I grew up in Camden, New Jersey the hometown of Jersey Joe Walcott who was the heavyweight champion of the world in the early 1950s
I guess it’s fair to say that boxing was part of my DNA.
Even the patriarch of the McEvoy clan, Bernard J. McEvoy, who emigrated from County Louth, Ireland in 1868, was a brawler on the docks of Philadelphia soon after he arrived to the USA.
Like many Irish immigrants he had a problem with drinking (he was arrested once for selling home-made booze) and sadly took his frustrations out on his wife Julia Byrnes, also from Ireland. Yet, he produced six children with Julia before she succumbed to tuberculosis at the early age of thirty-six. The McEvoy offspring were eventually taken into care and placed in orphanages or foster homes by the authorities in and around Philadelphia. Yet all six managed to survive to adulthood. One of them was my grandfather Peter and another was his brother Patrick, my great Uncle.
It is with Patrick that the fighting became more respectable. He ran a gymnasium in South Philadelphia for many years and introduced scores of young men to the sport of boxing. Below is a photo of Uncle Patrick (fourth from the right) with a group of his boxers in the early part of the 20th century.
My own father, another Joseph Peter McEvoy, was inspired to become a boxer when he was a young man but lost all his teeth in a bout and thus gave up. His picture below shows a determined pugilist in the late 1920s. In spite of his disappointments as a fighter, he never lost his passion for the game and hung around gymnasiums and boxing events all through his life. Even years after he married and had children, he was captivated by the excitement of fighters. In fact, I remember he subscribed to a magazine called The Ring which was delivered to our house in Camden, N.J. by post every week. As a result, I was introduced to the greats of the past like Harry Greb, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Henry Armstrong. Dempsey was a favourite.
Dad devised a card game based on boxing which was the way that we, his children, interacted with him. I remember the king was the knockout card and would be greeted by shouts and cheers when it appeared. We also had two kittens who constantly but playfully fought with each other. We named them Louis and Conn after the boxers Joe Louis and Billy Conn who fought several times for the heavyweight championship during those years. Even my sister Mary played, rooting for the smaller kitten Conn, who usually lost.
Our young family lived in East Camden on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia . I remember we moved into Westfield Acres, one of New Jersey’s first housing projects for low-income families which had opened in 1938. The second World War was still raging, though after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, President Roosevelt brought the USA into the fray and Hitler’s Third Reich no longer seemed invincible. During the war my father worked for Camden-based RCA in the electro-plating laboratory and we were rationing like most Americans. We three – my older brother Jim, my younger sister Mary and I – attended the local parochial school and were had a reasonable childhood and received a good education.
Meanwhile, a local boxer Jersey Joe Walcott – whose real name was Arnold Cream – had developed somewhat of a promising reputation in the popular heavyweight class. He had fought about everyone in sight and yet seemed stuck in a rut. However, two events in his life occurred in the early 1940s which changed his fortunes for good.
On February 12, 1940, he was scheduled to fight the towering Abe Simon in Newark, N.J. Joe was out of shape and hungry and only weighed 180 pounds. The 6′ 5″ Simon, by contrast was fit and ready at 256 pounds. Although in poor condition and with his stomach growling from his poor diet, Walcott managed to win the early rounds by out – jabbing and out – smarting the slower Simon. But, by the sixth round Joe was exhausted from being mauled by the bigger and stronger Abe and took a haymaker on the chin which put him on the canvas. He couldn’t get up and took the full count.
This was a serious loss for Walcott. He had been fighting for almost ten years for small purses, dealing with exploitive managers, never feeling he was properly trained and – worst of all – not earning enough to support his family. His dream of winning the heavyweight title still burned in his belly but he took on several demeaning jobs like collecting garbage and cleaning septic tanks, anything to put food on the table.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Arnold decided to give up his dream (and his boxing name) taking a job at the Camden shipyard after President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the US was at war. He worked there from 1942 until 1944 to put food on the table for his family, now numbering six children by the end of the year. It was always a struggle, constantly paying off creditors and living from pay check to pay check. The second event in the life of the boxer occurred one day when he met a person who was destined to change his fortunes forever . . . a small, neat-looking Italian-American named Felix Bocchicchio.
Bocchicchio had an unfortunate reputation as a gangster in the Camden/Philadelphia area and looked every bit of the part with his pin-striped suit and the cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He was, however, also the local fight promoter and the president of the newly opened Camden Athletic Club which was staging boxing shows at the Camden Convention Hall. Somehow, as the story goes, the Italian-American promoter convinced Walcott to give boxing another try and soon Arnold aka Jersey Joe was training again for a return to the ring.
The story of how the two first met is told in a biography of Jersey Joe written by James Curl and goes like this . . .
Felix was looking for a good heavyweight fighter to promote in order to improve ticket sales at his Camden Convention Hall events. This led to the connection with Walcott through the local network of boxers and managers. At the time of their first meeting, Felix offered no propositions, instead he told Walcott . . . If I can help in any way, don’t be afraid to ask. My office is at the Camden Athletic Club on Market Street. Walcott’s next step was dictated by the demands of an empty pocketbook, a family with six children and Christmas being only a week away. He went to find Felix’s office the next day and left word that he had stopped by. He also left his address on Magnolia Street in Camden.
The next evening, much to Walcott’s surprise, Bocchicchio stopped by his house. It is a good bet that Felix had never visited houses and homes that were in such poor condition. It was a ramshackle two-bedroom, two-story shack in a row of such houses in the worst neighbour of Camden. The house had no glass in the windows and a hole in the front door big enough to put a football through which was covered with an old dingy piece of brown burlap. Windows were boarded up with cardboard and the paint on the house had by now mostly flaked away. A stove in the kitchen was the only source of heat and the children were huddled around it to keep warm.
Felix was shocked that Walcott was living in such dire conditions and before leaving the house promised to help the fighter restart his boxing career.
‘If you want to fight again I’ll get you a manager and get you started. Whatever you earn from the purse, you can keep. You just need a little confidence.’
Next day, just a week before Christmas, a ton of coal was delivered to the basement in the house.
I think we never had a happier Christmas said Walcott as he referred to Felix as the good angel. Here was a man of his word. Years later, he thought that when he made up his mind to go and talk with the promoter, it was one of the best decisions he ever made – a decision that would affect him for the rest of his life.
On the day after Christmas 1944, Walcott walked the few blocks from his house over to the Camden Athletic Club which was located on Market St and Third Avenue. There, right outside the promoter’s office, the two spoke together. Walcott said . . . the family is getting along now and I don’t know if I want to take a chance on fighting again. Boxing never got me nothing before and the kids at last can eat regular. I’m over 30 and just plain tired of it all.
Looking to change the boxer’s mind, Felix countered with . . .
I’ll give you the money you need and make sure you have enough each week to take care of your family.
I don’t know . . . replied Walcott . . . but I guess one more shot wouldn’t kill me.
He concluded that with coal in the basement and a cash advance on future earnings from Bocchicchio, the burden of finances and food was finally off of Jersey Joe’s mind. He was now set to return to the ring at 30 years of age. Thus when most fighters were already well into their career, Jersey Joe was just getting set to return to the ring and begin his incredible climb to the heavyweight title. He was about to show the world what he could do with proper training, management and nutrition.
Felix also arranged for Joe Webster, a wealthy café owner, to manage Walcott and even went to the N.J. Boxing Commissioner to have the fighter’s boxing license reinstated. Next, he set up a new trainer, a middle-aged Italian guy named Nick Florio.
Florio was born in 1904, the year before his family emigrated from Italy to the United States and settled in the Bronx, New York. As an adult, Nick got involved in boxing in America with his brother Dan. The first thing they did was get Walcott back into a regular training and eating routine for the first time ever, three square meals a day with plenty of meat and vegetables. Nick turned out to be a great trainer for Jersey Joe and together over the next two years, ’44 and ’45 and they would develop the famous move of the ‘Walcott shuffle’ in which Joe would simply walk away at crucial times in a bout to set his opponent off-balance.
Jersey Joe Walcott made his return to the ring on January 11, 1945 against journeyman Jackie Saunders in Camden Convention Hall. He knocked out the left-handed Saunders in the second round and his comeback had begun. A few months later, with the war in Europe coming to an end and celebrations taking place in NYC’s Times Square, things at the Camden Shipyard slowed down the work dried up.
However, with assurances from Bocchicchio that his family would be taken care of, Walcott continued to intensify his training and took on some more formidable opponents like Joe Baksi, ranked 4th in the world. He decidedly defeated Baksi in August 1945 and news of the victory went all over the country moving the Camden fighter into the top ten of heavyweight boxers for the first time.
During these years and true to form, my father had begun spending his spare hours hanging around the training gyms in Camden and attending the boxing shows at Camden Convention Hall. Soon he attached himself to the local boxing hero, Walcott. He knew Webster and Bocchicchio from previous boxing contacts and often would take me to watch Walcott train. It was about this time that an incident occurred which I recall so vividly that it seems as if it happened yesterday. Walcott was preparing for the next bout on his march to the top and was sparring at a gym on Penn Street near the Walt Whitman Hotel in central Camden. My dad, ever the informed and sociable observer, knew the handlers and convinced them as a joke to put me in the ring with Jersey Joe.
I was nine years old.
As the exercise was arranged on such an impromptu basis, I was given a pair of unpadded gloves, the type used to punch the light bag which usually hung from overhead. As funny as this may seem, I was reluctant to swing at Jersey Joe because I was afraid to hurt him using gloves with no padding. This concern on my part was much to the amusement of those in the gym and to Walcott himself who pleaded with me to punch him. Over and over again the great man encouraged me to land a haymaker on him. . . but in the end, I couldn’t. It became somewhat of a farce when I finally seriously tried to hit him. Each time he would move his head just far enough away and my punch would fan the air ! I have never forgotten this and the speed at which he was able to move his head away. No wonder he became the champion of the world.
Eventually, as a result of my father’s interest in Jersey Joe and his career, the boxer became a friend of our whole family. He came for Sunday lunch several times and was without doubt our local hero. Although it must be said that at that time Walcott was not a celebrity and our neighbours were somewhat wary of a black man visiting in the completely segregated Westfield Acres housing estate.
One memorable event during those years was the summer day my dad got Walcott to come to Westfield Acres to referee a series of bouts he had arranged for local kids. Both myself and my brother Jim were on the bill. My brother managed to get his photo taken before his bout and it was published in the Newark Daily News. (see below). The event is still talked about today by old timers in South Jersey.
Soon everything would change. The champion Joe Louis was being discharged from his military service and returning to civilian life after the war. Suddenly the heavyweight title was on the line again. Walcott, in spite of his advanced age, was ready and the savvy Bocchicchio arranged bouts with all the leading fighters. I remember most of the boxers . . . Tami Mauriello, Joey Maxim, Lou Nova, Tommy Gomez, Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray and the light-heavyweight, Archie Moore. Though Walcott lost to Maxim and ‘Violent’ Ray, he avenged both of these losses in 1947 and Jersey Joe thus became the leading contender to face the champion, Louis.
After much publicity over the location for the bout, the Camden boxer gained his first real taste of fame when he was scheduled to fight the Louis at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 1947. Our whole family watched the bout with crazy excitement on our B&W television only to be disappointed by the controversial decision in favour of Louis. Even the front page of the New York Times seemed to imply that Walcott was robbed! There I was, a ten-year old shaver in my pajamas on the floor in front of the TV. After the decision, I cried like a baby . . . not for the last time over Jersey Joe.
Six months later in a return bout in Yankee Stadium, Louis knocked out Walcott with a devastating punch in the 11th round. But after the bout, Louis announced to his mother and the world that he would retire from the ring. Walcott was disappointed that he hadn’t beat Louis, but vowed to continue his quest for the title.
He finally succeeded when he KO’d champion Ezzard Charles in the 7th round in a bout at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in July 1951. Jersey Joe was now heavyweight champion of the world. He never came to our house again after he became champ, mainly because he was now inundated with invitations to appear everywhere. Now, he was a celebrity. He gave Charles a return bout in the following summer at Philly’s Municipal Stadium and won a decision in 15 rounds
Jersey Joe and I had one more date with destiny.
I had just entered my sophomore year at Camden Catholic High School and my dad had acquired two tickets for the bout called the fight of the century. Jersey Joe was to defend his title against the undefeated Rocky Marciano on 23 September, 1952 at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium. As my brother was ill with one of his recurring asthma attacks, my dad offered to take me to the fight. I followed the build-up in the local papers and considered myself the luckiest kid in the world.
It was a cool but comfortable night in Philadelphia that night and I was excited out of my mind. In spite of his being the challenger, Rocky was favoured by about 8-5 by the bookies to win, mainly because of his impressive undefeated record and Walcott’s advanced age. (My dad kept telling me that Walcott was even older than his official announced age of 38 years.)
We had great seats, not exactly ringside, but close enough for me to see everything. Boxing celebrities were introduced to the crowd and paraded across the ring. I remember seeing Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis make their way through the ropes. The old timers Gene Tunney and James Braddock were there and that excited my dad. Then the announcer introduced the two fighters and my heart skipped a beat when he said . . . from Camden, New Jersey, the heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott.
Finally the bell rang and to the surprise of everyone in the stadium, Walcott started the bout with a flurry of punches as if he was trying for a quick knockout. He landed a hard right early on which wobbled Rocky and the challenger from Brockton, Mass had to hold on to Walcott for dear life before they were separated by the referee. Then, a most remarkable thing happened. As the fighters came back together, Jersey Joe threw a beautiful left hook which found its mark on Marciano’s chin. The punch sent Rocky to the canvas for the first time in his forty-two fight career. I jumped up and down in my seat as the champion found his way to a neutral corner. I thought it might be all over but Marciano got right up at the count of three and was ready to continue. They fought tough for the remainder of the round and no one dreamed the fight would last for thirteen rounds. But it did !
It was a brutal bout, later called one of the best ever. Going into the 13th round, Walcott was ahead on all three scorecards. Both of the officials and the referee had Jersey Joe winning seven or eight rounds and Marciano only four or five. However, early in the round, Walcott backed up to the ropes and began to launch a right hand, but Marciano beat him to it and put him down on the canvas with a sharp right to the jaw. The champ was knocked out by Rocky with one haymaker. I remember seeing Jersey Joe’s knees buckle and it seemed that he was hit again as he was going down. It was all over as Walcott fell forward and was helpless on his hands and knees.
Rocky had pursued the champion for the entire fight and finally caught up with him in the thirteenth round. It was a devastating blow which one ringside reporter called frightening because he heard a ‘crack’, as if a jawbone had been broken, not the sound of a glove on flesh.
I was a mess . . . weeping in disbelief at the knockout in front of my dad and his friends. The last thing I remember as we left the massive stadium was the look of embarrassment on his face because his 15 year-old son was crying. It was a sad finish to an historic night.
It had taken over a minute for Jersey Joe to regain consciousness and he was heart-broken in his dressing room that he had lost the title. Later, Bocchicchio vowed that Walcott would retire, saying I won’t let him fight again, he’s too great a man. As far as I’m concerned Jersey Joe is retired. He looked pathetic against the ropes and I don’t want him to get hurt. He still has all his faculties and has money in the bank. Joe has made over one million dollars in the ring, he has been a great champion and that’s the way we want people to remember him. Walcott sadly agreed. If Felix wants me to retire, that’s OK with me. He brought me this far from nothing. If he says I’m through, I’m through.
As far as Walcott’s retirement, it was short-lived. Twenty-four hours after the fight, there were newspaper reports that a rematch was certain.
To be following the publicity after the first fight was fascinating to me. The contract had called for a return bout in 90 days but neither fighter would be ready since both had severe cuts and bruises from the 13 round brawl. Several offers came from Miami, San Francisco and even Yankee Stadium in New York. But there were problems. First, Bocchicchio had a heart attack which required open-heart surgery and Walcott would not proceed without him. Finally, by late February Felix recovered and with much hullabaloo, the return match was scheduled for Chicago Stadium on May 15, 1953.
It turned out to be a fiasco.
After the opening bell and a couple of minutes of sparring, the two fighters seem to be content tying each other up except that Marciano was relentlessly chasing the elusive Walcott. Continuing to force the action, Rocky came at Jersey Joe with a low left hook followed by a right uppercut to the chin. Walcott went down hard, landing on his back. He immediately brought himself up to a sitting position and grabbed the middle rope. Sitting calmly and glancing at his corner, Jersey Joe looked as though he was going to take a count of eight to regain his senses. But to everyone’s amazement, Walcott made no attempt to get up at eight. Through the counts of nine and ten, he continued to sit; only when the referee waved his arms indicating the fight was over did Jersey Joe leap to his feet, a second too late. To the crowd’s astonishment, the fight was over in 2:25.
The controversy following the fight was intense. There was much booing as the crowd felt they were cheated after the sheer intensity of the first match. Many (like my father) thought that Jersey Joe took a dive, i.e. purposely lost the fight because he did not want to go through another beating at the hands of the tough Marciano (win or lose) and he would still receive his share of the large gate. I could not accept this scenario because of my respect for the integrity of the man.
After much talk of still another match with Rocky, Jersey Joe never fought again, honouring his promise to his wife Lydia and his family.
In his last years, he saw Ezzard Charles die of a neurological disease, Marciano tragically killed in a plane crash and his beloved Lydia pass away. Yet his years honing his defensive skills as a boxer had served him well. His faculties were not impaired even in his old age unlike the infamous Mohamed Ali who prided himself on how he could ‘take a punch’. Jersey Joe preferred to ‘avoid the punch’.
Jersey Joe Walcott was elected Sheriff of Camden County in his later years and also served on the NJ boxing commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children in and around the area. Though I left Camden in 1968, I always knew where my roots were and cherish those years when I remember . . .
Me & Jersey Joe