BASN Book Excerpts: Boxing In The Shadows

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 19, 2007

Boxing in the Shadows by Tom Donelson NOTE: Later this month, boxing contributor Tom Donelson will be releasing a book entitled “Boxing in the Shadows”, a history on the plight of African-American fighters. Over the next two weeks, BASN will be featuring excerpts from Donelson’s book.

TODAY: The story of Walcott-Charles.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On January 25, 1939, Joe Louis fought John Henry Lewis for the heavyweight championship. It was another Louis victory as he knocked out the former lightweight champion in just one round. The real significance of this fight was that, for only the second time, two black men fought for the heavyweight title.

Before this fight, there was at least one white fighter competing for a heavyweight championship; and even after that fight, this trend continued for seven more years. (The third championship fight in which two African-Americans fought for the title was the first Louis-Walcott.)

After the war, African-American domination of the heavyweight division would begin in earnest. After a quick rematch with Billy Conn, Joe Louis faced Jersey Joe Walcott in what everyone believed to be another quick victory for the “Brown Bomber.”

Jersey Joe Walcott surprised Louis by knocking Louis down in the first round, and again in the fourth. Dominating Louis most of the fight, Walcott cruised down the stretch, and Louis was granted a controversial decision even he did not believe he deserved.

In their rematch, Walcott once again started out strong, knocking Louis down early. As the eleventh round began, Louis’ eye was swollen and Walcott appeared to be on his way to winning the championship.

Walcott made a mistake though by getting trapped on the rope, and Louis, taking advantage of his only chance for victory, knocked Walcott out.

Louis saw the handwriting on the wall and retired. In yet another radical step, the two men selected to fight for his vacant title were two African-Americans. Ezzard Charles and Walcott were chosen to fight for Louis’ title, and no one really complained. Boxing fans understood that these were the two best heavyweights.

Walcott began his career by losing to the major contenders in the early 40′s, though it was not until after the Louis fight that it became apparent he was indeed a world class fighter. Walcott was a fighter who became better with age. Charles was a slick boxer, who moved from the light heavyweight division.

While Charles never fought for the light heavyweight championship, he defeated four of the five light heavyweight champions that he battled. He never fought for the title but opted to go after the heavyweight championship instead. (There are boxing historians who believed that Charles was one of the greatest light heavyweights, and that he may have been a better fighter at the lighter weight!)

In their first encounter, Charles out-pointed Walcott to claim the title. Charles would gain full recognition as champion when he defeated Louis in 1950. Louis, coming out of retirement to pay back taxes, was no longer the great Louis of the past, and Charles not only out boxed Louis, but also stood toe to toe with the great former champion.

Both men ended the fight with swollen eyes, but Louis was barely standing as the 15th round ended. Charles was the fresher of the two fighters as he won formal recognition for being the best heavyweight.

Charles would defeat Walcott one more time before their third fight. Walcott surprised Charles with a left hook sending the younger boxer sprawling on the canvas, and Walcott became the oldest champion in boxing history. In their fourth and final fight, Walcott squeezed out a tough decision.

Walcott met his biggest challenge when he faced the younger, hungry Rocky Marciano. That night, Walcott did not look 38 but 28 as he out boxed Marciano. In the first round, Marciano went down, and for the next eleven rounds Walcott gave his more youthful opponent a boxing lesson.

Then in the 13th, Walcott became too smart for his own good. He tried to trap Marciano as Marciano approached. Walcott faked a left hook with the idea of nailing the oncoming Marciano with a right.

For a split second, Walcott could see the end coming as he prepared to derail the Marciano express. While Walcott’s right headed toward Marciano, coming in the opposite direction was Marciano’s right.

Marciano’s right landed first and Walcott’s face contorted into an ungodly shape as he hit the canvas; and defeat was snatched from victory’s jaws.

Charles would have his own two classic fights with Marciano. Two years older than Rocky when they fought, Charles had lost a step but could still box. Both men stood toe to toe, with Marciano pounding out a victory over Charles.

Their second fight was a bloody mess. As the eighth round approached, Marciano was badly cut and in danger of losing the fight by TKO. If Charles could last the eighth, he would have been the first heavyweight to regain the title. Marciano took matters in his own hands, winning the fight with a knock out.

Marciano would comment later that the first Charles was the toughest fight he had been in. Both Walcott’s and Charles’ places in history had less to do with their fighting skills, and more for another fact.

These two men followed Louis as champion with the bonds of racism that restricted African-Americans opportunities to fight for titles weakening under their reign. They were considered fighters who happened to be black, and their skin color did not matter as much in their sport as skin color mattered in other sports.

Boxing fans accepted these two men simply because of their skills.

After the Marciano era ended, once again two African-Americans fought for the title as Floyd Patterson defeated Archie Moore. From this point on, African-Americans dominated the heavyweight scene.

While Louis’ reign proved a turning point in sports, as he became the first black fighter who transcended the color barrier, it took the skills and courage of both Walcott and Charles to cement African-Americans as permanent fixtures in the heavyweight championship division.

African-Americans would no longer be denied a place at the heavyweight championship table.

NEXT WEEK: Larry Holmes, the underappreciated warrior.