16, 1953.

The bout left a sour taste, and suspicions about it continue to this day. Walcott was fighting for his richest purse—$250,000, even more than the champion was getting—and some wondered whether this sum came with a quid pro quo attached. Perhaps mobster Frankie Carbo, the "Underworld Commissioner of Boxing," had gotten to Jersey Joe. Others, like Walcott and Bocchiccio, blamed the referee. They said that Sikora had given Walcott a short count—ironic, in a boxing city best known for its long count. But the film doesn't support their claims, and Walcott didn’t lend much credence to his argument when he said that he had gotten to one knee at the count of three—he hadn’t—and also that he had “blacked out” at the count of seven, losing track of Sikora’s count.

This confusion lent support to another interpretation, albeit a minority one: that Walcott had genuinely been knocked out. His confusion about where he was in the count, and his mistaken memory about what precisely had occurred, were the hallmarks of a knocked-out boxer. From the evidence on the film, however, another conclusion becomes possible: that Walcott quit on the floor (or maybe even before he hit the floor, since the knockdown itself surprised people who had watched Walcott take Marciano’s best punches in Philadelphia). Walcott’s body language as the count tolled was not that of a man separated from his senses; he looked more like someone trying to make a decision. No experienced boxer, and Walcott had experience enough for several careers, waits until the count of nine to begin rising from a sitting position. That’s not enough time. If Walcott really did want to continue fighting, his change of heart came too late.

“He should have gotten up,” Marciano said later. “I would have.” Walcott never fought again.

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