By Alan J. Steinberg
Every summer, millions of Americans travel to the regions of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, they visit the shrines of American history, particularly Independence Hall, and in South Jersey, they are treated to the delights of the Jersey Shore.
Yet there are two contrasting statues that illustrate vividly a distinction between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. On the steps of the Art Museum in Philadelphia, there is a statue of Rocky from the famous Sylvester Stallone movie. Across the Delaware River, at Wiggins Waterfront Park in Camden, there is a statue of the man I regard as the most underrated heavyweight champion in world history, Arnold Raymond Cream, known in the history of pugilism as Jersey Joe Walcott.
The Rocky character is all-myth. The Jersey Joe Walcott statue is a depiction of an athlete who was all man, all legend but all real, all goodness and all greatness.
There is no rational dissent from the assertion that Jersey Joe Walcott was a magnificent human being. Outside the ring, he was an outstanding public servant, most notably distinguished by his service as Camden County New Jersey Sheriff (1971 to 1974) and as chair of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission from 1975 to 1984.
Jersey Joe was also quite a competent actor, noted for his excellent performance as George, an over-the-hill sparring partner/trainer in The Harder They Fall, Humphrey Bogart’s last move.
Tonight, however, knowledgeable boxing fans throughout the universe will note the 70th anniversary of the event that proved that Jersey Joe was definitely among the most underrated fighters in the history of fistiana. That event was the September 23, 1952, bout in Municipal Stadium, Philadelphia, in which Rocky Marciano won the world heavyweight championship from Jersey Joe with a knockout right cross that, in my view, was the most powerful punch ever thrown in a heavyweight championship bout.
I have also argued that this first Marciano-Walcott fight was history’s greatest world heavyweight championship bout, superior even to the Ali-Frazier, Louis-Conn, and Dempsey-Firpo classics, but if you do not believe me on that score, consult my friend Mike Silver, universally recognized as the world’s leading boxing historian. Mike is also known both for his television appearances on ESPN sports boxing documentaries and for his authorship of two indispensable classics of boxing history: 1) The Night the Referee Hit Back; and 2) The Arc of Boxing.
Mike will recount for you how Pennsauken-native Jersey Joe was poverty stricken and literally starving for food during a low point of his boxing career, and he was able to survive only because of the assistance of his new manager Felix Bocchicchio. He will explain how Jersey Joe’s exquisite footwork and dangerous punch made other fighters wary of him.
Jersey Joe finally won the World Heavyweight Championship with his dramatic seventh round knockout of Ezzard Charles in July,1951 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In attendance that night was my late Uncle Ben Steinberg, one of the renowned Steinberg kosher butchers of Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh fame. And he picked Walcott to win!
And it is absolutely essential to note that Camden County wasn’t the only South Jersey venue to play a vital role in the legend of Jersey Joe Walcott. The Gormley family, the most hallowed Republican family in the history of Atlantic County ,also has a place of honor in the Jersey Joe legacy.
Most contemporary observers of New Jersey political history are well aware of former State Sen. Bill Gormley, the most impactful and laudable Republican senator in New Jersey over the past half century. Yet not enough New Jerseyans know of the most honorable biography of his father, the most esteemed former sheriff of Atlantic County, Gerard Gormley.
Gerard Gormley was also a boxing aficionado and authority who played a significant role in the development and management of notable pugilists, including the top-rated light-heavyweight contender of the 1940s, Boardwalk Billy Smith.
For the Walcott-Marciano fight, Gerard Gormley set up the training headquarters for Jersey Joe at a property in which he had an interest in Estelle, New Jersey. And he assigned one task to his seven-year-old son, Bill: Deputize Jersey Joe as a sheriff in Atlantic County, Bill did that with efficiency and alacrity!
Now back to the Marciano-Walcott fight itself. Jersey Joe knocked down Rocky in the first round, and the Hard Rock from Brockton was in deep trouble. The action was absolutely brutal.
After 12 rounds, Jersey Joe was ahead on the score cards, 8-4, 7-4-1, and 7-5. Had Jersey Joe won one more round and survived until the finish, he would have handed Rocky Marciano his only defeat.
But the Marciano right hand landed, nearly separating the Walcott head from his shoulders. Pictures of the punch showed how it literally distorted Walcott’s face. They could have counted to a thousand over Jersey Joe.
Yet in defeat, Jersey Joe had proven his courage, endurance, ring savvy, and ability to take a punch. No other state in the nation has a hero like New Jersey’s Jersey Joe. Long live his memory!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.