Lee Groves

10: Greatest one-punch finishes

8. Jersey Joe Walcott KO 7 Ezzard Charles III – July 18, 1951, Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.

To achieve his magical split-second burst of history, Jersey Joe Walcott first had to endure a variety of challenges in and out of the ring. Turning pro at 16, Walcott was a journeyman fighter who was forced to take matches on short notice for short money and as a result his record was dotted with defeats. With a wife and six children to support, his ring earnings weren’t nearly enough so between fights he took on various jobs – construction worker, cement mixer, ice truck driver, laborer for the WPA among them. At times during the Great Depression, Walcott accepted $9.50 per week relief checks. 

Walcott’s fortunes began to turn in 1944 when he signed with new management and by 1947 he had become a contender. Still, Walcott was a 10-to-1 long shot when he challenged world heavyweight champion Joe Louis in December 1947. After 15 rounds many believed the 33-year-old Walcott had done more than enough to score the earth-shaking upset. Referee Ruby Goldstein agreed, scoring Walcott a 7-6-2 rounds winner largely on the strength of knockdowns in rounds one and four. Judges Frank Forbes (8-6-1) and Marty Monroe (9-6) overruled Goldstein, allowing Louis to retain the belt for the 24th time.

The outcry over the verdict led to a rematch seven months later, and again Walcott decked Louis in round three. Louis, ever the great and resourceful champion, had the final say as a powerful combination in the 11th put Walcott to sleep.

After Louis announced his retirement on March 1, 1949 Walcott and Ezzard Charles fought for the vacant crown. Charles, a magnificently skilled boxer-puncher who many still say is the greatest 175-pounder who has ever lived, prevailed by commanding decision in June 1949 to capture the crown and in the March 1951 rematch “The Cincinnati Cobra” was even more dominant as he scored a ninth round knockdown en route to another decision victory.

Despite the lopsided scores (80-70, 84-66, 83-67), a third Charles-Walcott heavyweight title fight was arranged and many asked why. Charles’ careful textbook boxing and Walcott’s tricky shifts didn’t mesh well and Charles already had proved his superiority beyond reasonable doubt. Money probably had much to do with it, for while Charles earned $30,000 and Walcott $13,500 in their second meeting, the first heavyweight title fight ever staged in Pittsburgh drew a record crowd of 28,000 and a $245,000 gate, ballooning Charles’ purse to $101,160 and Walcott’s to $85,782. Not surprisingly, Charles was installed as a 6-to-1 favorite to keep the title for the ninth time and run his winning streak to 25 fights.

At 182, Charles was four pounds lighter than their March meeting while Walcott scaled a sculpted 194, the same weight as in the earlier encounter. The first round featured plenty of milling and missing while Charles edged round two as Walcott struggled to find his rhythm.

Walcott began to generate momentum in the third by landing hard lefts to the stomach and rights that swelled Charles’ eye. A big right in the fifth shook Charles and a confident Walcott opened up even more in the sixth. After six rounds Walcott held commanding leads on two scorecards (5-1, 4-1-1 in rounds) and was 3-3 on the third but the math was rendered moot early in the seventh.

Following a break along the ropes Charles retreated to ring center while Walcott strode after him. Charles tried to nail Walcott coming in with a jab but the challenger slipped the blow by bending to his left and cranking a majestically timed left uppercut to the jaw. Charles’ neck twisted violently and the rest of his body collapsed like a 20-pound sack of potatoes.

Flat on his face, the semiconscious Charles managed to push himself up with his shoulders but his legs still weren’t strong enough to support his weight. As a result Charles stumbled backward and fell to the floor as a freshly minted former champion.

At 55 seconds of round seven, the 37-year-old Walcott became the oldest man ever to be heavyweight champion of the world, a record that would stand for the next 43 years. Walcott’s victory bore testament to the power of perseverance – as well as the power of a perfectly delivered punch.

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