Black History in Boxing

Muhammad Ali boxing match with George Foreman

Boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman

Muhammad Ali boxing match with George Foreman

Boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman

The history of boxing has been filled with many dedicated, influential, and inspiring Black boxers whose fight for recognition has led the way for equity in the field. The pressures and systemic challenges these fighters have faced make their matches, wins, and titles all the more awe-inspiring.

Black Boxing in the 1800s

In the late 1700s, Tom Molineaux, widely considered the first Black boxer, was born into slavery on a tobacco plantation. He experienced significant suffering under the farm conditions but slowly developed a pastime and interest in fighting. Molineaux challenged Thomas Cribb, a bare-knuckle champion of the time, to about to secure his freedom. He ultimately beat Cribb, signifying the first and most important fight in Black boxing history. 

A century later, Canadian George Dixon became both the first Black man and the first Canadian to win a world championship title. The match was fought in London, England, against Nunc Wallace, with Dixon beating him through a knockout in the 18th round. This was a big step for minority populations. It bypassed American segregation laws and set up a solid foundation for the Black boxers of future generations to be taken seriously in the ring. 

George Dixon, the first Canadian boxer and first Black man to win a World Championship Title.

Canadian Boxer George Dixon

The Early 1900s and the Impact of Johnson 

The early 1900s were a unique and vital time for Black boxing. 

At the start of the 20th century, Joe Walcott, nicknamed Barbados, rose to prominence in the boxing scene, claiming the first Black world championship win of the 1900s. In 1904, Walcott was a part of the first-ever world title match between two Black male boxers. Although this was an important match, the decision ended in Walcott’s defeat to Dixie Kid in a highly controversial and contested disqualification. 

Immediately following Walcott’s loss to Kid, Jack Johnson became the focus of the 1910s. He was a historic fighter, claiming the first world heavyweight champion title from Tommy Burns. Unfortunately, police ordered all footage of the event to be discarded, as they believed any record of a Black man knocking out a white man should be banned. 

Despite this, Johnson continued on, coming up against James J. Jeffries, nicknamed America’s “Great White Hope.” This bout was seen as one of the more important fights of the century. It tackled the discrimination that was growing in the boxing community. During the match, Jefferies was knocked down, cementing Johnson as the defending champion of the heavyweight title. 

Watch a historic video of Jack Johnson vs James J. Jefferies from 1910 here.

Johnson’s achievements in the sport set him up as a solid and dedicated competitor, transcending the limitations of what white society believed Black individuals to be capable of achieving. He indeed became the symbol of the turning point that was taking place in America’s sports culture. 

The Rise of Louis, Armstrong, and Robinson

Over a decade after Johnson’s fight, Joe Louis continued the advancements of Black boxing by reclaiming the heavyweight title after Johnson’s loss years prior. Notably, Louis was given national hero status, the first to be achieved by a Black man, for his knockout win against Max Schmeling in the first round, cementing him as a symbol against Germany’s Nazi regime. Louis later went on to be the first to compete in PGA- sanctioned fights, opening the doors for Black men and women in all facets of the sports industry. 

Henry Armstrong followed closely behind Johnson, achieving the status as the first man to have won three different weight classes for world titles at one time. This was a critical moment in Black boxing history, as it signified the capability of Black athletes in the ring, proving them to be strong and efficient fighters. 

Boxing fight between Henry Armstrong (Hank) and Sugar Ray Robinson

Henry Armstrong vs. Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson, a welterweight fighter, made headway in the industry to stand against the discrimination of the 1940s by refusing to drop out of his fight against Tommy Bell. Robinson ultimately won the welterweight title and solidified himself in history as being an individual willing to rise above systemic challenges and come out stronger on the other side. 

Boxing and Human Rights 

The introduction of Black individuals into boxing during the early half of the 20th century laid the foundation for solid figures of justice who used their position in sports to fight for human rights equality.

Muhammad Ali, was another significant name in boxing’s human rights journey. He worked with Malcolm X through boxing to rally for racial pride and acceptance. Ali was banned from the sport after declining his military draft during the Vietnam War. This stripped him of all the titles he had earned thus far. However, he later fought against George Foreman in a match that was widely considered to have more significance beyond just a simple sporting match. It was later developed into the well-known documentary ‘When We Were Kings.’ His dedication in the ring was a testament to his character and ability, as he continually advocated for the rights of Black individuals in sports. 

Today, boxing is a sport that all individuals worldwide can be involved in with less fear of systemic disadvantages. Famous boxers like Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis continue to push the boundaries of boxing and ensure that everyone with a passion for sports is acknowledged, encouraged, and accepted. 

Steve Rolls and Ryan Grant in the boxing ring at West End Athletic Club

Meet Steve Rolls, Canada’s Middleweight Boxing Icon

Come in and visit West End Athletic Club, our premium Boxing and Fitness Gym located in Toronto. We have a variety of classes that suit all fitness levels and experience. If you prefer to work out on your own in the gym, an Open Gym session would be the way to go. Private, Semi-Private and Small Group Private Training is also an option. Come visit us today to learn more!

Writer Taylor Villa is a Queen’s University undergraduate student in a dual major program of political studies and sociology and a freelance editor/writer specializing in Fitness, Health, and Wellness.