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Joe Lewis
The sparring partner who became a legend
In the entire sport of boxing in the old days there was no sadder figure than the lowly sparring partner. As they were never good enough to become a named fighter in their own right, the professional sparring partner would wander from training camp to training camp serving as a human punching bag. He would absorb a brutal beating day after day, all for a few shillings.


Joe Lewis had an early taste of the power of Jersey. Joe Walcotts punches when his camp hired him as a sparring partner
Joe Lewis had an early taste of the power of Jersey. Joe Walcotts punches when his camp hired him as a sparring partner
© Credit: The Winkler Collection

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22.12.2007 - When he could no longer take all the punishment for which he was hired, he would be dumped on the fistic junk pile.  However, there has been the odd occasion when the human punch bag has dared the fates and had their moment of boxing glory.

When the greatest heavyweight Joe Louis was at his peak as world champion, he had a great deal of trouble keeping sparring partners due to his tremendous punching power.  One day, while preparing for the second Max Schmeling fight, an unknown fighter came seeking a job as a sparring partner for the champion and was hired at 25 dollars a day.

The unknown didnt prove to be like the other sparring partners, for Louis couldnt catch him with a clean enough shot to put him on the canvas.  Not only that, when there was a furious exchange of blows in the middle of the ring, it was Joe Louis who received a hard punch from the husky stranger and was dumped on the deck unceremoniously.

The following day, the new sparring partner was hastily paid off and told to leave the camp.  He left, vowing that, somehow, somewhere, he would show the champion and the rest of the world that he was a lot better than a sparring partner.

The boxers name was Jersey Joe Walcott and up to that point had been a professional for some eight years, turning pro. at the age of 16 in 1930, but his early record is obscure.  It does however, reveal he beat some very good fighters over the years and that he quit the game so many times and came back so often that promoters lost sight of him.  For a time he had more work dumping garbage for the sanitation department than he did fighting.  He would do anything to earn a dollar, for he had a wife and six children to support.

The years went by and the sparring partner who had been fired from Joe Louis camp was still trying to win fame in his own right, but he wasnt very successful, even fighting for handouts in shabby two-bit clubs.  In a way he was too good for his own good and was avoided by the heavyweight contenders.

He had retired from boxing once again when Felix Bocchicchio appeared on Walcotts front doorstep one day in 1945, and the wily promoter convinced Walcott that he had enough talent to reach the top.  Things started to improve from that point and over the following ten months Walcott beat three heavyweight contenders, which placed him as a contender himself, but not a contender that top promoter Mike Jacobs wanted to know about.  Jacobs steered the course of champion Joe Louis and didnt fancy risking Louis against the tricky, switch hitting crafty campaigner.  However, two years later Walcotts day finally came.  It was the 5th December 1947 that the lowly sparring partner stood again in a ring with the Brown Bomber, but this time he was not there just to give the great Louis a workout, he was meeting him for the heavyweight championship of the world.

Walcott was 34 years old, for a fighter in those days he was considered past his prime, but old Jersey Joe had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  He showed respect but no fear when faced by one, if not, the greatest heavyweight in history. Walcott hammered the champion during the fight, dropping him twice and all but took the title from him, with the referee awarding the points decision to Walcott and the two judges swaying towards Louis with a narrow points verdict.  Louis, believing he had lost this time, left the ring before the decision was announced.

After the loss to Louis, Walcott fought three more times for the title and lost all three to Louis by a knock-out, and twice to Ezzard Charles on points.  It was four years after the first Louis fight that Ezzard Charles the new heavyweight champion was looking for an easy defence of his title and decided that Walcott would be a serviceable opponent, because he drew his share of fan support.  What harm could another bout against this fighter of thirty seven bring?  So they signed Walcott up for his fifth title fight.  Unfortunately for Charles a well timed left hook delivered Walcotts personal pot of gold.  Walcotts seventh round knock-out made him the oldest world heavyweight champion, a record he held until 1994 when George Forman came from behind to score that marvellous knock-out win over Michael Moorer in Las Vegas.

The bookmakers made Charles the favourite in the return match a year later.  But Walcott kept his title on a points decision.  Waiting in the wings, however, was the menacing figure of one Rocky Marciano and Walcott had no illusions but that he was in for a rough night with the Brockton Block Buster, when they met on the 23rd September 1952.  In the first round of their encounter Marciano found himself laid out on the canvas after Walcott caught him with a tremendous right to the jaw, and after he got to his feet the champion toyed with him, cutting him up with his educated left jab.  The 59,000 people watching the fight sensed they were in for one of the great fights of all time a ring classic which would live forever in boxing history.

Walcott, because of the speed of his fist power was well ahead of points by the 13th round, but the thunderous right hander to the jaw wiped out all of the champions early good work, as the punch sent him into cataclysmic darkness.  In the return some six months later the aged Walcott had no real heart for another long bruising battle with the young, tough Marciano, and took the count in the first round.  He pocketed the cheque for the contest and never fought again. 

Fifty five years after his titanic first encounter with Marciano, the video film of it is still inspiring and earned Walcott his place among the boxing greats. 

That film and the memory of the great left hook that separated Ezzard Charles from his senses and from his world title, is all the evidence required to put Jersey Joe in the Hall of Fame.  The ex human punching bag had dared defy the fates to have his moments of glory!




Gallery: The sparring partner who became a legend
Joe Lewis had an early taste of the power of Jersey. Joe Walcotts punches when his camp hired him as a sparring partner 
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