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Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I
The Ring Fight of the Year (1952)

September 23, 1952

Rocky Marciano’s rise through boxing’s ranks was as desperately-needed as it was spectacular. After the retirement of Jack Dempsey, an American sports legend boxing had slumped in popularity, only to be revived by the charismatic and dynamic Joe Louis. With Louis’ decline, two men stood at the top of the heavyweight division: Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott. Neither of them had Louis’ charm or fistic fireworks (not to disparage either men, who were both great fighters). The heavyweight division needed someone to carry the torch.

On plodding feet, Marciano rose to the challenge, cleaning out the heavyweight division with his hammer-like fists. Rocky stopped the likes of Roland La Starza and a faded Joe Louis on his way to the top, amassing a formidable record of 42-0 with 37 KOs. But still there were those who questioned his abilities. Marciano was wild and often clumsy. Joe Walcott would call his style “amateurish” - and not in the technical sense that we associate with amateur boxing today. Walcott would soon be in a unique position to re-evaluate that, because following Marciano’s second-round knockout of Harry Matthews, Rocky was first in line for a title shot…

From the first round, it seemed as though Rocky’s long winning streak was at an end. Only a minute into the fight, Walcott rocked Marciano with a straight right hand that forced Rocky to clinch. As soon as the two were separated, Jersey Joe gifted Marciano with his first knockdown at the end of a short left hook (row 1, gif 1). Rocky got up at the count of four, ignoring the roars of his corner to stay down for an eight-count, and tried to redeem himself, but Walcott had him outclassed. Both were tremendous punchers, but Walcott had him beat with technique. It seemed that Jersey Joe had been right - Rocky looked like an amateur getting a long-overdue boxing lesson.

As the bout drew on and fatigue set in, the match became a toe-to-toe dogfight - just the kind of inside fight that Marciano made his living in - and the power differential began to show. Rocky was truly a gifted puncher, a once-in-a-generation powerhouse even among the heavyweight division, and he had one hell of a chin. Marciano walked through punches that would have broken an ordinary man’s jaw, swinging wildly all the while, looking for just one to land, and land they did. Though the early rounds had certainly gone to Walcott, Marciano did not stall under pressure and did not fold under Jersey Joe’s pressure. The momentum shifted back and forth between the two fighters, who traded knockout blows like jabs. Both men seemed on the verge of death. Both men seemed immortal.

As the fight entered the championship rounds, Marciano’s chances began to dwindle. Walcott had won more rounds - oh, he’d barely eked out a few of them, but he won them. By the thirteenth round, Rocky had no chance of a decision win, and his corner told him so. Marciano came out of his corner looking for the kill, and that spelled bad luck for Jersey Joe.

Just over half a minute into the round, Marciano bullied Walcott into a corner. Walcott feinted with the left hand and followed with the right - one of his signature moves - but Marciano didn’t flinch. Rocky plowed his right hand into Walcott’s undefended face before he could deliver the goods, snapping his head back in one of the greatest one-punch knockouts in boxing history (row 2, gif 2). Walcott was relieved of his consciousness immediately, falling limp to the ground. As he descended, his arm caught one of the ring ropes, keeping his knee just above the canvas. Rocky, full of fighting fury, went down for an uppercut to finish the job, but realized his opponent’s condition midway and pulled the punch, reducing the blow to an almost friendly bop. 

The Philadelphia Municipal Stadium went wild. The referee counted, but Walcott would not rise - it would take him much longer than ten seconds to be revived. Jersey Joe Walcott, champion of the world, leading by two, three and four rounds on the three judges’ scorecards, had been knocked out in a stunning turnaround. There was a new heavyweight king, and his name was Rocky Marciano.

In his dressing room, the former champion tried in vain to recall what had happened. “I don’t remember anything. I don’t know if it was a right or a left. I wasn’t tired. I felt good. I was setting my own pace. Then - BANG! It hit me. I still don’t know what hit me. I couldn’t even try to get up.”

Walcott would get a chance at redemption in form of a rematch three months later. He was knocked out in the first round.

Tags: boxing Rocky Marciano Jersey Joe Walcott September 23 1952 martial arts sports
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