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The Beginnings to 1918
No sport has had as profound an effect on the lives of African-Americans as boxing. Professional bouts have led to racial murders, and injuries to fighters have caused permanent physical and mental harm. Yet the sport retains a viselike grip on the imagination of all of us. There seems to be something primeval about hand-to-hand combat in the ring that makes sober people sit up and pay attention. No athletic event not the Olympics, the World Series, or the Super Bowl-can match the drama of a world heavyweight title fight between two charismatic boxers.
Boxing now is not the same activity one sees depicted on ancient art pieces. That man began fighting for entertainment early is proved by scenes of boxers on objets d'art of the Egyptian civilization during the time of the pharaohs. The tomb of Beni-Hasan in particular is quite graphic in its wall paintings of boxings. At the time, boxing was a controlled contest in which blood flowed freely and swings were more of the roundhouse variety than jabs or uppercuts. An ancient match would look very crude by today's standards.
The Greeks introduced their own brand of fighting into the Olympic Games, which began in 776 B.C. Boxing started in 632 B.C. and was called pancration. It was much gorier than it should have been since no one wore gloves. The Romans followed the Greeks and added what are called battles royal. These spectacles entailed putting several gladiators together in one arena and having them fight it out until only one remained.
There was some opposition to these Roman shows from small Christian sects.Clement of Rome and Ignatius (later sainted) were just two who publicly condemned the bouts to no avail. But after A.D. 400, the gladiatorial bouts stopped. Fighting for sport then fell into a period of disorganization for almost 1,300 years. Then English and French nobles decided that an aristocratic gentleman's education was incomplete unless he could defend himself. What proceeded was a more scientific approach to fighting and the first true break from no-holds-barred brawling.
William Richmond and Tom Molineaux
James Figg capitalized on the English gentry's demand for quality instruction in self-defense. In 1719 he set up his School of Arms and Self-Defense, and he was hisnation's first boxing champion. Soon he had a waiting list, and even King George I attended. Interest grew briskly until Jack Broughton -- a Figg pupil-formalized the first set of rules for the sport, now known simply as Broughton's Rules.
These guidelines included no hitting below the belt, no hitting an opponent when he was already down, and no holding below the waist, and they standardized the ring. The ring itself-from which the term for boxing matches derived-was round and about twenty-five feet in diameter with a firm dirt floor. A line or mark three feet long was drawn down the middle by the referee to serve as the place the boxers had to return to after a knockdown. Hence the phrases toe the mark and come up to scratch, in use today. No gloves were used, and blood still flowed-that was what the public wanted. Although boxing was banned in England from 1750 to 1790 because of the number of deaths in the ring, it remained popular nonetheless.
Into this scheme of things came William Richmond of Staten Island, New York, who was born free on August 5, 1763. His mother was an ex-slave belonging to Reverend George E. Chariton, who, after moving to Staten Island from the South, set her free. Growing up along the docks of New York City harbor during the British occupation, Richmond frequently got into bouts with sailors and seldom lost. One day he was noticed by the British Manhattan commander, Hugh Percy, who took an immediate liking to the youngster.
In 1778, Percy was recalled to England. He asked Richmond's mother to let him take her son to England. Richmond's mother reluctantly agreed, and he settled in the English county of Yorkshire to learn cabinet-making. He got into his first fight there by accident. At the horse races near York on August 25, 1791, he was accosted by George "Docky" Moore and subsequentlygave him a sound thrashing in a makeshift ring nearby. He immediately received more challenges, since the sport was gaining in popularity. David Mendoza had just been crowned as the first Jewish champion of England in 1792, and his style of fighting was termed "scientific" -- meaning he tried to avoid being hit rather than going toe-to-toe with opponents.
By 1800, Richmond was a semi-professional boxer and had an impressive list of wins to his credit. His success attracted wealthy patrons, and he decided to move to London, where he opened a tavern called the Horse and Dolphin on St. Martin's Lane in Leicester Square. After his first publicized loss to George Maddox, he scored enough wins to earn a title berth against the then champion, Tom Cribb. They agreed to fight on October 8, 1805, at Halsharn (near Eastbourne) on the village green.
The stakes were high for Cribb in particular: his title, English honor, and the supposed superiority of the white race. For Richmond it was the first time a black American athlete had contested for a national or world title in any sport. The monetary purse was nominal: twenty-five guineas. The atmosphere surrounding the bout was festive. A crowd in the thousands was present, and dukes and other nobles appeared on horseback. No one paid to see fights then; it was first come, first serve for the choice views.
The newspapers had already hired boxing journalists to cover bouts, and their opinions were frequently more credible than those given by referees, who could be bought off at times. The most influential paper was the London Times, Its edition of October 9, 1805, reported on the outcome...