Throughout boxing history, many black fighters have proudly stood as symbols of aspiration, success, power and resolve. Some overcame the systemic odds to become champions, while many illustrious names were denied deserved opportunities.
December, 1810: Born into slavery at a tobacco plantation farm, Tom Molineaux emerged with his freedom through boxing. His bare-knuckle fight with English champion Thomas Cribb is regarded as one of the most important in history. Mike Tyson stated: “He’s the first black champion who earned his freedom through fighting”.
Black Boxing History: Tom Molineaux was a pioneer.
June 27th, 1890: Canadian George Dixon became the first black fighter ever to capture a world title by beating Nunc Wallace in London; bypassing American segregation laws. ‘Little Chocolate’ was a 19th century catalyst for future generations of black boxers.
1901: ‘Barbados’ Joe Walcott was the first black fighter to claim a world championship in the 20th century, by knocking out Jim Ferns. Later heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott named himself after the man he regarded as the greatest ever.
May 12th, 1902: Joe Gans became the first ever native-born black American world title holder after stopping Frank Erne in one round. ‘The Old Master’ was also the first American-born black man to hold a world championship in any sport.
Black Boxing History: Joe Gans made history
1904: The first world title match between two black boxers. ‘Barbados’ Joe Walcott lost his title to Dixie Kid by controversial disqualification, with the referee later believed to have bet on the victor.
December 26th, 1908: Jack Johnson made history by becoming boxing’s first ever African-American world heavyweight champion, stopping Tommy Burns in Australia. The police halted the fight recording to make sure no footage existed of a white man being knocked out by a black man.
July 4th, 1910: Reigning heavyweight king Jack Johnson knocked out America’s ‘Great White Hope’ James J. Jeffries in ‘The Fight of the Century’. ‘The Galveston Giant’ cemented himself as a towering cultural figure in American history, transcending the sport with his achievements.
Black Boxing History Photo: Bettmann Archive
June 22, 1937: Joe Louis became the first black world heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson, knocking James J. Braddock out cold in eight rounds. ‘The Brown Bomber’s’ triumph was a groundbreaking moment in African-American history, with thousands staying up all night throughout the country in celebration.
June 22nd, 1938: Joe Louis became widely regarded as the first African-American to achieve national hero status. His monumental first-round knockout win over Max Schmeling saw him stand as a symbol in the battle against Nazi Germany.
August 17th, 1938: Henry Armstrong became the first fighter, black or white, to hold world titles in three weight classes simultaneously.
Black Boxing History Photo: Bettmann Archive
December 20th, 1946: Sugar Ray Robinson stood up to the mob that controlled the sport, refusing to be dictated by their terms and eventually winning the welterweight crown with a win over Tommy Bell. He became bigger than boxing and sealed himself in history as the greatest of all-time.
September 27th, 1950: For the first time in boxing history, the lineal world heavyweight championship passed from one black fighter to another. Not being fully appreciated as the division’s ruler by beating Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles overcame previously retired Joe Louis to gain official recognition.
1952: Joe Louis became the first African-American to play in a PGA-sanctioned tournament at the San Diego Open, paving the way for other black professionals to make their mark in golf. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said of Louis that, “he’s a credit to his race - the human race.”
Black Boxing History: Sugar Ray Robinson is regarded as the greatest ever
June 10th, 1962: Then Cassius Clay stood as a figure of racial pride, joining forces with Human Rights activist Malcolm X to rally for integration. The pair met for a Black Muslim rally in Detroit and began their iconic friendship.
June 20th, 1967: Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing after his military draft refusal, due to his opposition to the Vietnam War and affiliation with the Nation of Islam. ‘The Greatest’ was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight titles.
March 8th, 1971: No sporting event has ever had the kind of popular culture significance and iconic impact that the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had. ‘The Fight of the Century’ heavyweight kings were assigned opposing roles on the political and cultural spectrum. In the end, it was Frazier’s night.
Black Boxing History Photo: Larry Morris/The New York Times
October 30th, 1974: Muhammad Ali stunned George Foreman with an 8th-round KO triumph in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. A significant cultural event, the fight resonated beyond sport. Don King built a festival around the bout, featuring soul icon James Brown and Blues legend B.B. King at a football stadium in Zaire. The night was later the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary ‘When We Were Kings’.
June 11th, 1982: Larry Holmes defended his world heavyweight title against the latest ‘Great White Hope’ Gerry Cooney in Las Vegas. Racial overtones surrounded the bout. Cooney deflected such talk but members of his camp wore shirts stating, ‘Not the White Man, but the Right Man’. Holmes knocked him out but eventually became close friends.
May 24th, 2018: US President Donald Trump signed a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, clearing his racially motivated criminal conviction from 1913 - for transporting a white woman across state lines.
December 18th, 2019: Katie Taylor unveiled a new headstone at the resting place of pioneering bare-knuckle champion Tom Molineaux. For over two centuries he lay in an unmarked grave in Galway, Ireland, where he had spent his final days of a remarkable life.