By Thomas Hauser

Telling the story of Bill Richmond’s life is like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing.

Richmond rose to prominence as a prizefighter in England and was the first black sportsman to achieve national fame. Richmond Unchained by Luke G. Williams (Amberley Publishing) is a worthy effort that does him justice.

bill richmond

The best available evidence indicates that Richmond was born a slave on Staten Island (now one of New York City’s five boroughs) in 1763. Quite possibly, his biological father was the Reverend Charlton, who owned Richmond’s mother.

In 1777, British Brigadier-General Hugh Percy (who was in the colonies to suppress the revolution) took a liking to Richmond and persuaded Charlton to release him. Then Percy brought Richmond to England.

British merchants and seamen were deeply involved in the slave trade at that time although slavery was illegal in England. People of color were looked down upon and not particularly welcome on Shakespeare’s sceptered isle. Percy arranged for Richmond to receive a rudimentary education and be apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. In the early 1790s, Richmond married a white woman named Mary and is believed to have had five children with her. The fragmentary evidence that exists suggests that their marriage was a stable one.

Richmond turned to prizefighting late in life. His first bout of consequence (which he lost to a man named George Maddox) took place on January 23, 1804, when he was forty years old. Other than an October 8, 1808, defeat at the hands of future English champion Tom Cribb, he did not lose again.

Boxing in the late-18th and early-19th centuries was very different from what it is today. Throwing an opponent to the ground, hitting and holding, and other rough-house tactics were allowed. A combatant who was knocked down had thirty seconds to recover and return to the battle. The fighters were ungloved.

Richmond was adept at defense - “milling on the retreat” as it was known. He also developed a well-earned reputation as a knowlegeable strategist and trainer whose services were much in demand. In 1810, he assumed ownership of a well-established pub called The Horse and Dolphin, evidence that prizefighting and training were profitable for him. That same year, he met Tom Molineaux.

Little reliable biographical information about Molineaux exists today. Williams debunks many of the myths about him but is unable to fill in the blanks in the narrative created by their absence.

What is known is that Molineaux was born in 1784 and, like Richmond, was a former slave from America. Unlike Richmond, he had a loud boastful personality, was a profligate womanizer, could neither read nor write, and was lacking in social graces. But he was larger than Richmond, interested in prizefighting, blessed with intimidating natural power, and had youth on his side.

Meanwhile, as Williams writes, “By the summer of 1810, Richmond had few options to advance his own career, and the prospect of becoming a full-time trainer of other fighters looked increasingly attractive. Molineaux’s arrival was a piece of fortuitous timing. Richmond was a man who possessed a streak of cold commercialism which had enabled him to survive and thrive as a black man in Georgian England. His motives in befriending Molineaux cannot be solely attributed to altruism. He was intrigued and excited by Molineaux’s earning potential. Richmond saw in Molineaux a delicious business opportunity; namely the chance to introduce, promote, and parade a new black sensation in front of the fancy. From the moment he first met Molineaux, the notion seems to have chrystalized in Richmond’s brain that the young American was ideally suited for the purpose of ultimately defeating the champion [Tom Cribb]. Richmond realized, though, that, before Molineaux could be matched with Cribb, he would need to dramatically improve his technique.”

Richmond soon became trainer, manager, promoter, and mentor to Molineaux. On December 18, 1810, Molineaux challenged Cribb for the crown. Their encounter was arguably the first sporting contest of international significance and the most significant sporting event ever up until that time. A black man trained by another black man was on the verge of becoming England’s Boxing Champion.

Ten thousand spectators gathered in the rain on Copthall Common, Sussex, to watch Cribb defend his championship. The fight lasted 55 minutes with the crowd becoming a mob and, to Molineaux’s detriment, a participant in the flow of the action.

Molineaux was allowed to fight. But he was not allowed to win. Ultimately, under dubious circumstance, Cribb prevailed.

Pierce Egan later wrote, ““It will not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, “that [Molineaux’s] colour alone prevented him from becoming the hero of that fight.”

In the aftermath of Cribb-Molineaux, Williams recounts, “The Horse and Dolphin became the unofficial headquarters of black pugilism, Richmond’s reputation now being so elevated that his public house was the first port of call for any black man who fancied trying his hand in the prize ring.”

Equally important, Richmond skillfully martialed public opinion in support of a rematch. Nine months later, Cribb and Molineaux met again before 20,000 spectators on the outskirts of London. This time, Cribb had trained more diligently and Molineaux was more poorly prepared. Cribb brutalized Molineaux and, after nineteen minutes, emerged victorious.

“There is little in Richmond’s remarkable life for which he should be reprimanded,” Williams writes. “But dragging Molineaux back to scratch [again and again in the rematch] was arguably the most callous act he ever performed. Such was Molineaux’s debilitated state that Richmond and Gibbons [Molineaux’s other second] had to lift him up as they would a lump of lead before leading him back to the center of the ring for the tenth round.” By the eleventh and final round, Williams recounts, the fight ”more resembled a public execution than a sporting contest.”

Richmond and Molineaux had a bitter falling out after the second Cribb-Molineaux fight. “From Richmond’s point of view,” Williams notes, “the way Molineaux was now behaving was an example of rank ingratitude. Molineaux had been an unknown penniless novice when Richmond first met him and was now a national celebrity.”

Moreover, in brokering the second Cribb-Molineaux fight, Richmond had lost most of what he owned. In 1812, he was forced to sell The Horse and Dolphin to pay his debts and moved with his family to new lodging. He even entered the ring again, fighting for the last time on November 12, 1818, when he was 55 years old.

Molineaux died in 1818 at age thirty-four. Richmond continued to give boxing lessons and remained a respected figure in the boxing community until his death in 1830. But none of his charges excelled as had Molineaux.

bill richmond

Richmond Unchained brings a long-ago time and the people in it to life. Williams recreates London well and succeeds in describing the role of prizefighting in England at the start of the nineteenth century. The two Cribb-Molineaux fights are the dramatic high points of the narrative. But the portrait of Richmond that Williams crafts outshines them.

It’s a difficult task to accurately portray a man who’s enshrouded in myth and lived two centuries ago and then place that man in the historical context of his times. That Williams succeeds is a tribute to his pain-staking research.

“Richmond is a historical figure of vital importance,” Williams observes in closing, “not because of what he achieved in terms of sporting excellence, for as worthy and admirable as those achievements are, they are not in isolation truly ‘historic.’ Rather, Richmond is important because he achieved these things during an era when racism was so ingrained within society that for a black person to attain the levels of success that Richmond did required formidable powers of determination and enterprise. A black celebrity in Georgian England was seen as an oddity, a freak, or an accident; not as a harbinger of the fundamental social change and revolution to come.”

It’s also worth quoting from a letter that Williams sent to this writer in which he described researching Richmond Unchained: “I soon discovered that many ‘facts’ about Richmond in boxing history books and online sources were inaccurate, had been misinterpreted, or were invented. I realized that relying on any accounts written later than his lifetime was a waste of time. Instead, I would have to access sources such as birth, marriage, and tax records, as well as contemporary newspapers from the Georgian era in order the assemble the most complete and factually correct account of his life and times as possible. Richmond Unchained is the result of this work, which ended up taking twelve long years. Although there are still some things we do not know about Richmond, I am satisfied that his life story has now been told.”

And told well.

***

Some Words of Wisdom from Great Fighters

 

John L. Sullivan: “Training is the worst thing going. A fellow would rather fight twelve dozen times than train once. But it has to be done.”

Jack Dempsey: “You always think you're going to win. That's one thing a fighter must have. Otherwise, there isn't any use fighting.”

Gene Tunney: “A good boxer can always lick a good fighter.”

Rocky Marciano: “What could be better than walking down any street in any city and knowing you're the heavyweight champion of the world?”

Floyd Patterson: “The best thing about being a fighter is that, outside the ring, you don't have to fight.”

Sugar Ray Robinson: “You always say, 'I'll quit when I start to slide.' Then, one morning, you wake up and you've done slid.”

Willie Pep: “I've got it made. I've got a wife and a TV set, and both of them work.” 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His next book - A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – will be published next month by the University of Arkansas Press.