In-depth blog about former slave and boxing legend Bill Richmond (1763-1829); subject of Luke G. Williams' biography, published by Amberley in August 2015.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Why Richmond matters more than Molineaux

Somebody asked me this week why I decided to write a book about Bill Richmond, rather than his more famous protégé Tom Molineaux.

After all, in 1810, Molineaux came within a whisker of being the first black man to win the bare-knuckle 'world championship', while Richmond never even fought for the title ... Doesn't that make Molineaux the superior and more important sportsman?

Well, no actually.

For starters, Molineaux's overall record as a pugilist (eight fights, five wins, three losses) is patently inferior to Richmond's ledger (nineteen fights, seventeen wins, two losses). While we're talking sporting achievements, it's also worth mentioning that Richmond's career lasted longer, he beat more men of significance and he was a much more skilled boxer than Molineaux, who elevated defensive boxing into an art-form.

However, at the end of the day, the answer to the question of 'why Richmond and not Molineaux?' is nothing to do with sporting excellence. It's much more straightforward than that: Bill Richmond's life story is much more interesting than Tom Molineaux's, and much more historically significant too.

Molineaux was a man of undoubted charisma and considerable pugilistic talent, but a biography of him would merely read like an extended cliché - that of the flawed sporting genius who squandered his talents and opportunities. From George Best to Alex Higgins, Mike Tyson to Paul Gascoigne, how many times have we seen and heard that story before?

Too many!

Molineaux has traditionally gained more 'attention' than Richmond from boxing historians and academics because he is an easier man to read and his life is more straightforward to interpret - the uneducated and exploited black man, who died an early death after a life of indulgence.

Richmond is far more interesting. In many respects, his life provides a total contrast to Molineaux's, for Richmond was a man who made the absolute most of his talents and opportunities, despite the societal strictures that he faced.

He was a man who began life as a slave, but who managed to impress an English noble. A man who became educated and a trained craftsman. A man who became a major sports star but also a respected trainer and gymnastic instructor who hobnobbed with Byron, Hazlitt et al. A man who was so esteemed and respected that he was given a role at the coronation of George IV.

What achievements! What a life!

And yet some people prefer to focus on the tragedy of Molineaux, rather than the myriad triumphs of Richmond!

That tells us something about our society, don't you think?

I've always found it interesting that by the latter days of his career, Richmond was often referred to solely by his surname, with no reference whatsoever to his ethnic background. What better illustration can there be of the esteem in which he was held? And all this within a society where there were very few black 'celebrities' and racist notions of black inferiority and white superiority were still rife.

On a similar note, it greatly irritates me when writers characterise Molineaux as some form of 'revolutionary' and demeaningly label Richmond as a 'conformist'. This is far too simple an interpretation. For starters, Molineaux had no interest in any form of revolution - all he was interested in were his own pleasures, desires and gratification. Besides which, it was Richmond's skills as a promoter, trainer and negotiator that took Molineaux to the brink of what would have been a revolutionary English title triumph against Tom Cribb.

The charge that Richmond was a conformist is also an inaccurate one. Yes, Richmond worked within the parameters of society as it existed, but he was no 'Uncle Tom', despite the attempts of some to cast him as such. There are many recorded instances of Richmond responding to racial taunts by physical means, as well as by using his wit and intelligence to defuse such situations. Richmond realised that in order to win acceptance in English society he needed to prove his intelligence, his cunning, his wit and his capabilities. This doesn't make him a conformist or an 'Uncle Tom', it makes him a man of pragmatism and common sense, as opposed to a man prone to self-destruction as Molineaux was.

Furthermore, obituaries of Richmond specifically mention that he was 'pleased with' his 'colour'. This, and the sheer number of other black boxers who he mentored and trained, makes it clear that he possessed abundant pride in his ethnic background. Richmond tried to show other black citizens and pugilists through his example that the path to integration and acceptance was through intelligence, education and hard work. Sadly, in Molineaux's case, Richmond's lesson went unlearnt!

The most beautiful story, for me, from the Georgian age of bare-knuckle 'Boxiana' is what Bill Richmond achieved - namely, respect, acceptance and esteem - not what Molineaux failed to achieve! 

That's why I wrote Richmond Unchained - to tell that story, rather than to merely add another footnote to the long history of sport's tragically wasted talents.

1 comment:

  1. I agree! Bill is an interesting personality and man of achievement. Now we have to get him into the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame!