A statue of boxing legend Jersey Joe Walcott will be unveiled in Camden: ‘He was bigger than life’
The oldest grandson of legendary boxer Jersey Joe Walcott spent 10 years keeping a promise: to make sure his grandfather was remembered in his hometown. A statue unveiling will honor his memory.
Legendary boxer Jersey Joe Walcott was an unlikely champion who fought his way into the history books and captured the hearts of adoring fans in Camden as a fighter and elder statesman.
Now, an 8-foot bronze statue, a decade in the making, will be unveiled Saturday on the Camden waterfront to immortalize the boxer the city claimed as its own. The sculpture will depict the famed boxer in a chiseled stance, his gloves up and arms curled.
“I wanted to create something that people will linger over for a while, and get the spirit of the man,” South Jersey boxing sculptor Carl LeVotch said Friday. “He was bigger than life.”
In 1947, Walcott fought Joe Louis in a highly anticipated heavyweight title fight in Madison Square Garden. He knocked down Louis twice. Many believed Walcott won, but the judges declared Louis the winner in a 15-round decision. Four years later, at age 37, Walcott became the oldest man to win a heavyweight championship fight, defeating Ezzard Charles. His record was not broken until 1994 when George Foreman won the title at age 45.
» READ MORE: Statue planned for Camden waterfront to honor boxer Jersey Joe Walcott: ‘He wasn’t just a fighter; he was a great man’
Crews installed the statue this week at Wiggins Park, which offers a picturesque view of the Philadelphia skyline. But it will be shrouded in a plywood box until the unveiling. Banners with Walcott’s photo have been erected along the walkway, and a parade through Camden will pass through Walcott’s old Parkside neighborhood. Former champions Larry Holmes and Bernard Hopkins are expected to attend.
Planners hope the statue will become a tourist attraction like the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But the one in Camden, they say, will stand out because it honors a real-life legend who never forgot his humble roots.
The statue will be a fitting tribute to Walcott’s fighting spirit and perseverance, said his oldest grandson, Vincent Cream, 61, of Pennsauken. It will include a biography and a bronze replica of his championship belt.
“This is going to be a centerpiece. They’re all going to come here and take pictures,” said Cream, who spearheaded the project. He promised his grandfather, who died in 1994, that he would be remembered.
The statue, atop a 5-foot pedestal, includes a quote that guided Walcott through his childhood, something he overheard his father say: “Let me tell you one thing, if my son gets a chance, he will become the champion.” Walcott never forgot that and shared that often with his own kids and grandkids, Cream said.
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Arnold Raymond Cream grew up in Merchantville. Using the Walcott name, he took up boxing professionally at age 16 in 1930 to help support his mother and 10 siblings after the death of his father. His family moved to Parkside in 1947. He retired at age 39 with 51 wins, 18 losses, and two draws.
After leaving the ring, Walcott acted in TV shows and movies, became the first Black sheriff of Camden County, and headed the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. His wife, Riletta T. Cream, was a beloved educator and county freeholder.
“Jersey Joe’s legacy in the boxing ring speaks for itself and his record of public service is admirable,” Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli said in a statement. “We’re proud to honor this hometown legend with a permanent statue in his native Camden.”
After months of work, a big decision for planners was deciding if the statue should face Philadelphia or Camden, Cream said. Camden won.
“The sun will rise on his face every day and set on his back,” Cream said.
It will be the county’s first publicly displayed monument that honors an African American. A statue of Matthew Henson, a Black explorer believed to be the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, is at the Camden Shipyard Museum in the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood.
Cream said his family became highly motivated to get a statue for Walcott after visiting a statue honoring Rocky Marciano in Brockton, Mass. — the man who took the heavyweight title from Walcott in 1952 — but it took years to complete the tribute.
Camden County earmarked $185,000 for the statue. The Camden County Historical Society is trying to raise about $120,000 to repay some of the cost.
“I gave it my best shot,” said sculptor LeVotch. “It looks just about the way I thought it would.”
The dedication will be somewhat bittersweet for the family, which is mourning the death earlier this month of Walcott’s last surviving sibling, Barbara Gray. Cream remembered his grandfather as kind, humble, and always welcoming when approached by fans.
“He wasn’t just my grandfather. He was my friend,” Cream said.
» READ MORE: Jersey Joe was Camden’s ‘Rocky.’ A waterfront statue honoring him is taking shape.
The parade will begin at noon Saturday, at The Pub, 7600 Kaighn Ave., Pennsauken, and end at Wiggins Park, 2 Riverside Dr., Camden, where the statue will be unveiled at 1 p.m., followed by a concert and celebration. For more info visit www.camdencounty.com/jerseyjoe.