By Jimmy Krug.
After the final retirement of Muhammad Ali, the top-ten fighters moved in to fill the void. When the smoke had cleared, Larry Holmes stood atop the mountain, being recognized by most as the true Heavyweight Champion of the World. Following in the footsteps of someone as popular as Ali, however, proved to be a difficult road to navigate. Holmes became the target of endless comparisons and criticisms. He wasn’t charismatic enough, he wasn’t as good a boxer, he didn’t have the heart of a real champion, etc. The list went on and on.
Larry Holmes, however, wasn’t the first Heavyweight Champion to be in that position. As the Joe Louis era came to its end, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott found themselves in the same predicament. The one big difference between Holmes’ era as compared with that of Charles and Walcott’s was – Charles and Walcott had each other. As a result, their rivalry was born!
Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott met for the first time on June 22, 1949. The fight was an elimination bout for the NBA (National Boxing Association) Heavyweight title. The Charles who stepped into the ring that night was not the same aggressive fighter of the past, however. The death of Sam Baroudi, which occurred after he sustained severe head injuries during their encounter a year earlier, had deeply affected Charles. The Ezzard Charles who stepped into the ring against Walcott a year later was more defensive and tactical minded fighter than the Charles of the past.
Walcott’s performance didn’t help matters, either. His jab seemed weak and tentative throughout the fight. To onlookers, it seemed as though both fighters were fighting to NOT LOSE as much as they were fighting to win. The fight ended to a chorus of boos. In the end, Charles’ body punching turned out to be enough to carry him through to a solid, if not exciting, decision victory over Walcott.
They met for the second time in Detroit, on March 7, 1951. Walcott had become a fan favorite by then and many were rooting for the old underdog. For Jersey Joe, this was his fourth attempt at the World title. He was the first man to have ever fought for the title more than twice without winning it. But once again, Charles came away with a decision, dropping Walcott in the 9th and securing a second decision victory. Walcott, however, felt he’d won the fight and been victimized by a raw-deal, bad decision. Some people agreed. One thing was certain; ringsiders felt the second meeting between the two fighters was about as dull as the first!
A third meeting was scheduled just four months later. Walcott was installed as a heavy underdog this time around. Fans complained about a lack of competition in the division and showed little excitement leading up to the fight. In the 7th round, however, all that was about to change. Joe landed one of the most storied punches in boxing history. A short left-hook put Charles down for the count and Jersey Joe Walcott became the oldest fighter (at 37 years of age) to win sport’s most coveted title. It was a record which stood until George Foreman broke it over forty years later in 1994 – recapturing the title at age 45.
The stage was now set for what would be their fourth and final meeting. The fight took place on June 5, 1952. Walcott came away with a disputed 15-round decision and his title intact. It was a fight in which Charles seemed to fight passively while Walcott spent much of the time moving out of Charles’ range. When all was said and done, however, many people agreed that Charles did not do enough to take the title back from Walcott.
Jersey Joe Walcott would lose the title to an up and coming Rocky Marciano in September of 1952. He went down fighting, though; sending Rocky to the canvas in the opening round and building a solid points lead before getting stopped in the 13th round.
He would lose the rematch as well… and retired afterward.
Ezzard Charles would go on to face Marciano in back-to-back fights in 1954. He lost the first by 15-round decision. The loss, however, went a long way towards restoring his reputation as being a “boring, safety-first fighter” with the fans. He lost the second fight by 8th round knockout. Charles fought for the last time in September of 1959. He lost a 10-round decision to a fighter named Alvin Green.
Both Walcott and Charles would go down in history as master boxers. And although their styles didn’t always make for exciting fights, their rivalry will forever be etched in boxing lore.