ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It figured, for a heavyweight fight in New Jersey, that Jersey Joe Walcott might be around. When Gerry Cooney and Michael Spinks meet Monday night in Convention Hall, Walcott will be among the 16,000 spectators -- and the former heavyweight champion will be rooting for Spinks. In the days leading up to the fight, Walcott has been in Spinks' camp.
"We're very good friends, I've been knowing him a long time," said Walcott, 73. "I'm here observing and expressing my thoughts."
Without saying it, Walcott sees in Spinks reminders of himself -- not in style, but substance. And it says something of Spinks to have a man like Walcott with him.
To Walcott, Spinks is "a fine young man, a gentleman, and determined." Determination -- that was Walcott's best asset. A gentle man, Walcott always was. After a cut was opened near Rex Layne's eye in a 1950 fight, Walcott told his manager, "I can't hurt that guy anymore." He didn't throw a punch the last three rounds and lost the decision.
Walcott was 9 years old, growing up in the Jersey town of Merchantville, near Camden, when he first thought about becoming heavyweight champion. He made it, 28 years later.
Determination has carried Spinks beyond what most had expected of him; as a 5-to-1 and 8-to-5 underdog, respectively, to Larry Holmes, Spinks twice scored 15-round decisions. But to improve his record to 31-0 he'll need every bit of cunning and determination he's shown while moving up from light heavyweight champion to heavyweight.
"You have to have the determination that every fight is important," said Walcott. "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. He appears to be determined."
Walcott bases his opinion on Spinks' hard work in the gym and his record of heavyweight upsets despite a weight disadvantage. About 200 pounds, Spinks will be outweighed by 30 pounds or more and give up five inches in reach to the 6-foot-6 Cooney. Walcott said he believes Spinks' determination will see him through -- even though Spinks has sounded less than confident leading up to the fight.
Walcott sees Spinks as "an individual who lives by faith and works hard and has the determination to be successful."
It's the way Walcott was. He had an elementary school teacher who would invite personalities and athletes to her home, and have neighborhood friends in. One day, she invited Walcott -- his name was Arnold Cream -- to her house to see a former heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. As Walcott tells it, Johnson was driven up in a big car with two big dogs inside, and when they got out of the car the dogs never let the kids get near him. Nor did Johnson seem to care. He never said hello, and Walcott determined that day he would become heavyweight champion and "never do such a thing," ignore his fans.
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Walcott claims to have fought for 17 years, starting in 1930, without making more than $300. He took his name from the original Joe Walcott, a lightweight and welterweight champion from Barbados who fought between 1890 and 1911. And he persisted until he finally became, at 37, the oldest man to win the heavyweight title, knocking out Ezzard Charles in 1951.
Walcott had been defeated twice by Joe Louis, one a controversial split decision after he had knocked Louis down twice. He retired at the age of 39 in 1953, following two knockouts by Rocky Marciano, although he knocked Marciano down in their first fight.
"I had a dream and desire that someday I would be the champion," said Walcott, who looks remarkably close to what he did in his later years in the ring. "It was hard work, but through the kindness of many, many good people I was able, after 21 years, to have a dream come true.
"Growing up in a neighborhood of a lot of poor people, I became all the more determined my whole life through because of the need and the help I felt I could give people who were living in depressed conditions who needed help, friendship, guidance. I felt if I was successful in becoming champion, I could help alleviate suffering."
He had a plan, a second dream.
"As a kid, I would dream of being a sheriff. A man with a badge. I wanted to be a champion, and I wanted to be a man with a big badge."
After retiring from boxing with a 50-18-1 record, he was elected sheriff of Camden County. He had wanted a visible position, so people who needed help would know where to find him; he said he wanted some kind of authority to help them. He considers improved jail conditions and calmed racial tensions his achievements.
"I've always been very thankful for the opportunity to serve and help. Every day of my life I have found things to do to help those in need. Like people whose homes were forfeited, their furniture being thrown out. Or youngsters getting into trouble and parents with no one to turn to.
"On the strength of the badge, I could intercede and go get help for the people who were in need. On the strength of the big badge, I could run interference and help those who were unable to help themselves."
Later, Walcott was chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission until his mandatory retirement at 70. Two years ago, a dinner was held here for him -- he gave the proceeds to the South Jersey Cancer Fund. Muhammad Ali told him that night, "I'm just glad I didn't come along during your time."
Now back at the shore, and waiting for a Spinks workout to begin, Walcott said that because he was able to fight Louis and Marciano twice each and Charles four times -- he won twice -- "I've always considered myself a blessed guy. The success and the joy I've gotten out of life, I feel like a chosen guy."
His eyes filled, and he turned away.