Luke G. Williams
Congolese-Italian Leone Jacovacci was only the second African-born boxer to win a European title. He adapted personas, faced down fascists in Mussolini’s Italy and hid the identity of his Jewish wife and half-Jewish daughter from the Nazis in occupied France. Luke G. Williams traces his remarkable life, with photos courtesy of Mauro Valeri...
The name of former European champion Leone Jacovacci is rarely cited, even in specialist boxing literature, even though he was one of the leading middleweights of the 1920s, coming within a whisker of landing a world title shot against Mickey Walker.
For many years Jacovacci’s life was — to borrow from Winston Churchill — a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Was he British? Italian? American? Congolese? Or even Indian? And was his real name Leone Jacovacci at all, or one of his other frequent aliases, such as Jack Walker or John Douglas Walker? For years, no one knew for sure. Now, though, thanks to the endeavours of his biographer, the Italian writer Mauro Valeri, we are able to piece together the amazing life story of one of the most unique boxers of the 20th century.
“Jacovacci’s importance in the history of boxing is multiple,” Valeri pointed out to Boxing Monthly. “He was only the fourth Italian boxer to win a European title, during a period when boxing was very important and news relating to it appeared on the front pages of the major newspapers. He was also only the second African-born boxer to win a European title after Battling Siki. Before I decided to write a book about Jacovacci, there was no definitive record of the history of this highly significant black Italian.”
In his book Nero di Roma, storia di Leone Jacovacci, l’invincibile mulatto italico, Valeri lays the doubts concerning Jacovacci’s birth to rest by confirming he was born in 1902 in a village called Pombo in what was then the Belgian Congo. His father was Umberto Jacovacci, an Italian agronomist, while his mother was a Congolese woman named Zibu Mabeta.
Jacovacci was brought to Italy aged three and entrusted into the care of his grandparents who, fearful of the prejudice a young boy of mixed ethnicity might suffer in Rome, raised him in Viterbo, about 70 miles north of the capital.
On the death of his grandmother in 1911, Leone passed into the care of his father’s sister. Three years later he gained his secondary school certificate. However, the youngster possessed a desire for exploration beyond the restrictive confines of Viterbo. Therefore, although barely a teenager, he travelled to Taranto, an important commercial port in southern Italy.
Posing as an Indian boy from Calcutta — the first of several personas he would adopt throughout his life — Jacovacci gained work on a British merchant ship. After several years at sea, he arrived in England in 1918. Once again he constructed a new identity, this time in order to join the British Army. As far as his fellow soldiers were concerned Leone Jacovacci was now John Douglas Walker, born in 1900 in Plymouth. By changing his birth date he convinced the army he was old enough to enlist, when in fact he was only 16.
Having joined the army on 7 August 1918, Jacovacci served in the 53rd battalion of the Bedfordshire regiment, as well as the Hertfordshire and Essex regiments, fighting in Russia during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, before being demobilised in September 1920.
Jacovacci most likely began his boxing career while in the army. Records suggest he had 14 contests in Britain, fighting under the name Jack Walker. With what Valeri describes as “his sculptural physique, good technique and powerful fists”, Jacovacci was a formidable prospect. However, a British Boxing Board of Control regulation that prevented black boxers from fighting for the British championship acted as an obstacle to his ambitions.
And so it was that in 1921 Jacovacci once again was on the move — this time to France. It was a logical destination — Paris had long welcomed black American boxers such as Joe Jeannette and Sam McVea. Meanwhile, the city’s enthusiastic embrace of black culture had seen many African-American soldiers who had served during the war settle in the city when the conflict concluded.
After arriving in Paris, Jacovacci adapted his persona again, maintaining the name John Douglas Walker but now saying he was American. Before too long he had attracted the attention of influential manager-trainer François Descamps, who was renowned for his handling of the legendary Georges Carpentier.
Under Descamps’ guidance, Jacovacci thrived, rapidly becoming an established fixture on the Parisian fight scene during the glory days of the 1920s. While night clubs throughout the City of Light pulsated to the rhythms of jazz or the dulcet tones of Josephine Baker, Jacovacci found himself fighting in venues such as the Stade Anastasie and the Cirque d’Hiver, with members of the literary set, such as Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, often in attendance.
Although initially inconsistent, Jacovacci gradually established himself as one of the leading middleweights in Europe. As he grew in confidence and honed his boxing skills, he also made a brave decision — namely to reveal the truth about his Congolese-Italian ancestry and return to Italy.
Partly, Jacovacci was wearied by the charade of pretending he was American — his accent would often slip, thus placing him in awkward social situations — and partly he wanted the opportunity to fight for the Italian and European titles, something he couldn’t do if he was fighting as an American.
There was a problem, though. Although he informed the Italian Boxing Federation of his true identity in 1925, they refused to believe him. Indeed, it took two years for him to convince the Italian federation that John Douglas Walker and Leone Jacovacci were, in fact, the same person.
These were dangerous times for a black Italian to be coming to prominence. The rise to power in 1922 of the fascists led by Benito Mussolini had seen Italy gradually transformed into a one-party dictatorship, ruled by an ideology that considered non-whites to be naturally inferior.
Against this turbulent backdrop, Jacovacci embarked on the most impressive form of his career. From 1925 until June 1928 he lost only one out of 40 contests, while securing impressive victories against the likes of future middleweight champion Marcel Thil of France and black British fighter Len Johnson.
However, his most compelling rivalry was with Belgian middleweight star Rienus “Rene” De Vos. The two men met six times between 1922 and 1927, with Jacovacci losing the first three fights before winning the next three. De Vos would later carve out a successful career in the US.
In 1927, with the boxing authorities having finally recognised Jacovacci’s status as an Italian citizen, an October showdown with reigning domestic middleweight champion Mario Bosisio was arranged. The fight took place in Bosisio’s home city of Milan. Jacovacci dominated, but the contest was somehow adjudged a draw.
It was a bitter disappointment, but eight months later Jacovacci had the chance for revenge, this time with the European championship on the line as well as the Italian title.
With the “white pride” of Italy at stake, the fascist establishment came out in force to support Bosisio for the 24 June 1928 rematch at the National Stadium in Rome, with a selection of leading Blackshirt politicians in attendance, including Italo Balbo and Giuseppe Bottai.
Shrugging off the political intimidation, Jacovacci fought the contest of his life, his ceaseless punching earning a well-deserved points victory. Across Europe he was now feted. “The most formidable middleweight in Europe,” declared the Dundee Courier, while Georges Carpentier remarked admiringly: “Jacovacci is a very good man indeed. I should say quite the best middleweight in Europe today.”
In Italy, Jacovacci’s triumph had a more mixed reception. As Mauro Valeri observed: “Jacovacci was loved by many Italian fans, especially Romans. The fact he was black didn’t matter to his fans. What interested them was that he was a winner and it was a pleasure to see him fighting. But the fascists could not bear to see a black boxer winning the national and European titles.”
Influential Milan-based newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport was particularly disgusted by Jacovacci’s usurpation of Bosisio, with journalist Adolfo Cotronei declaring that: “Jacovacci is too black to represent Italy.” Meanwhile, film footage of the fight’s aftermath, including a shot of Jacovacci raising his arms in triumph, mysteriously went missing.
Despite fascist disapproval, Jacovacci was now on the verge of a world title challenge, with his manager Descamps courting champion Mickey Walker for a planned April 1929 showdown. However, in a serious miscalculation, rather than biding his time and securing a title shot for his fighter, Descamps allowed Jacovacci to embark on a schedule of six fights in five months in four countries.
Jacovacci’s career suddenly faltered, with four losses, a draw and just one win from this period. The slump in form began with a rematch against Len Johnson, this time on the latter’s home turf of Manchester in November 1928. When the duo had met in May 1927, Jacovacci had won with ease, flooring Johnson three times before winning on points.
However, his preparations for the return were poor, consisting of three days’ travel to England and a hasty visit to a turkish bath the night before the weigh-in to lose 5½ pounds. Jacovacci gambled on a fast start, the Nottingham Evening Post noting the “terrific pace” he set in the early rounds with his “hurricane hitting”. Johnson rallied, though, and a weight-drained Jacovacci tired in the closing rounds, losing on points.
Although his European title had not been at stake, the defeat was a blow to Jacovacci’s hopes of enticing Walker to Italy. The following month he retained his European belt with a split decision against German Hein Domgoergen, but he was then savagely KO’d by Welshman Frank Moody, before dropping a decision to Edgar Normann and drawing with Alexis Marin.
When he put his European title on the line again versus old adversary Thil in March 1929, Jacovacci lost in a contest marked by an over-cautious attitude from both men. His hopes of a world title shot now gone, the final insult for Jacovacci came in August 1930 when he lost his Italian title to Bosisio. A major factor in Jacovacci’s rapid decline was due to suffering from a detached retina. Nevertheless, he fought on until 1935, disguising the eye injury as best he could. However, he was now losing more than he was winning.
When his boxing career was over, Jacovacci re-settled in France. In 1940, he planned to cross the Channel to regain his earlier British identity but was thwarted when the Nazis invaded. Jacovacci was thus trapped in France during the war. He married his partner, Berthe, in 1944. Berthe was Jewish, but somehow she and Jacovacci kept her identity, and the half-Jewish background of their young daughter Nicole, a secret from the Nazis during the German occupation.
In 1945 Jacovacci was expelled from France because of a lack of documentation, and returned to Italy. He worked for the United Nations assisting refugees, appeared in a film and tried his hand at wrestling. By the time of his death on 16 November 1983, aged 81, he had spent many years working as a doorman.
His boxing career, by this stage, had been long forgotten by most, and his achievements relegated to the dusty pages of newspaper archives and libraries. It took the release of Mauro Valeri’s book in 2008 to return Jacovacci’s name to public consciousness in Italy, while a documentary film about him is soon due to be released.
“The impression I have of Jacovacci is that he was an introvert,” is Valeri’s assessment. “He was a beloved father and husband but had few friends and relatives. He was reserved and had a timid personality, and he gave very few interviews. When he was in the ring, though, he came alive. It is my belief that he felt abandoned by his mother, his father and his grandmother. He probably felt the same way about Italy. That is why he was always running away. Boxing saved him.”
Jacovacci’s chameleonic tendency to change identities in order to blend into his surroundings is a moving testament to the difficulties an ambitious man of mixed ethnicity faced in early 20th century Europe. The fact that he succeeded, against all the odds, in rising to the status of Italian and European champion, while fascism rose menacingly and the world hurtled towards war, is a story as unlikely as it is remarkable.