Richmond’s rebirth – an exclusive extract from 'Richmond Unchained'

Luke G. Williams
13/12/2015 9:02am

The slave turned boxer Bill Richmond (1763-1829) was the world’s first black sporting superstar. In this exclusive extract from Luke G. Williams’ biography of the legendary pugilist we find our hero in 1809 and on the comeback trail after three years out of the ring. Fresh from a victory against Isaac Wood, the 46-year-old Richmond turns his attention to gaining revenge against the legendary veteran George Maddox, who five years earlier had inflicted a famous defeat upon him. The rematch, however, would be a different story altogether … 

Emboldened by his victory against Wood, Richmond decided it was time to avenge his 1804 defeat at the hands of Maddox by finally securing a rematch against the famed veteran. Maddox, something of a fistic phenomenon, was now, incredibly, in his mid-fifties, but he was still willing to respond to the siren song of the prize ring. Eventually, the rematch was made, but only after tortuous and long-winded negotiations as alluded to by the Oxford Journal:

“The long depending match between the veteran boxers George Maddox and Richman [sic.] the black, has at length been settled, and the parties will fight for a stake of 100 guineas. The amateurs look to the day as one of considerable amusement, the veteran being a tough veteran of the old school, not easy to be conquered, and Richman is a scientific fighter of the day, and a better giver than a taker.”

When assessing the relative merits of the two men, who were due to square off on 11 August, the Fancy found it fiendishly hard to pick a winner, which only added to the contest’s enticing nature. Recent form, without doubt, favoured Richmond, who had clocked up four wins in just over a year, compared to Maddox, who had only fought twice in major contests since his victory against Richmond in 1804 (one of which was his gallant losing effort against Tom Cribb). However, Maddox’s considerable powers of punch resistance and stamina, as well as his vast experience, meant many believed he retained the edge. Add to that the psychological advantage of having already defeated Richmond, and it is easy to see why Maddox began the fight as a narrow favourite, with odds of five and six-to-four being offered at ringside.

The intriguing rematch certainly piqued the interest of the public, with around 3,000 spectators lured to the remote Kent coast in between Margate and Reculver, within sight of the crashing waves and ebbing and flowing tides of the North Sea, to bear witness to a contest between two men with a remarkable combined age of nearly 100. With a larger than average 27-foot ring assembled, Richmond had a bit more space than usual to maximise his hit-and-run tactics and, from the first exchange of the contest, adopted the role of fleet-footed matador to Maddox’s enraged bull. No sooner had the bout begun than Maddox charged directly at Richmond with his ‘characteristic rush of gaiety’, however Richmond coolly stood his ground, and delivered two perfectly timed counter-punches with his right before retreating to safety. Maddox took both punches on the neck and the effect of the second was particularly startling and unexpected - it floored him heavily. As Maddox hauled himself off the springy turf, the pre-fight odds had already narrowed, both men now evenly favoured.

In the second round Maddox responded to the embarrassment of the rapid knockdown with roaring defiance, as to be expected from a man who Pierce Egan praised for his ‘peculiar forte [of] manliness’. He once again immediately attacked, punishing Richmond with a flurry of blows before summarily flinging him over the ropes. It was the last significant success Maddox would enjoy in a bout that soon became a one-sided slaughter. Richmond’s actions in the third round showed just what an accomplished pugilist he had now become. To ‘the astonishment of the spectators’, who were all too aware of Maddox’s vast strength, Richmond boxed patiently, before decisively, almost derisively, hurling his much sturdier opponent to the floor. Nobody had expected Richmond to display such ‘superiority of strength’, yet here he was flinging Maddox around the ring like a rag doll.

Richmond pressed his advantage ruthlessly. For the next half an hour, Maddox fought with his usual commitment, as he was peppered with accurate and hurtful blows, but such was the sustained and fearful nature of the punishment meted out by Richmond’s spiteful fists that, by the tenth round, Maddox’s head was ‘hideously disfigured’. It was now clear that Richmond’s ‘mind, strength and science’ were so overwhelmingly superior that Maddox had no chance of winning. Yet, despite the hopelessness of his cause, the veteran manfully fought on for a further twenty-two minutes.

The closing rites were administered in the wake of one final act of magnificent Maddox defiance after fifty-two minutes of combat; falling to his knees, and now effectively blind due to the horrific swelling and bleeding in both his eyes, Maddox somehow found the energy to leap to his feet, and ‘by a sudden effort of nature’ grabbed a startled Richmond around the neck with one hand and began to beat him over the head with the other. Too shocked to free himself from Maddox’s grasp, Richmond took the blows with equanimity, seemingly content for his opponent to enjoy one last hurrah. At which point Maddox, thoroughly exhausted, ‘fell motionless’ to the floor, where he lay for a while as his seconds attempted to rouse him, before he was led away looking ‘a frightful spectacle’. Maddox’s long and meritorious career was over and Richmond’s pugilistic rebirth was complete.

In his quest to conquer sporting territory never before conquered by a black man, Richmond would soon join forces with another black pugilist in Tom Molineaux, a former slave who possessed none of Richmond’s social graces or English affectations, but was blessed with the physical attributes Richmond lacked – namely, tremendous power, intimidating bulk and youth.

Molineaux, with Richmond as his mentor, would challenge the English sporting and social order with a ferocity that would split the Fancy and shake John Bull to the very bottom of his boots …

Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar  by Luke G. Williams has been named as one of the 40 best boxing books ever written by respected American writer and critic Thomas Hauser. The book is published by Amberley and available here.

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