Who was the first African American sports superstar? Ask any boxing fan and they might tell you it was Jack Johnson, a fierce fighter who terrorized opponents on his way to becoming the first black heavyweight champion in 1908. However, 100 years before “The Galveston Giant,” there was Bill Richmond: a former slave who used both his brains and brawn to revolutionize both the sport and public perception of African Americans in general. In 2017, as part of a larger archaeological investigation of a former London burial site known as St. James’ Garden, researchers began the hunt for Richmond’s unmarked grave, in the hopes of shedding a light on this unlikeliest of sports stars.
You haven’t heard of him because his improbable rise wasn’t possible in America.
Richmond was born into slavery on what’s today the New York borough of Staten Island on August 5, 1763. When the British landed there in 1776, at the start of the American Revolution, Richmond did what many slaves of the day did: he enlisted in the British army in exchange for the promise of freedom. As historian T.J. Desch Obi noted in the Journal of Sports History, Richmond likely came to the attention of British General Hugh Percy when, at just 13 years old, he single-handedly defeated three British soldiers who mocked him and harassed him as he tended to horses under his care. The general was so impressed with young Bill that he brought the boy back to England as a personal valet. There, the forward-thinking Percy did something unthinkable in America: he paid for Bill to be formally educated, and got him an apprenticeship to a cabinet maker in York.
Educated, skilled and financially stable, Richmond enjoyed a life that most blacks (on either side of the Atlantic) wouldn’t have dreamed of during the 1790s, when slavery was still very much legal in England. Yet the fashionable Richmond was not without his detractors, and his romance and marriage to a white British woman caused a lot of resentment from working class whites. Bill was constantly fighting; not for money, but rather for his own honor. Just as he had with the soldiers who mocked him when he was a boy on Staten Island, Richmond held the bigots he encountered on the streets of London accountable for their taunts and attacks.
Richmond didn’t even go pro until he was at an age when most modern-day athletes are setting into retirement.
According to Boxing Monthly,in 1804 the 41-year-old Richmond attended a prizefight between Henry Pearce and Joe Berks. After the fight, he issued an impromptu challenge to George Maddox, considered one of the best fighters of the bare-knuckle era. Although Bill lost to the more experienced Maddox, he threw himself headlong into the sport, becoming a trainer as well as a fighter.
He returned to the ring the following year and began mowing down opponents. As he racked up the wins, Richmond also changed the fundamentals of the sport itself. Prior to Bill’s emergence in England, boxing was much more brutal than it is today. Ask any boxer, and they’ll tell you that standing still in the ring is the worst thing you can do in a match. But in Georgian England, that strategy was at the core of what boxing was. Opponents would stand toe-to-toe, exchanging powerful blows until one could no longer take it.
The concept was known as “bottom.” Rounds did not end until one man fell, and fallen boxers would then have 30 seconds to return to the “scratch,” a point in the middle of the ring. If they reached the scratch, the fight continued and a new round started. There was no limit to how many rounds could be fought, so the brutal matches could, in theory, go on forever. The damage boxers did to one another as they fought through broken bones and frequent head injuries is almost unfathomable.
Richmond broke through by “breaking” the rules. Most of his strategy involved avoiding punches, not absorbing them, and countering his off-balance opponents with more pointed blows. Although it sounds obvious, it was truly revolutionary back then. But it certainly wasn’t well received. Bill was attacked by white fans, who called him a coward (among other things) for not standing his ground to fight. It didn’t really matter to Bill. He just kept winning.
The English press dubbed him “The Black Terror,” hinting at the racial prejudice he inspired.
According to the racist myths of that time, whites were naturally more intelligent and better at everything, including athletics, because… science. Along came Bill Richmond, showing that he was not only tougher than the white fighters, but actually smarter. The horror! So you can imagine the outrage, shock and fear among fans (then known as “the fancy”) when Bill Richmond, a black man in his 40s, began besting the best young white boxers in England.
In 1805, Richmond faced his toughest challenge: a one-on-one battle with a rising star named Thomas Cribb. Not only was Cribb nearly 20 years Richmond’s junior, records show that he outweighed his older opponent by more than 70 lbs. Nevertheless, Richmond used his defensive style to keep the overwhelmingly larger Cribb at bay. After 90 minutes of dipping, diving and dodging Cribb’s attacks, Richmond realized he wouldn’t be able to win and threw in the towel.
Richmond remained in the spotlight long after he left the ring.
He would not box again for four years. During his time away, Richmond became one of the more sought after boxing trainers in all of England, black or white. In his late 40s, Bill made a comeback, even avenging that first loss against George Maddox. He made enough money in that fight to buy himself the Horse and Dolphin pub.
It was there that he met Tom Molineaux. Like Richmond, Molineaux was an American-born former slave. Richmond immediately set about training his new protégé. In December 1810, Molineaux would get a shot at avenging Richmond’s loss to Thomas Cribb. Richmond did most of the leg work behind the fight, making him one of the first African Americans to ever promote an event of that size.
In what is still considered one of the most important fights in the history of the sport, Cribb beat Molineaux in 35 rounds. The finish was not without controversy, as Cribb was allegedly allowed more than the customary 30 seconds to get up from a knockdown, and Molineaux was later injured by spectators who attacked him in the middle of the fight.
Richmond fought his own last sanctioned fight in 1815, demolishing the 26-year-younger Tom Shelton. Although he retired from official competition, Richmond stuck around the sport. He performed at exhibitions for European royalty, was an elite trainer (even trading sparring blows with the elites of British society, including Lord Byron, with whom he also became friends). Bill was even invited to attend the coronation of George IV in 1821. For a former slave from the humblest of beginnings, this was truly an amazing accomplishment.
Bill “The Black Terror” Richmond passed away on December 28, 1829, at the age of 66. His last night was spent in a tavern owned by none other than Thomas Cribb. In their old age, the two bitter rivals had become great friends. In 2005, Richmond was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Although his career was brief–just 19 fights (17 wins) over a 10-year period–his influence on the sport is immeasurable.