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Which Boxing Champ Was ‘Unforgivably Black’?

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 98: Who were the first black boxing champions?

Before Lennox Lewis and Chris Byrd, before Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, before Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, there was the mighty Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, whose name has roamed through this article series as he once roamed around the boxing ring.

Yet before narrating his tale, I should note that, well before Jack Johnson, black boxers had established a rich history in the ring in Europe. Our old friend Joel A. Rogers, whose 100 Amazing Facts inspired this series, cites two men in particular: Bill Richmond and Thomas Molineaux—both born before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Johnson’s feats in the ring built on those of Richmond and Molineaux, while he also challenged racism in his own fearless way. May his “Unforgivable Blackness,” as my friend Ken Burns titled his landmark 2005 documentary about Johnson, become unforgettable in the annals of civil-rights pioneers and in the pages of American history.

But first, let’s travel back in time to England.

Bill Richmond

Boxing was the most popular organized sport in 18th-century England, then the world center of boxing. The sport also was popular in America but comparatively underdeveloped, as Elliott Gorn writes in 2012’s The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. So it’s not surprising that the history of early black boxers takes us across the pond.

 

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