Watch it long enough and at any moment you would swear that the 8ft bronze statue of Jersey Joe Walcott standing there on the Camden waterfront is about to come down from its pedestal and start kicking again. fist.
Whether it’s even up to is a miracle that was a decade in the making.
On Saturday, October 16, the Camden County Historical Society, along with the County Council of Commissioners, ensured that the legacy of one of the most underrated great heavyweight champions of all time remains, by unveiling the statue of the Camden County native.
It is the first boxing statue of its kind in South Jersey, that of an ordinary man who would have been extremely humiliated by such an honor. What started out as an impossible mission has turned into a successful task bringing together diverse people, from diverse backgrounds to make it possible.
It was a comprehensive measure of persistence, as was Walcott himself.
Walcott, real name Arnold Cream, died at the age of 80 on February 25, 1994 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He fought for 23 years, amassing a 49-20 -1 (31 KOs) record and was the epitome of perseverance. He won the heavyweight championship – finally on his fifth try, in 1951 – although many boxing historians believe his chance in the sun should have come four years earlier.
In 1947, Walcott fought “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis in a highly anticipated heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden. Walcott defeated Louis twice, in the first and fourth rounds.
Many thought 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 at the time to win a heavyweight championship fight, beating Ezzard Charles. His record lasted until 1994 when George Foreman won the title at age 45.
The birth of the statue project came when Vincent Cream, Walcott’s grandson, and his brother Bill, attended the 2012 unveiling ceremony of the 22-foot-tall, two-ton statue of the tall Rocky Marciano in his hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts.
“We saw what they were able to do on behalf of their champion and I thought we could do it for my grandfather,” said Vincent. “They got great support from the World Boxing Council (WBC). I told my brother I had to go on a mission to make sure Grandpa was honored, and we could do that on the Camden waterfront. I wanted my grandfather’s story to be reborn.
“This is where it started. I shook a lot of hands and reached out to a lot of people. I had to work on my elevator pitch. It was a monumental task, and at first I had a lot of “Good luck with that, that’s a great idea.” But nothing more. We needed a leader to galvanize people.
George Norcross III, 65, an insurance executive and president of Camden-based Cooper University Health Care, lived one block from Walcott in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Norcross saw Walcott walking around the neighborhood and was first introduced to the champion by his father, George Norcross Jr., when he was around seven or eight years old.
When Norcross III saw a brochure about the project, he immediately contacted Vincent and jumped on board.
“Jersey Joe was legendary in our community and throughout South Jersey, and I have pictures of my dad, my brothers and I with Jersey Joe when I was very young,” recalls Norcross III. “Riletta Cream was the wife of Joe who became the director of Camden High and with whom I became very close and supported. She supported the county government for many years and we were very close until her passing.
“Jersey Joe was a legendary figure from South Jersey. I would say he was the most famous person to ever come out of Camden (county). I will say he was perhaps the most famous person in South Jersey. He was probably the most popular person in the public service in Camden County history, because of who Joe was. I mean he wasn’t loved – Joe was loved.
It was a colossal undertaking. The Camden County Historical Society raised $ 185,000 to fund the project, with help from Norcross III, Vincent Cream and the Camden County Government.
“It was beyond the ring for Jersey Joe … [He] was a real superhero in our community and in our region. He deserved to be honored and his story deserves to be told. “- Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen
The project took 10 years and it took sculptor Carl LeVotch 18 months to assemble the astonishing piece of art. LeVotch consulted with the Cream family and asked them how they would like to remember the former champion. They wanted to see Walcott after knocking down Louis for the first time in their first fight.
Every step of the way, from commissioning LeVotch, who is the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual awards sculptor, Cream, Norcross III and various local figures were in attendance.
“People embraced the idea, and I came out with [Camden Mayor] Vic Carstarphen, before being mayor of Camden, and we saw the sculpture and I was mesmerized by it, ”said Norcross III.
“Carl LeVotch did an amazing job and the statue is a reflection of who Jersey Joe was,” said Carstarphen, the former Temple basketball star. “Sometimes history gets lost, and sometimes you have to know the past to understand the present. I literally lived around the Cream family, so I know the stories.
“It was beyond the ring for Jersey Joe. He was the first African American to serve as sheriff in Camden County. Jersey Joe was a true superhero in our community and in our region. He deserved to be honored and his story deserves to be told. And I know George doesn’t want to take the credit for it, but it wouldn’t have happened without George.
“It was something dear to Vincent and his family, and George made sure the traction was picked up. When I saw the statue, it was amazing to see the energy of the many different people there. . It was a great day, weather wise, and people didn’t want to leave. It’s one of those days you want to bottle and hold on. Coach (John) Chaney always said that you showed by your actions, and Jersey Joe represented it.
Norcross immediately thought of his father, George Jr., during the unveiling. It brought back a flood of memories.
“Joe was very close to my father, who has been gone since 1998,” Norcross said. “I was very close to my father and I met Jersey Joe through my father. That’s what I thought about. It’s all part of our history and our families. I thought of Joe, I thought of Riletta, and I thought of my father.
“Jersey Joe Walcott was a hero. Joe Frazier was a hero. John Glenn was a hero. Dick Allen, whom I met, was a hero. They were from my dad’s generation who were a different type of hero. I tend to react more to people of my father’s generation who were real heroes. I liken them to a different status of hero. They were human heroes, not media heroes.
Over the next few months, lights will be installed around the Walcott Statue, so Norcross and the Town of Camden can still see the statue of a man who defined determination.
Just like the project itself.
More funds need to be raised and fundraising continues by the company. For more information on Statute and Historical Society Support, click here.
Disclosure: George Norcross III is the father of PhillyVoice founder and president Lexie Norcross.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning Philadelphia-area sports reporter who has written for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the President of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here: @JSantoliquito.