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Black Terror:
Bill Richmond’s
Revolutionary Boxing
Baruch College
City University of New York

This article explores the rise of Bill Richmond, who became the first Ameican
prizefighter and black sports star in Regency England. It moves beyond racial
and sociological explanations for the success of Richmond by investigating an
unexplored combative legacy inherited from Angola that thrived among the
enslaved communities in Black Atlantic. These combat traditions may help to
contextualize Richmond’s evasion skills, which were at the center of his success
and boxing legacy.

up from slavery to become the first American sports star as a professional boxer. Rich-
mond was born on August 5, 1763, in Cuckold’s Town (now Port Richmond in New York
City’s Staten Island) and grew up in bondage. Despite his humble beginnings, he would
have a profound influence on the practice of boxing both in England and America. While
we have no records of his childhood and thus cannot document an exact connection to
any specific art, at the heart of his success was his use of a revolutionary style of defense
that was characteristic of Angolan Diaspora pugilism, which he introduced into English

Correspondence to profobi@gmail.com.

Spring 2009 99



Richmond liberated himself when his former master fled as the British were capturing
Staten Island under the command of General Hugh Percy.1 Richmond enlisted and be-
came a stable hand. Although only a teenager, he made a name for himself during a brawl
at the Red Lion Tavern on November 5, 1776. Percy described the fight in detail:
A young Blackamore was ostling the officers’ mounts, and fetching water to the
horses, when a corporal of the Brunswicke division chaffed the black boy and
he did make sport of the ostler’s colour. Two more Hessians joined in the folly,
and one of them tripping the black boy a-purpose so that he dropped his water-
can, spilling the lot.2
In the ensuing mêlée, the youth “easily payed them in full for their merriment” by
striking the three soldiers repeatedly. Most amazingly, despite the fact that they were
much larger, Richmond’s movements and parries completely thwarted “their efforts to hit
him in turn until at the last, two of the Hessian rogues gave flight and ran, as the Brunswicke

100 Volume 36, Number 1


[sic] corporal fell to bleeding hard by the horse-trough. The Blackamore warrior trium-
phant, he fetched his water-can and went again to his work as if nought [sic] had oc-
curred.”3 Percy was so impressed by young Richmond that he brought him back to
England as his personal valet.
In England, Richmond reluctantly entered the world of prizefighting and quickly
became the first African-American prizefighter with a series of victories over much larger
and more experienced English pugilists. For the majority of the English-speaking world,
who were well aware of his rapid progress in the sport of boxing, this early success of
Richmond may have been perceived as a conundrum; how could a former black slave rise
so high in the English national sport without a single lesson? One tendency of some
contemporaries of these events and later boxing chroniclers was to attribute black suc-
cesses in the ring to racist notions of a biological superiority.
Although he arrived decades before the rise of social Darwinism, Richmond entered
Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century when centuries of involvement with
enslaving Africans had already fundamentally shaped European perceptions of African
abilities.4 A nascent form of scientific racism that saw whites and blacks as biologically
distinct and attempted to prove such through the measuring of skulls emerged with the
publication of Carolus Linneaus’ Systema Naturae in 1758.5 The victory of the first black
boxer, African Joe Lashley, over local English pugilist Tom Tradway on June 13, 1791, in
London may have been marred by this sentiment: “Lashley, like all of his race, is a powerfully
built man, with huge shoulders on which rests a thick head.”6 Subsequent explanations for
the prominence of African American boxers frequently suffered from such racialized per-
spectives after the formal rise of Social Darwinism. Despite the compelling presentation
of alternative sociological and economical explanations for black athletic success starting
in the twentieth century, such genetic arguments have continued into recent decades.7
This article investigates an alternate, but as yet unexplored, potential factor in the surpris-
ing success of the first African American prizefighter: a revolutionary style of defense. In
the absence of records detailing Richmond’s youth, we cannot know for sure anything
about his personal relationship with black pugilisms. Yet his “danced” defensive tactics
clearly paralleled the Black Atlantic combat styles to which he would have been exposed
and were quite distinct from the combat sports of European Americans.
European-American “Boxing”
The boxing of colonial North America was quite distinct from British boxing. The
latter emerged in the late seventeenth century when James Fig developed unarmed pugi-
lism from an auxiliary to fencing into a fledgling sport. In the 1740s, Jack Broughton
instituted a more comprehensive set of rules to govern the sport, which quickly became
the foremost combat sport in large urban centers in Britain. Sailors who were adept at this
new sport undoubtedly worked along the North American coast. However, the art of
English-style boxing never took root among colonial European Americans. Rather, the
primary combat style among white Americans was a violent “rough and tumble” boxing,
which a North Carolina Governor in 1746 described as a “barbarous and inhuman manner
of boxing.”8 This combat style was later called gouging, in recognition of its emphasis on
maiming an opponent by gouging out an eye or biting off a facial appendage.

Spring 2009 101


Linked with ideals of honor, the gouging was patronized and performed by elites in
the colonial period. It remained the esteemed combat contest of the lower classes, while
elites of the antebellum era would slowly abandon it for sword duels.9 Many of America’s
founding fathers were accomplished gougers, and even in the antebellum period upper-
class men often regressed into gouging. Indeed, while intending to settle their dispute in
a “proper” duel, Savannah politician Robert Watkins and United States Senator James
Jackson reverted to gouging, and Jackson had to bite Watkins’ finger to save his eye from
being gouged out.10
The cultural dissonance between British boxing and the white American “rough and
tumble” fighting precluded the establishment of the former in North America. British
pugilism appeared timid and unmanly to the cultural tastes of “gougers.” White Ameri-
cans would only begin to widely adopt English-style boxing after the Civil War when the
Catholic clergy began to actively promote the sport.11 In contrast, African Americans
were drawn into the sport of prizefighting half a century earlier. This earlier black repre-
sentation in the sport was reflected in the fact that during the War of 1812, among the
American prisoners of war confined in the racially segregated prison of Dartmoor, the
black inmates, lead by prizefighter Richard Crafus, opened schools and charged whites
tuition fees to learn dancing and boxing.12 Although blacks boxed much earlier than their
white counterparts, the dominant combat forms of the Black Atlantic stemmed from not
from England but from the Angolan diaspora.
Angolan “Danced” Defenses
While almost all of the Niger Congo-speaking people along the coast of Western
Africa practiced some form of unarmed combat, most often wrestling, the people of Angola’s
Cimbembasia region focused on pugilism, particularly games involving head butting, slap
boxing, and kick boxing. Head butting emerged from games among young men and
developed at times into a form of dueling with charging head butts, reflecting the battles
of the prized cattle at the core of Cimbembasian culture. Like many African martial arts,
kandeka slap boxing was practiced as a dance within a circle of adepts, spectators, and
musicians, who accompanied the contests with percussion and songs. The aesthetic ideal
in these slap boxing matches was to avoid an incoming blow with corporal dexterity and
parrying movements. By avoiding the potentially painful but harmless slaps in this “battle
dancing,” youths safely trained their defensive skills. Engolo kickboxing took place in the
same ritual circle but utilized dynamic kicks that called for even more acrobatic defenses as
no blocks were allowed.13
Engolo contests spanned an entire spectrum of social contexts: they functioned as part
of healing ceremonies, as entertainment at parties, and as a form of self-defense. Yet in all
of these forms, the art stressed defensive skills that were linked to dancing and acrobatic
agility. As implied by the names kandeka, literally meaning “to turn or prevent [a blow
from landing]” and engolo, “to bend” [i.e. in order to kick or dive out the way of an attack],
the Cimbembasian aesthetic of combat emphasized defensive agility through dance-like
footwork and the science of dodging. It was not the fighter with the most devastating
blows that was most admired but the one with the most graceful defenses. This “danced”
defense was a matter of life and death for Angolan soldiers, who did not employ shields in

102 Volume 36, Number 1


warfare. The first phase of war involved an exchange of missile weapons, often a volley of
arrows. In order to survive and enter into hand-to-hand combat, warriors relied on their
ability to dodge projectile weapons, a skill called yepa, vanga, or nsanga [romanized as
“sanguar”] in a number of Angola’s languages.14 Father Pero Rodrigues, a missionary in
Angola in the late sixteenth century, described this style of defense: “They do not have
defensive arms, all their defense rests in sanguar, which is to jump from one place to
another with a thousand twists and such agility that they can dodge arrows and javelins
(pilouro) aimed at them.”15 Thus, kandeka and engolo helped develop this seemingly fan-
tastic dodging ability that was central to surviving the missile phase of combat, and would
also be helpful in the hand-to-hand phase to avoid an enemy’s weapon in the absence of a
shield. Other pugilistic styles in Angola shared this emphasis on evasive defense.
In Angola, entry into the Atlantic trade system was characterized by endemic warfare
and war captives undoubtedly constituted a large percentage of the enslaved Central Afri-
cans sent to the Americas.16 Captive Angolans carried with them their physical training in
their bodies and their combative philosophies in their minds. These traditions were con-
tinued in Americas, where more captives arrived from Central Africa than anywhere else
in Africa.17 Yet these fighting style were widely adopted by other bondsmen who hailed
from other parts of Africa as well. These arts were most often performed in community
dances, self-defense situations, gladiatorial bouts, and in urban port cities by free and
maritime blacks.
The Cimbembasian legacy of pugilism appears to have set the base line for the African
Diaspora pugilistic arts of head butting, foot fighting, and (slap) boxing.18 The most
widespread of these was head butting, which was common throughout the African Diaspora.
In Brazil, these blows with the head were the basis of sparring matchies called the jogo de
cabecadas. In North America these strikes were referred to as “butting” or “knocking”
(after the sound of the clashing heads when two opponents charged each other head first).
The African American steward of the ship, Ruthy was “known as a champion of champi-
ons, having conquered a hero of his own colour by butting on all fours, like two rams, a
mode of fighting common amongst blacks.”19 Defensive evasion skills apparently remained
central to some head butting duels. A detailed description from Brazil that noted that
while they “now and again butt each other’s heads very roughly,” usually the “attack is
thwarted by leaping sideways or by equally skillfully parrying.”20
Foot and fist fighting were also common in the African Diaspora. Foot fighting was
referred to as “kicking” in North America, danmyé,wolo, and lagarto in the Caribbean, and
the jogo de capoeira in Brazil. These arts were often acompanied by percussion instru-
ments and literally danced out contests utilisizing Angolan derived circucular, push, and
inverted kicks that were not blocked but avoided with bodily dexterity: dropping low in
defensive crouches, ducking, weaving, and dancing out of range.21 By the late eighteenth
century some bondsmen apparently fought with their hands as well.22 Although the Car-
ibbean art of bèrnaden gives an example of a potentially related Black Atlantic boxing that
emphasized open hand slaps and bodily evasion, very little is known about such bonds-
men-initiated ritual boxing styles in North America. Our detailed descriptions come
rather from when blacks were forced to fight in the quite different context of gladiatorial
style bouts at the will of their masters.

Spring 2009 103


Enslaved fighters were at times used like gladiators for the plantation owners’ amuse-
ment and potential profits. According to anthropologist Roger Abrahams, “[A]e center of
the pastoral drama of the plantation were combat displays, with the workers used as con-
testants.”23 Such contests usually coincided with seasonal corn shuckings and log rollings
when large numbers of the enslaved were gathered together on one plantation, providing
both a pool of fighters and a large audience.24 Eliot Gorn, a social historian to whom my
work is deeply indebted, questions how common such matches were due to his assump-
tions that they would have used British boxing and that masters would have shied away
from risking their investments in bondsmen by placing them under damaging circum-
stances. While Gorn is correct in stating that there is not enough data to gauge how wide-
spread these gladiatorial bouts were, neither of his assumptions hold up against available
evidence from oral testimonies or parallel gambling practices.
For clarity, it is important to distinguish between two types of planter-inspired con-
tests: matches between bondsmen on the same plantation for the plantation owner’s amuse-
ment and prizefights between two fighters with different owners as a form of gambling. In
the case of the former, matches were not necessarily damaging to the contestants. Henry
Bibb described such combative contests as commonplace on Sundays from his experience
as a bondsmen in Kentucky. These were normally performed by bondsmen along with
banjo playing and dancing in the woods, but at times slave masters would attend these
gatherings and arrange combats for their own enjoyment:
Before fighting, the parties choose their seconds to stand by them while fight-
ing; a ring or circle is formed to fight in, and no one is allowed to enter the ring
while they are fighting, but their seconds, and the white gentlemen. They are
not allowed to fight a duel, nor use weapons of any kind. The blows are made
by kicking, knocking, and butting their heads; they grab each other by the ears
and jam their heads together like sheep. If they are likely to hurt each other
very bad, their masters would rap them with their walking canes, and make
them stop. After fighting, they make friends, shake hands, and take a dram
together, and there is no more of it.25
Henry Bibb’s description highlights the fact that such contests were often based on “knocking
and kicking” rather than British boxing, and were not seriously dangerous.
Prizefights between representative fighters of different plantations accompanied by
high stakes gambling, however, could be extremely violent. While enslaved in Jackson
County Alabama, John Finney witnessed gladiatorial-style bouts in which, “De massas of
plantations match deir niggers ‘cording to size, and bet on dem.” In these combats in
which nothing was “barred except de knife and de club,” some black gladiators developed
a style that combined head butting, leg attacks, and punches into a vale tudo (everything
goes) style called “cutting” among other terms. Although primarily for the entertainment
of masters, slaves were allowed to watch and complete the ring of spectators that sur-
rounded the combatants.26
Finney viewed many contests in which Tom, the champion on his plantation, was
pitted against the champions of other plantations. Finney recalled the details of the most
challenging contest for Tom that he saw:
Dem two niggers gets in de ring and Tom he starts quick, and dat new
nigger he starts just as quick. Dat surprise Tom when dey come together like

104 Volume 36, Number 1


two bulls—kermash—it sounds like dat. [the sound of their heads clashing as
they head butted each other] Den it am hit and kick and bite and butt any-
where and any place for to best de other. De one on the bottom bites knees and
anything him can do. Dats de way it go for half de hour.
Finely dat new nigger gets Tom in the stomach with he knee and a lick side
de jaw at the same time and down to Tom, and de other nigger jumps on him
with both feets, den strattle him and hits him with right, left, right, left, right,
side Tom’s head. Dere Tom lay, makin’ no resistance. Everybody am sayin’ ,
“Tom have met he match, him am done.” Both am bleedin’ and am awful
sight. Well, dat new nigger relaxes for to get he wind and den Tom, quick like
de flash flips him off and jumps to he feet and before dat new nigger could get
to he feet, Tom kicks him in the stomach, again and again. Dat nigger’s body
start to quaver and he massa say, “Dat ‘nough.”27
This excerpt allows a glimpse at the violent fighting style that combined head butting, leg
strikes, and punching in ways that were much more likely to result in serious injury.
In these gladiatorial gambling matches, the potential injury to their fighters was a
relatively minor deterrent to planters when compared to the extremely high-stakes betting
that was common in Virginia, particularly around horse racing and cock-fights. As histo-
rian Timothy Breen has shown, by the early eighteenth-century Southern gentlemen, forced
to work together to preserve their domination over local affairs, turned to rampant gam-
bling as a safe outlet for expressing their extreme competitiveness without threatening
social tranquility. If planters were willing to risk their own injury in violent colonial horse
races in which contestants could use blows of a knee, elbow, or whip to dismount each
other, it is unlikely that they would have shied away from risking the heath of a bonds-
man.28 Thus, rather than being a deterrent to gladiatorial matches, the risk to the health of
their enslaved and the potential for huge losses made them attractive by virtue of display-
ing their status above common planters who could not contemplate such risks.29
The fighters themselves may have been more reluctant to enter such contests than
competitive planters with an eye on gambling profits. Yet there were potential rewards for
blacks that fought well in such white-sponsored contests. First, such enslaved gladiators
may have gained a certain reputation within their community and the possibility of spe-
cial treatment by the plantation owner. It was well known that fighters of reputation
made good drivers/overseers because they had the respect of the bonded community and
could physically enforce order if necessary. According to former bondsman Jephtha Choice,
“In the field was always a big strong nigger to keep peace among the hands. . . . He had to
be good with his fists to make the boys who got bad in the field walk in line.”30
A third potential benefit for such African gladiators was that in extremely rare in-
stances, but ones that captured the popular imagination, the enslaved might be released
from bondage. There are various versions of black folktales in which the hero, who em-
bodies the trickster, defeats a rival fighter of much greater strength and size. 31 Such
folktales may have been sparked by putative historical examples such as Tom Molineaux
who, before becoming Bill Richmond’s most famous protégée in England, ostensibly won
his freedom in such a match in Virginia:
[A]t a party given by one of the neighbors, Randolph Peyton, young Molineaux
heard a boast made that not a slave in any of the Virginia families could take the

Spring 2009 105


measure of a Peyton slave, Abe, by name. Tom’s master, Squire Molineaux . . .

asked for volunteers from among his chattels and Tom immediately responded.
The Master promised freedom for Tom if he won the battle and with that as an
inducement, a merry contest was assured. A considerable sum was wagered on
the outcome. Squire Molineaux, one of the wealthiest Virginians, bet a huge
sum on young Tom. . . . To further interest Tom in the fight, Squire Molineaux
made an added inducement—he promised him, besides his freedom, the sum
of $100. That seemed to make a complete change in the Negro. He went
about his task with agility and his training was conscientious. On the day of the
fight, Molineaux was in fine trim. He entered the ring strong as a bull and full
of vim and he was master of the situation at all times. He handed Abe a fright-
ful beating. He pounded Abe into submission in a few bloody rounds.”32
After attaining his freedom, Molineaux made his way to New York, a place where a num-
ber of black fighters sought to make reputations for themselves.
New York housed a thriving black pugilistic subculture.33 Although Africans and
their descendents comprised no more than 5 percent of the total population of New En-
gland in general, historian William Pierson has shown that they nonetheless experienced a
vibrant degree of cultural autonomy.34 Such traditions were much more pronounced in
New York City, which stood out as the largest slave-holding city of the North. In the
eighteenth century, New York City was North America’s largest slave society after Charles-
ton.35 New York had the second largest urban population of Africans in the English
colonies, and one-fifth of Manhattan’s 11,000 inhabitants was enslaved. In Kings County
(Brooklyn) and Staten Island where Bill Richmond grew up, the enslaved population was
well over a quarter of the total population by 1770 when he was seven years old.36 New
York City was a cultural center for blacks in the North and one that housed a tradition of
combative contests, including prizefighting. In the early nineteenth century, black fighters
competing on street corners were a frequent sight.37 One observer in 1820 was shocked
by a large crowd drawn to a contest on the corner of Anthony and Little Water streets in
the middle of the afternoon “between two blacks, who, I understand are noted for their
pugilism.”38 It was in these combats being organized by blacks on their own accord that
Molineaux apparently made a name for himself while working on the docks and as a
porter in Catherine market, the “headquarters for Negro boxers.”39 According to boxing
chronicler Fred Henning, “For nearly five years Tom . . . lived in New York and during
that period he fought several battles. . . . The battles must have been of some importance,
as in the year 1809 we find the Black assuming the title of ‘Champion of America,’ and he
would appear to be the first man to call himself such.”40
These bouts appear closer to English-style pugilism than the descriptions of “cutting”
described above. This may have made New York an important point of transition, allow-
ing black fighters with “knocking and kicking” or “cutting” backgrounds to gradually
adapt to rules like English prizefighting.41 Yet the defensive techniques of knocking and
kicking, which included dance-like footwork, ducks, dodges, and dropping below a strike,
were all applicable to prizefighting under any rules. Indeed, Richmond introduced the
science of these techniques into British boxing, which had quite a different approach to

106 Volume 36, Number 1


Richmond and the “Bottom” of English Prizefighting

In England, boxing was a uniquely urban pastime that brought working-class and
elite men together in patron/client relationships towards the pursuit of a nationalized male
aesthetic. At the core of this aesthetic was the concept of “bottom,” the ability to stand in
the face of oncoming blows without backing away regardless of the adversity a man faced.
Regency writers promoted pugilism as an artistic display of manliness, honor, and re-
straint that fostered bulldog courage and national pride. The Prince of Wales (later George
IV) and his brothers, the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), were
all avid supporters of pugilism. At the same time the urban working class flocked to
pugilism both as spectators and as competitors driven by the opportunity to win a purse of
anywhere from £10 to £100. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, prize fighting
was being held up as “the national sport whose lessons helped English armies prevail.”42
Many elite and popular supporters linked boxing to national character. 43 The boxing
ring formed a stage in which characters such as the Jewish Daniel Mendoza, Irish Tom
Spring, Welsh Ned Turner, and others played out a sort of social Darwinianism with the
champion being viewed as the exemplar of his group’s courage, skill, and innate masculin-
ity.44 While other rough sports were falling into disrepute due to the middle-class’s moral-
istic reforms, boxing was experiencing its golden years during the first quarter of the nine-
teenth century in part because of the threat of French expansion under Napoleon.45 With
survival at stake, the English overwhelmingly closed ranks in support of pugilism, which
had long been tied to national confidence in the superiority of their doggedness and mar-
tial abilities, typified by the prizefighter’s “bottom.”46 Labor movement leaders promoted
boxing for its ability to counter the “effeminizing” civility that could lead to domination
by foreigners and thus slavery.47 lt was during this era in which British boxers were being
held up as national icons that Richmond emerged and threatened existing paradigms of
national and racial superiority.
Richmond became the first African-American sports star but was also perceived as a
threat to the racial order. In this he was followed by a series of early African-American
boxers—mostly former slaves—including Sam Robinson, Henry Sutton, George Head,
and, most notably, Tom Molineaux. The nationalism associated with pugilism at the time
necessarily took on a racial tone when a black fighter began defeating the top English
contenders. Had it not been for their racial status, the successes of Richmond and Molineaux
would have been hailed triumphantly in the United States during the growing tensions
with England surrounding the War of 1812. Instead the American press largely ignored
them. In England, given that advocates were promoting boxing to bolster the toughness
that would prevent enslavement by foreigners, significant concern was raised when Rich-
mond, a former slave, avenged himself by swiftly defeating England’s formerly beloved
George Maddox.48 Following the fight, statesman William Wyndham used his position
in the House of Commons to deliver a speech that utilized the Richmond-Maddox fight
to spurn further support for the cultivation of boxing among the British. 49
Richmond was dubbed “the Black Terror,” a cognomen that also captured the general
social horror that much of the public perceived in the social ascendancy of this black man.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the social status of blacks,

Spring 2009 107


numbering over 10,000 in London, became a question of extensive national concern.50

At a time when many blacks were being sold on auction blocks and most formed the
lowest segment of society, Richmond stood out for having been schooled in Yorkshire, and
despite the social obstacles preventing most blacks from entering trades, he apprenticed as
a cabinetmaker in York. As a qualified tradesmen Richmond then settled in London with
a measure of financial security unknown to many aspiring prizefighters. As such Rich-
mond was not drawn to pugilism from a lack of economic alternatives, and initially had
no intention of becoming a prizefighter.
However, Richmond’s disposition threatened the racial pride of white laborers, a num-
ber of whom attempted to “bring him down to size” through the most primal assertions of
their manhood—violence. Richmond often fought off racist attacks by much larger En-
glishman to retain his honor. Richmond’s “strong passion for dress” attracted undue at-
tention and assault from English laborers. One large blacksmith kicked Richmond’s
white pants with his dirty boots in indignation at Richmond’s clean appearance before
being thrashed in the ensuing brawl.51 Richmond’s companionship of white women was
even more resented. In 1804, for example, Frank Meyers, known as the York Bully, called
Richmond a “black devil” and accosted him for walking with a white woman. The much
smaller Richmond refused to fight in the presence of a woman and convinced Meyers to
fight a pugilistic duel with him later at a grove, where he beat his larger tormenter so
thoroughly that he was purportedly unable to eat solid food for a week.52 Thus foreshad-
owing Jack Johnson over a century later, Richmond, who went on to marry a white En-
glish woman, was as despised for his demeanor outside of the ring as he was for outclassing
his competition inside the ring. As Richmond developed a reputation for defeating these
large assailants, especially as some of them were professional fighters, the insistence of his
associates and boxing fans eventually pressured him into the profession. 53
As a professional fighter, Richmond also represented a “black terror” through the
cultural blow his opponents felt at the hands of his unique boxing style. His ascendance in
boxing presented a challenge not only to notions of racial hierarchy and English national-
ism but also to presumptions about fighting styles. The English above all prized a fighter’s
ability to stand rooted and take as well as give punishment. Unlike modern boxing, each
fighter started face to face, each with a foot on the scratch, or starting line, and ideally
battled toe to toe until one fighter was knocked down with a punch or a wrestling throw,
which ended the round. The fighter who eventually was not able to return to the scratch in
thirty seconds of the round’s end was declared the loser. The normal defensive practice was
not to shift (step away) but absorb the blow directly or use the arms as a static shield
without the aid of footwork. Pugilist and author Captain John Godfry gives a clear pic-
ture of the tactic in describing Broughton. “He steps not back. . . . No, Broughton steps
bold and firmly in, bids welcome to the coming blow, receives it with the guardian arm.”54
The most valued attribute of an English boxer was “the power of bearing blows, or what is
generally called bottom.” According to Egan,
There are men who seemed peculiarly formed for bottom. The severest blows
make little impression on the ribs of some, and the heads of others. The old
School furnishes a surprising instance of bottom. The noted Buckhorse, it is
said, made a practice of standing without a guard and permitting himself to be
knocked down by the hardest hitter for a trifling sum of money. The modern

108 Volume 36, Number 1


school also furnishes numerous instances of bottom, exhibited by Crib[b],

Painter, Oliver.55
In terms of defensive techniques, the English revered “bottom” as the ultimate expression
of manhood.
In contrast, Richmond arrived in England with a combat style that, like Black Atlan-
tic fighting styles, emphasized defensive agility. To the English, this tactic was indicative
of a lack of courage to “take a blow like a man.” Thus Richmond’s competitive new
pattern of fighting was initially rejected as cowardly. However, the efficacy of defensive
footwork and dodging became apparent with the numerous victories of Richmond over
his much larger opponents. Richmond was widely regarded as excelling over all other
pugilists at “hitting and getting away.”56 Unlike his flat footed English opponents, Rich-
mond “had as many dodges and jumps in the ring as the party-coloured hero. . . . He was
here there and everywhere in a twenty four foot ring; and no boxer understood what is
termed milling on the retreat better.”57 His ability to dodge all attacks and skillfully
counter punch while doing so allowed him to confound all who stood before him, despite
his being much lighter than his opponents.
Although many contemporaries, especially influential fighters of the older English
style, would continue to censure defensive fighting as “an unmanly custom,” Richmond
revolutionized the sport. His success as a professional ensured a large audience when he
fought the rising star Thomas Cribb, who became the champion in his next fight. The
forty-two-year-old Richmond, weighing seventy-two pounds less than his twenty-four-
year-old and 224-pound opponent, exhibited the “danced” defense typical of Black Atlan-
tic forms of combat. He “hopped and danced about the ring, sometimes falling down
[intentionally dropping to the ground or perhaps into low defensive postures below a
strike] at others jigging round somewhat in the style of an Otaheitan dance.”58 The
veteran fighters and proponents of bottom rejected Richmond’s movement as cowardly
and “mere burlesque, [that] ought not to have been tolerated one minute.”59 Sporting
Magazine reported that “[i]t would be insipid for us to enter into particulars respecting
this fight, which, if it may be so called, lasted near an hour and a half. It was altogether
tiresome; the Black danced about the ring.” Yet Richmond’s style clearly created “black
terror” in his opponent as it was recorded that “Crib[b] appeared frightened at his opponent’s
long black pegs, and could not be persuaded to go in boldly and lick him off hand,” as he
should have been able to do given the size and age difference. Instead after an hour and a
half of dodging Cribb’s blows, the forty-two-year-old Richmond called “enough” with a
smile on his face. This dynamic skill so impressed much of the crowd, including the Duke
of Clarence who “appeared to enjoy the frolic” of Richmond, that his defeat did little to
diminish his reputation. 60
Richmond, an eloquent speaker, defended these dance-like defensive tactics as part of
his “preservation of bodies” philosophy, which emphasized keeping the body healthy and
moving it out of harm’s way rather than letting age and the English practice of bearing
blows wear it down.61 The effectiveness of this philosophy was well highlighted by his
long successful fighting career, particularly his later fights. When he was fifty-one, an age
many pugilists of his day did not live to reach, let alone fight at, Richmond battled with
Jack Davis, who was “little more than half the age of Richmond and possessing all the
advantages of youth, strength, and science.”62 By the fifth round Richmond’s defensive

Spring 2009 109


burst forth so conspicuously that the doubtful were now satisfied of his superi-
ority. . . . [Richmond] got away with uncommon dexterity. . . . [Davis] in
pursuing him threw nearly all his blows away, when Richmond, quite unex-
pectedly to his antagonist, stopped short and planted so severe a teaser on the
mouth of Davis that sent him quickly to the grass.63
Perhaps the most telling testament to Richmond’s defense was his condition after the
bout: “Upon Richmond’s being declared the conqueror, he with all the agility of a tum-
bler, leaped over the ropes, which were nearly five feet in height.” Despite his age, he left
the melee having received “no other hits than one near the temple in the first round, and a
slight one in the mouth of the slightest consequence.” He stayed to enjoy the rest of the
day’s sporting events while Davis “was so dreadfully punished that he could not stand, and
was supported off the grounds” from the blows he received to demonstrate his bottom.64
Richmond came out of retirement to fight his last professional bout at age fifty-five, and
again with his revolutionary defensive style easily defeated his younger and stronger oppo-
nent, Jack Carter, in only three rounds.
Although his style was initially rejected as cowardly, Richmond became one of the
most sought-after trainers and exponents of the pugilistic science. His famous protégée,
Molineaux, came closest to claiming the title from Cribb.65 Yet it was Richmond who had
the most lasting impact on boxing’s culture and technique through his innovations at
London’s Fives Court; these showcased gloved sparring matches that led to new standards,
from which modern boxing has developed.66 Richmond was universally acknowledged as
the pioneer exponent of new defensive strategies in the sport.67 He was a master of strik-
ing and then evading his opponents counter strikes. His defense combined dance-like
footwork, side-stepping, and “many dodges and jumps.”68 After a series of victories, jour-
nalists began to recognize his techniques as “a system” rather than “antics,” and Richmond
was acknowledged as excelling all other pugilists in the art of defense. This specialty
earned Richmond respect and a wide following of pupils. Egan noted with admiration
that there was “no pugilist better calculated to teach the science than Richmond,” who
“never received any lessons from any of [boxing’s] professors, but, on the contrary, has
given instructions to some hundreds, not only in various parts of the kingdom, but in the
very zenith of competition-London.”69 Richmond’s boxing academy was attended by
subsequent black boxers including Tom Molineaux, Jim Johnson, and Massa Kendrick, in
addition to numerous white fighters and enthusiasts. Even Lord Byron frequented
Richmond’s academy.70 Richmond also taught his revolutionary style to his son, whom
Prince George of Cambridge chose as his sparring tutor.71 At the risk of stating the obvi-
ous, these students did not flock to Richmond in hopes he could impart some black
biological superiority but to learn the defensive style that he introduced to the sport.
Richmond was able to contradict the myth of black inferiority and, apart from Cribb,
defeated all of his opponents. He could do this not because he had a thicker skull or more
economic need than his opponents. Rather, his success can be attributed to his revolution-
ary fighting style, which shared an emphasis on defensive evasion with knocking and
kicking and other Black Atlantic pugilisms. These black combat traditions may help to
contextualize Richmond’s evasion skills, which were the secret to his success and a lasting
contribution to the sweet science.72

110 Volume 36, Number 1


Percy was an earl at the time and would later become the second Duke of Northumberland.
I am indebted to Fergus Gwynplaine Macintyre for this reference from the Public Records Office.
Reprinted in “Both Fists Set Flailing,” New York Daily News, 26 February 2003, main sec., p. 27; elec-
tronic correspondence to author 3 February 2005, in possession of author.
On racist inheritances from Iberia, see James Sweet, “Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,”
William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 143-166.
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981); Emmanuel Chukwudi
Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997); C. Linnaeus, Systema
naturae (Holmiæ [Stockholm]: Impensis Direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1758).
Quoted in Nat Fleischer, Black Dynamite: The Story of the Negro in the Prize Ring from 1782 to 1938
(New York: C.J. O’Brien, 1938), 18.
David K. Wiggins, “‘Great Speed but Little Stamina’: The Historical Debate over Black Athletic
Superiority” in The New American Sport History: Recent Approaches and Perspectives, ed. S.W. Pope (Ur-
bana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 312-338. Cf. John M. Hoberman, Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport
has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997).
Tom Parramore, “Gouging in Early North Carolina,” North Carolina Folklore Journal 22 (1974):
Eliott J. Gorn, “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch:’ The Social Significance of Fighting in the
Southern Backcountry” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 20.
William Oliver Stevens, Pistols at Ten Paces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940), 33-37.
In the early nineteenth century, when pugilism was at its height in England, “few people on these
shores had ever even heard of prizefighting, there was simply no interest in such an event here.” Elliot
Gorn, “Sports through the Nineteenth Century” in Pope, ed., New American Sport History, 51.
Josiah Cobb, Green Hand’s First Cruise: Five Months in Dartmoor (Baltimore, Md.: Cushing &
Brother, 1841), 34-35; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Yarn of a Yankee Privateer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls,
1926), 184; Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1997), 103-130.
See T.J. Obi, Fighting for Honor: African Martial Arts in the Atlantic World, (Columbia S.C.: Uni-
versity of South Carolina Press, 2008), 17-51.
John Thornton, “The Art of War in Angola, 1575-1680,” Comparative Studies in Society and
History 30 (1988): 360-378.
Pero Rodrigues, “História da residência dos Padres da Companhia de Jesus em Angola, e cousas
tocantes ao Reino e conquista” in Monumenta Missionaria Africana, ed. António Brasio, 15 vols. (Lisbon:
Agência Geral do Ultramar, 1954), 4: 563.
John Thornton, “African Soldiers in the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of Caribbean History. 25
(1994): 59. For a less military oriented description of the slaving system in Angola see Joseph Miller, The
Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade 1730-1830 (Madison: University of
Wisconsin, 1988).
David Eltis et al., The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: a Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1999); Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade
to America (New York: Octagon Books, 1965).
A second African-American combat sport was a distinct form of wrestling called “kicking a rap.”
While each remained a distinct art, many fighters practiced both forms. Tom Molineaux was certainly
respected for his wrestling ability as well as his pugilistic skills. Obi, Fighting for Honor, 77-121.
W. Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States… (London: W.
Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1823), 10.

Spring 2009 111

Johann Moritz Rugendas, Viagem Pitoresca através do Brasil, trans. Sérgio Milliet (São Paulo: Livraria
Martins, 1940), 155 [QUOTATION].
Christopher Kouri, “The Search for Knocking and Kicking: Notes toward a Definition and His-
torical Understanding of the Old Time Slave Derived Martial Art and Related Fighting Techniques of the
Gullah” (B.A. thesis, Yale University, 1990); T.J. Obi, “Combat and the Crossing of the Kalunga.” in
Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora, ed. Linda Heywood (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), 353-370.
Black sailors, some of whom learned English boxing, may have helped spread elements of English
boxing as well as knowledge of the exploits of Richmond and Molineaux to the enslaved communities of
North America. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, 1994), 253-254.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (Boston: Bedford Books,
1995), 65-66.
Roger Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation
South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 23.
Eliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 35.
Henry Bibb, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave” in Puttin’
On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown and Solomon Northrup, ed.
Gilbert Osofsky (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 68.
Norman R. Yetman, Life under the “Pecular Institution”: Selections from the Slave Narrative Collec-
tion (Huntington, N.Y.: Robert E. Krieger, 1970), 124-125.
Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia (New York: Norton, 1982), 99.
Timothy H. Breen, “Horses and Gentlemen: The Cultural Significance of Gambling among the
Gentry of Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (1977): 329-347.
Jeptha Choice in Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, An Oral History, ed. James Mellon (New
York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 138.
Richard Dorsen, American Negro Folktales (Greenwich, Conn.: Quadrangle Books, 1957), 132-
135; James Brewer, Worser Days and Better Times (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965), 108-110.
Fleischer, Black Dynamite, 34-35. For another version see Louis Golding, The Bare-knuckle Breed
(New York: Barnes, 1954), 121-127. Unfortunately neither cites their sources, leaving the historic valid-
ity of either account tenuous.
“Proceedings, General Court of Assizes, 1680-82,” New York Historical Society Collections 3 (1912):
37; William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-
Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 124.
These contests included both stick fighting and unarmed combats.
Craig Steven Wilder, In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American
Culture in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 14.
Charles Richard Johnson and Patricia Smith, Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery
(New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 107.
Shane White, Stories of Freedom in Black New York (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
2002), 52.
The American, 24 August 1820. Another writer describes a similar prizefight a century later for
“50 cents a side.” Morning Courier and New York Enquirer 11 December 1834.
James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 67; Paul Magriel, “Tom
Molineaux,” Phylon 12 (1951): 329-330.
Frederick W.J. Henning, Fights for the Championship, the Men and their Times (London: Licensed
Victuallers’ Gazette, 1903 [1898]).
Even under Broughton’s rules kicks, sweeps, and head butts were not prohibited until 1838, allow-

112 Volume 36, Number 1


ing even practitioners of strict knocking and kicking ample opportunity to make use of their skills in the
prizefighting ring. Ford, Prizefighting, 116-118.
Henriette A. Gram Heiny, “Boxing in British Sporting Art: 1730-1824” (Ph.D. dissertation, Uni-
versity of Oregon, 1987), 154-155; John Cowie Reid, Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency En-
gland (London: Rutledge and K. Paul, 1971), 14.
As Egan put it hyperbolically, “[N]ot only the word liberty is engrafted on the tongue of the infant
who can scarcely lisp it out, but also that Briton will never be slaves” and there was no better insurance of
that than pugilism “calculated to improve and keep up the ancient bravery of Britons.” Pierce Egan, Every
Gentleman’s Manual: Lecture on the Art of Self-defence (London: Sherwood and Bowyer, 1845), 15.
While their white counterparts in North America a century later could begrudgingly cushion
themselves from the success of black athletes by invoking the racist sentiment that blacks were simply
revealing themselves to be less civilized savages, in Regency England boxing was already understood to
counter the very “civility” such later American sentiments might hold dear. Feminist scholars have noted
that boxing blossomed in the nineteenth century because as men’s power over women was being ostensi-
bly eroded or at least challenged, sport was used as a way to bolster the superiority of “natural” man over
“natural” woman. Michael A. Messner and Donald F. Sabo, Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical
Feminist Perspectives (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Books, 1990), 18.
Reid, Bucks and Bruisers, 13.
“And the sturdy English have been as much renowned for their boxing as for their beef; both of
which are by no means suited to the watery stomachs and weak sinews of their enemies the French. To
this nutriment and this art is owing that long established maxim, that one Englishman can beat three
Frenchmen.” “Slack’s Boxing,” Connoisseur (London), 22 August 1754, quoted in L.S. Wood and H.L.
Burrows, eds., Sports and Pastimes in English Literature (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1925), 100.
Boxers were also aware of their perceived role in international politics. In 1811, for example,
London’s top pugilists held a benefit sending the proceeds from their sparring matches to “alleviate the
sufferings of the Portuguese whose towns had been destroyed by the French.” Pierce Egan, Boxiana; or,
Sketches of modern pugilism: containing all the transactions of note, connected with the prize ring, during the
years, 1821, 1822, 1823: with an essay on the art of training: dedicated to Colonel Berkeley, 4 vols. (London:
Printed for Sherwood Jones and Co. Paternoster Row W. Marchant, 1824), 1: 295.
Gorn, Manly Art, 30.
In 1804 Richmond was attending a boxing event as the valet/bodyguard of Lord Camelford when
Maddox “dared Richmond to the field” (to enter the ring for the first time) for an impromptu fight,
which Maddox won in the ninth round, when Richmond stopped the fight. As a seasoned professional
Richmond avenged this defeat in 1809.
Egan, Every Gentleman’s Manual, 25-26.
Servants attending masters returning from the Caribbean fell under extreme scrutiny in the years
surrounding the Somerset decision in 1772, and the abolitionist movement grew in public discourse
until the Emancipation Act of 1833. Folarin Shyllon, “The Black Presence and Experience in Britain: An
Analytic Overview” in Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain: From Roman Times to the Mid-twentieth
Century, eds. Jagdish S. Gundara and Ian Duffield (Brookfield, Vt. : Avebury, 1992), 202-224; Douglas
A. Lorimer, “Black Resistance to Slavery and Racism in Eighteenth Century England” in Essays on the
History of Blacks in Britain, eds. Gundara and Duffield 58-80; Edward Scobie, Black Britannia: A History
of Blacks in Britain (Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 1972).
John Badcock, Pierce Egan, and George Vincent, The Fancy, or, True sportsman’s guide: being au-
thentic memoirs of the lives, actions, prowess and battles of the leading pugilists, from the days of Figg and
Broughton, to the championship of Ward, 2 vols. (London: J. M’Gowan and Son, 1821), 2: 534.
Egan, Boxiana, 3: 441.
Ford, Prizefighting, 38-39.
Quoted in Ford, Prizefighting, 120.
Egan, Boxiana, 2:19.

Spring 2009 113

Pancratia, or, A history of pugilism: containing a full account of every battle of note from the time of
Broughton and Slack down to the present day (London: W. Oxberry, 1812), 335.
Egan, Every Gentleman’s Manual, 105-6.
Pancratia, 245. Not to overdraw the contrast, unlike fighters from the older school such as Maddox,
who was the epitome of reliance on pure bottom, Cribb was himself a counter-puncher that frequently
resorted to “milling on the retreat” when he could not overpower his opponents directly. In his fight with
Blake, for example, Cribb’s back stepping was censured as “very shifty manoevers.” Sporting Magazine,
February, 1805, p. 283.
Badcock, Egan, and Vincent, The Fancy, 1:112.
“Boxing,” Sporting Magazine, October, 1805, p. 38.
Egan, Boxiana, 1: 449.
“Boxing,” Sporting Magazine, May 1814, p. 71.
Egan, Boxiana, 2: 128-130.
Ibid. [3rd QUOTATION]; “Boxing,” Sporting Magazine, May 1814, p. 71 [1ST AND 2ND QUOTATIONS].
Many contemporaries and historians hold that Molineaux won the fight but was stopped by the
angry crowd that rushed the ring and injured Molineaux in the process. According to many, in the
twenty-eighth round Molineaux knocked Cribb out. According to Golding, “Tom Cribb lay there, quite
unconscious the full half-minute. The referee called to him once, again, a third time. He lay on like a dead
man.” Some 200 spectators, however, refused to accept the decision, broke through the outer ropes, and
rushed into the ring. Accusing Molineaux of holding bullets in his fists they accosted him and broke or
injured his hand in the process. The chaos continued until Cribb was revived. Cribb later rebounded to
victory in the thirty-third round, but the match would remain debated into the twentieth century. In the
words of Egan, “It will also not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that his colour alone prevented him
from becoming the hero of that fight” (emphasis in the original). Compare with An Amateur, The Battle!
An impartial and scientific account of the battle between Cribb and Molineaux, which was fought as Copthall
Common, on Tuesday, December 18, 1810 (London: John Fairburn, 1810); Golding, The Bare-knuckle
Breed, 132; Egan, Boxiana, 3: 493; Carl Cone, “The Molineaux-Cribb Fight, 1810: Wuz Tom Molineaux
Robbed?” Journal of Sport History 9 (1982): 83-91. Despite such debates, Molineaux was indebted to
Richmond as both a patron and a professor of pugilism. “To Richmond he is most undoubtedly indebted
for a considerable portion of that superior pugilistic science which he possesses.” Egan, Boxiana, 1: 369.
Richmond was a pioneer in the sport, and some of his other innovations are still reflected in
contemporary practice. He was the first to spar without a vest or shirt. It was also Richmond who devised
the idea for the first raised stage for matches so that spectators could see more of the action. This de-
mountable stage was used during the first quarter of the nineteenth century for the almost weekly spar-
ring exhibitions that were held at the Fives Court, situated right next door to Richmond’s inn, the Horse
and Dolphin, which sold tickets to these events. He was an active organizer of the sport through the
Pugilistic Club and the recipient of the group’s first benefit, in which he was awarded £50 to demonstrate
his sparring abilities in gloved matches. Egan, Every Gentleman’s Manual, 106, 410; Ford, Prizefighting,
119, 138, 146.
Pancratia, 335; Egan, Boxiana, 2: 127; Ford, Prizefighting, 144.
Egan, Every Gentleman’s Manual, 105-106.
Egan, Boxiana, 3: 403, 1: 447.
Shyllon, “The Black Presence,” 207.
Egan, Every Gentleman’s Manual, 12.
Postscript: In the decade after the rise of these black world contenders, boxing’s heyday began its
decline in England. After the American Civil War, however, the sport would begin a new phase on
American soil. Although this theoretically brought championship titles and purse money closer to home
for other African-American fighters, white American “champions” would continue to “draw the color
line” to avoid the black fighting abilities and the social repercussions of a possible defeat to a black
pugilist. It would be a century after Molineaux’s battle with Cribb at Cophall Commons in 1810 that
Jack Johnson would rekindle amongst white Americans many of the fears that Bill Richmond and Tom
Molineaux had among the English.
114 Volume 36, Number 1

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