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Looking Back: 1949: Eyes on the prize(fighters)

November 19, 2018

For a month in early summer of 1949, Kankakee County was (sort of) the boxing capital of the world.

During that time, heavyweight boxers Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles trained at camps in eastern Kankakee County to prepare for their June 22 World Heavyweight Championship title bout in Chicago. The winner of that match would become the successor to legendary pugilist Joe Louis, who had held the heavyweight title for a dozen years. Louis had announced his retirement in March 1949.

Walcott, a veteran fighter who had twice challenged Louis for the title (and lost each time), set up training camp on May 27 at a site called Pleasant Valley. That camp was located seven miles southeast of Momence.

Charles, a 27-year-old whose experience primarily was in the middleweight and light heavyweight classes, had arrived in Kankakee County on May 24. His training facility was the Sunset Hills Golf Course along the Kankakee River, east of Kankakee.

The rural siting of the training camps was cause for amused commentary by big-city sportswriters. Wilfrid Smith, the Chicago Tribune’s boxing writer, wrote on June 10 that “The corn field camps in the Kankakee river valley, where Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott are training for their heavyweight championship fight June 22 in Comiskey Park, are disturbingly unusual ... any locale will serve the purpose of a fight camp, if it has a degree of privacy and fresh air. Pleasant Valley and Sunset Hills, euphoniously misleading for the valley is negligible and a hummock in this prairie is a landmark, abound with fresh air. ... And are these places private? They are so private that fewer than 200 fight fans have discovered them on any one afternoon, when the pugilists present their wares at a 60 cent price.”

The Tribune reporter couldn’t resist an opportunity to poke fun at the Charles camp’s security arrangements. “There absolutely is no business,” he wrote, “for Bill Reimus, two gun deputy sheriff of Kankakee county ... whose extracurricular activities now include patrol of Charles’ Sunset Hills camp. Reimus, a genial soul, hasn’t twirled a gun in a fortnight.”

On a more serious note, both the “big city” and local newspapers provided regular coverage of the activities at the camps. In addition to listing the number of rounds in the ring against various sparring partners and the distances of daily runs, the sportswriters also explored other topics. One area of discussion was Charles’ weight, “We would like to get Ezzard a bit heavier,” his trainers told the Daily Journal on June 7, “but, at the same time, we do not want to impair his speed ... he usually fights well under 180 pounds and that’s not quite enough for a guy like Walcott.” (They didn’t achieve their goal — Charles weighed in for the fight at 181¾ pounds, against Walcott’s 195½).

In Walcott’s case, the speculation was whether the older, heavier boxer had the stamina to last the full 15 rounds against his younger and more agile opponent.

“The big question seems to be whether the aging Walcott ... has enough gas to last 15 rounds in case there is no earlier kayo,” wrote the Journal reporter on June 21. The story noted, however, that Walcott had done “300 miles of roadwork and nearly 130 rounds of sparring” to prepare for the bout.

In Kankakee the day before the championship match, both boxers discussed strategy: “I figure my best bet against Walcott is to smother his punches — keep on top of him and do all my fighting at close quarters,” declared Charles. “I will carry the fight to Ezzy,” responded Walcott. “I think he’ll change his mind pretty fast if he carries the fight to me.”

Charles’ strategy was well-chosen: After the first two rounds, his aggressive approach kept Walcott on the defensive for the rest of the match. By the 11th round, Walcott “fought only to go the route,” wrote one observer. “He feinted, sidestepped and backed away. These tactics did permit him to go the limit.” The crowd of about 26,000 spectators in Chicago’s Comiskey Park “booed the closing rounds as the title battle degenerated into a club fight.”

The younger boxer became World Heavyweight Champion by a unanimous decision; he would retain that title until 1951, when he again fought Walcott. This time, Walcott won, knocking out Charles in the seventh round to finally claim the championship he had been pursuing for years.

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