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Unlucky 13: Marciano-Walcott I
By Paul Drolet
Philadelphia. When it comes to what A.J. Liebling christened the "sweet science" Philly has always belied its reputation as The City of Brotherly Love. In its long and storied boxing history, we are quickly stumbling toward the fiftieth anniversary of a date and moment that will blaze forever in the fistic firmament: September 23rd, 1952 at Philadelphia's Municipal Auditorium.
The champion was Jersey Joe Walcott. The Camden, New Jersey native had been fighting professionally since the age of 16. He had had two cracks at the great Ezzard Charles and came up short both times. In the seventh round of their third encounter, however, on July 18th, 1951, "Jersey Joe" moved off the ropes, neatly slipped inside Charles' jab, and launched what many observers believe was the sweetest left hook to ever carpet the right side of a man's face. Charles crumbled in a heap and was counted out. Walcott evened the score by successfully defending his title against Charles on June 5th , 1952.
The challenger, Rocky Marciano, was a knotted mass of 184 pounds housed in a 5'10" frame, who, through sheer dint of will and raw power, had threshed his way through the heavyweight ranks.
Walcott held the advantage in reach and, at 196 pounds, also sported a twelve pound edge in weight. The most telling statistic going in, however, was the age difference: at 29, Marciano was ten years the champion's junior.
Walcott gave Marciano the courtesy of an eye-opener in the bout's opening minute. The left hook that had wrought disaster on Charles had Marciano on the deck forty seconds into the bout. Rocky was up at five. That punch and those sobering seconds on the canvas punctured any illusions The Rock may have had of a quick rout. He wasn't going to reprise those heady early days of his career on this night - days when he strafed the likes of Eddie Ross, Jimmy Evans and Harold Mitchell in towns like Providence and Hartford. If Marciano was going to soldier in, and the man knew no other way, Walcott was the minefield that awaited him. The champ took the first round handily.
He took the second as well. Marciano waded in and took his lumps, but he began finding the range. The "Brockton Blockbuster," never a devout adherent of the rules of the Marquis, also made judicious use of his head on the inside. The referee, Charley Daggart, would prove a lenient fellow on this night, however. The occasional errant punch did stray south and Walcott cuffed Rocky a few times on the back of the head, it was a comparatively clean contest. Not once did Daggart admonish either man. As long as the boys didn't ape the the "Bummy" Davis/ Fritzie Zivic waltz, he would allow them free reign.
Despite the knockdown, the pattern of the bout was established early. Marciano, from a crouch, his torso angled to the right and back to avoid Walcott's crippling right hand, shuffling ever forward, aiming to pin his quarry on the ropes, and once there, hurling hooks and crosses like a farmer scything through a wheat field. Walcott staved off his young opponent with a stiff and persistent jab, the occasional right hand and his bread and butter punch, the left hook. When Walcott was cornered, he gave as good as he got, countering brilliantly off the ropes.
Midway through the 11th , the old warrior turned aggressor. In one sequence, he reigned six consecutive blows on the challenger. Near the end of the round, he jarred Marciano with a chopping right hand to the chin. He staggered Marciano again in the 12th. Now, however, despite being ahead, as Walcott lumbered back to his corner at the end of the 12th , the full weight of his 39 years grafted his features. It was too old an age to ply this grim trade, and too old, certainly, against such a redoubtable foe.
"And now if the old fellow is going to get tired," Bill Corum said, "we're coming to the time." Corum, covering the bout for Theatre Network Television, claimed in the fight's aftermath to have had a premonition.
"That unlucky number is coming up," he said as the seconds ebbed away between rounds. The bell sounded. "The unlucky number, 13," he intoned, "maybe."
Marciano moved forward from his usual crouch, as if peering from behind a bush. Walcott retreated towards the ropes, bracing to launch a counter right that would prove a split second too late in the coming. "Walcott is plainly intent on staying away." Corum's words were barely out when Crack! Joe's head snapped with the whir of a speed bag. He sagged back, suspended by the ropes. Marciano scuffed the champion with a short left, walked to his corner, then raced to a neutral one. He needn't have rushed. Walcott slumped and finally fell. The sight of Walcott, with his forehead seemingly burrowed into the canvas and his left arm draped over the ropes' lower strand, summoned up the image of a tree's dead, dangling branch. Daggert tolled ten over the stricken fighter. It was a brutal end to a bruising bout.
A fit of sanity gripped the old warrior in the rematch some eight months later in Chicago. When Marciano drummed the erstwhile champion with a right hand that appeared to have none of the sundering wallop of that 13th round blast, Walcott gingerly arose just as referee Frank Sikora counted him out. To paraphrase the Bard, Joe doth not protest too much, methinks. That night in Chicago was Walcott's curtain call. The pitched battles with Louis, Charles and Marciano alone have assured the author of the Walcott shuffle his place in the fistic pantheon.
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