The stance of his chiseled body. The sweaty hands inside his boxing gloves. His opponent sprawled on the canvas. It was the look of a champion.
Most observers believed that Jersey Joe Walcott had defeated Joe Louis in their highly anticipated world championship heavyweight title fight on Dec. 5, 1947, at Madison Square Garden. He knocked Louis down twice. But the judges declared Louis the winner in a 15-round decision, and the crowd erupted in dismay.
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The fight was a defining moment in history for Walcott, who lost a rematch with Louis a year later. Walcott finally became an unlikely champion in 1951 at age 37, the oldest man to win the crown.
A quarter of a century after Walcott’s death, boxing sculptor Carl LeVotch hopes to capture that imagery and spirit from the first Louis bout to immortalize the boxer in a larger-than-life statue that will be erected at Wiggins Waterfront Park on the Camden waterfront.
“This statue is going to speak of the will to achieve,” LeVotch said while standing on the brick walkway where the artwork will be placed. “He achieved greatness.”
A rendering depicts an eight-foot bronze statue with two smaller sculptures and a bronze replica of the champion’s ring belt that will be placed on a pedestal. It will include a biography of Walcott.
Camden County has earmarked $185,000 for LeVotch to begin work on the statue this month. The Camden County Historical Society, which has been spearheading efforts to honor the boxer with a permanent memorial for years, plans to raise funds to repay the costs.
“Jersey Joe’s legacy as a professional boxer and world-class athlete is of historical significance,” Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said in a statement. “We think it’s important not only to honor him for his contributions to this community, but to ensure that his legacy continues to inspire others for a very long time.”
Planners hope the statue will become a tourist destination for the bustling waterfront, like the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With one difference: Unlike Rocky Balboa, Walcott was a real-life legend who became a beloved community leader in Camden after his boxing career.
“He wasn’t just a fighter,” said his eldest grandson, Vincent Cream, 59, of Pennsauken. “He was a great man.”
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Walcott, whose legal name was Arnold Cream, grew up in Merchantville. He began fighting as a youngster to earn money to help support his 10 siblings after his father died.
He took his name from Joe Walcott, a lightweight and welterweight champion from Barbados. He added Jersey to honor his home state. Walcott began boxing professionally in 1930 at age 16.
Early in his career, Walcott worked odd jobs during the day and boxed at night. He slowly built an impressive record after losing some heavyweight fights, leading up to the showdown with Louis.
The 6-foot Walcott dropped Louis, the undisputed champion, in the first round and again in the fourth. Only one referee voted for Walcott. Years later, the outcome is still widely debated.
On his fifth try for the title, Walcott defeated Ezzard Charles during a bout in Pittsburgh in 1951. Walcott’s reign as the oldest heavyweight champion was not broken until 1994, when George Foreman won the title at age 45.
“You have to have the determination that every fight is important,” Walcott told the Washington Post in 1987. “You’ve got to have that determination, that faith and belief that you’re going to come out victorious, through prayers and hard work. In most cases it pays off.”
In 1952, Walcott lost the world heavyweight title to the undefeated Rocky Marciano and was defeated in a rematch a year later. He retired at age 39 with 51 wins, 18 losses, and two draws.
Back home, Walcott went on to become the first African American to serve as sheriff of Camden County. His wife, Riletta T. Cream, became a popular educator and county freeholder. She died in 2017.
Walcott played minor roles in a few movies and television shows. He served as chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission from 1975 to 1984. Walcott also promoted boxing events in Camden and was a boxing referee.
In Camden, Walcott was a symbol of perseverance in the ring and in life. He never forgot his humble beginnings, and relished his position in the community and wanted to have a presence, Cream said.
Cream recalled an incident when his grandfather pulled up to a corner in his trademark black Lincoln bearing his vanity plates “JJW1” and cleared away drug dealers. Walcott especially enjoyed greeting people at his favorite diner, and never turned admirers away, he said.
“People could always walk up to him,” said Cream. “He appreciated the love.”
Cream, a boxing enthusiast, is working closely with LeVotch, sharing intimate details about his grandfather. The family has been trying to get a statue erected since Walcott died in 1994. In late December, a bronze marker honoring Walcott was ripped from the ground at the site of the old Campbell’s Field baseball stadium.
Cream said he hopes his grandfather’s story will resonate with Camden residents. The city, once known as the most dangerous in the country, is struggling to make a comeback.
“People are going to hear his story and get something from it,” Cream said. “What did Jersey Joe do? He never gave up.”
LeVotch, 70, of Haddon Township, grew up in Camden, and his father sparred with Walcott. In 2009, he made a clay-and-bronze statue that sits in South Philadelphia’s Passyunk Avenue of Joey Giardello, a world middleweight champion in the 1960s.
Besides gathering family memories, LeVotch is studying photographs and film of Walcott in the ring, all to convey a message through his artistry. He expects to complete the project by fall 2021.
“I can’t think of anything more meaningful than this piece,” LeVotch said. “I can’t wait to get started.”