The Black Terror and Trafalgar Square.
I was reminded recently of the story of a certain black man who came to England from Statten Island in America in the early 19th Century - his name was Bill Richmond and it was he who did so much to introduce boxing as a 'sweet science', a noble art to a much confused England who thought bare-knuckle fighting was all about 'toeing the line' and punching each other to a pulp - the winner being the one who could not 'come-up-to -scratch' first i.e. the line of fistic engagement.
It amuses me to think how, when the British navy were defeating Napoleon's French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 all the talk in Britain at the time was not about this great sea battle but about a certain boxing match - a bit like when England play in the World Cup - everything stops for the big match - even then.
In 1805 this black former slave Bill Richmond who became known as 'The Black Terror' was fighting an awesome pugilist from Bristol called Tom Cribb - the prize was to be “Champion of England”.
In those days boxers were bare-knuckle fighters and used to, as I have mentioned literally stand and toe-the-line throwing punches at each other until one dropped. Evading or blocking punches was a sign of weakness for Britain was known and to degree feared throughout Europe as a fighting-mad nation - not changed much have we?
Winning was not as important as the way you 'played the game' - blind courage in the face of extreme pain brought the loudest cheers.
Boxing was in those far off days known as 'milling' and was totally void of any of the great skills it requires to become a champion today.
Bill Richmond's skin pigmentation was a lighter shade of black and in those days he was cruelly referred to as a 'half-human'.
He was very intelligent and had been brought from America by Lord Percy Duke of Northumberland, educated and taught a trade as a cabinet-maker.
Lord Percy had been amused by the 14 year old Bill Richmond's quick wit and sense of humour when he lived in the house of the church minister - the Rev Charlton on Statten Island and this nobleman had been a visitor.
Young Bill could amusingly entertain guests by imitating the many flowery expressions and the fine gestures used by visitors to the house - he did it to perfection. In fact Bill was allowed to propose the royal toast at dinner - his 'God save the King' was done with such panache and passion all were impressed.
This ability to conduct himself as a gentleman produced within himself a certain self-esteem that was to see him give up his apprenticeship which had continued in London to become a bare-knuckle fighter.
Once when escorting a young lady through the streets of London some ruffian made comments about his colour and Bill pulverised him with punches that were thrown at an amazing speed.
This newly discovered talent was stimulated by the feeling of injustice and the use of his fists became most frequent. His talent for bare-knuckle fighting was perfected on those very streets where the many soldiers in the local vicinity of his lodgings would fall foul of Bill by making racially abusive comments.
In fact you could say that Bill Richmond was the Muhammad Ali of his day - quick-witted and fast to react to prejudice.
Bill having been a member of the Duke's household had been sheltered to a degree from such abuse but was aware that there was a way to win over and deal with white people in a style most convincing.
Coincidentally, England had at that time developed a conscience - it was already beginning to realise that slavery was unjust, inhuman and unworthy of the Christian way of life - the 'Abolition of Slavery Act' would soon be passed.
After some successful fights with well-known bare-knuckle fighters Bill was matched with the formidable man from Bristol called Bill Cribb for the championship of England.
Cribb was considered unbeatable, as tough as teak - a man of very few words whose training consisted of beating the bark off trees with his hardened bare fists.
Cribb was much the taller man and stones heavier than Bill - his fighting talent was known all over the country.
In those days there were no weight divisions so Bill a mere welter-weight by modern standards was facing a very strong heavyweight.
The fight itself lasted 90 minutes. Bill Richmond gave a brilliant and brave performance - the crowd instead of booing his evasive skills and lightening hand-speed - which were reminiscent of our great Sheffield boxer of the 1980's Herol Graham - cheered him. This was a stylish new exciting way of fighting and they wanted to see more of it. Richmond had been well ahead on points by modern scoring but the sheer weight, and durability of the massive Tom Cribb tired him and he was eventually beaten by the bigger and stronger fighter.
Bill Richmond became a national hero after his performance and these new skills were well sought after. How could a fighter so disadvantaged come so close to beating a tough fighter like Bill Cribb?
Bill was no mans' fool - he could see that boxing was his ticket to greater things and actually built his first boxing academy on the very ground where Nelson's column now stands - his students included Members of Parliament and the nobility. Boxing had suddenly become acceptable, a much sort after sport and its popularity spread the world over.
In fact Bill Richmond who was also an excellent cricketer and conversationalist,then mixed with the best in the land. He was eventually decorated by King George IV for his great service and contribution - bringing to Britain a sweet science - the noble art of self-defence - boxing. For an ex slave such recognition was a unique and amazing.
The greatest sports writer of the day Pierce Egan editor of Boxiana wrote glowingly of Bill Richmond's many contributions as a boxing coach and manager.
Bill also trained in his own style an ex slave called Tom Molyneaux who later fought the same Bill Cribb twice (unsuccessfully) for the title - Champion of England. Tom had amazing talent like Bill Richmond and was a true heavyweight. He could have beaten and nearly did stop Cribb but crowd interference saved Cribb and he recovered and to fight back to win.
Tom Molyneaux lacked the dedication of his mentor Bill Richmond and his lack of discipline, the love of beer and his great sexual appetite did not augur for success in such a physically demanding sport as boxing - they were indeed his downfall.
Bill Richmond proved to the world that the pigmentation of ones skin is only a climatic phenomena and that when human-beings are raised in an environment where love, friendship and opportunities are equal they will achieve similar success - it is always up to the individual to make it happen. Remember, you are the Captain of your own ship and master of your own destiny - it is up to you to make it happen!
Ken Miller 'Champions Choice' Allestree Derby DE22 2HD