Freelance writer from Cornwall
A few days ago we looked at the tragic tale of Henry Flakes, the boxer who might have been something special had circumstance and crime not derailed his plans. Today, we’re going to look at Bill Richmond AKA ‘The Black Terror.’
This is another tale where crime and sport (apparently) mix but go (fortunately for Richmond) in an upwardly-mobile direction. Henry Flakes faced the executioner. Bill Richmond (according to Bill Richmond) was an executioner and not just of your average nobody. Richmond started life as badly as he could have done, as a slave during the American Revolutionary War. During his enslavement he had all manner of unpleasant jobs foisted on him and the execution of American spy Nathan Hale happened to be one of them (according to Richmond).
Richmond always said that he wasn’t Hale’s actual executioner, he didn’t actually drop Hale to the end of a hangman’s rope. What he did claim to have done was to be the assistant who found a suitable tree, a suitable rope, made sure the rope was properly attached and the hangman’s knot properly tied before British Army Provost-Marshal Cunningham actually did the dreadful deed. It wasn’t lonag after that that he was spotted by Lord Percy, Duke of Northumberland, engaged in a brawl where he handily flattened a group of English soldiers single-handed. Percy took a shine to him and engaged him as a servant.
Richmond, being no longer a slave and with a fairly benevolent employer, went through school (unusual for a black manservant even at a time when English gentlemen regarded them as a ‘must have’ fashion accessory) and Lord Percy even arranged for him to be apprenticed to a local cabinet-maker. But it was a chance encounter with a local brothel-keeper named Myers, some harsh words on both sides and a Myers receiving a thorough beating that turned Richmond’s head to thoughts of boxing.
A second chance dust-up at York Races in 1796 with a local thug named William ‘Docky’ Moore convinced him. Moore was a local bruiser and bully who outweighed Bill by a good 40 pounds and was well-known as fearsome brawler. After some mutual insults an on-the-spot fight was agreed and Moore was beaten into submission. He was also carried away completely blind. Bill’s only rewards were escaping moderately unscathed and a few coins collected from the crowd. He also caught the eye of an aristocrat, rake and wastrel named Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford.
Any aspiring sportsman in the 1800’s needed a patron, a sponsor, somebody to invest in their talent. Camelford, being a gambler of vast funds and equal enthusiasm, saw in him a chance for some reflected glory and no small amount of lucrative betting. Camelford provided Bill’s living expenses and Bill bashed his way up the ladder until he was a credible challenger for the title ‘Champion of England.’ Bill also found himself living in London, then the epicentre of unofficial (and entirely illegal) bare-knuckle boxing fraternity. He trained and fought, fought and trained and despite being self-taught, he developed an elusive style essential at a time when boxing had no weight divisions. Boxers could easily have a fight arranged minutes before it actually started and find themselves fighting bare-knuckle, full-contact fights against opponents with a fifty-pound weight advantage. Bill learnt to evade bigger opponents, draw them into his blows, to counter-punch and box on the retreat. He may have been little more than a middleweight by today’s standards, but his style made him a match for physically-stronger but less technically-skilled opposition.
By early 1805 Bill wanted to challenge the feared and admired Englishman Tom Cribb. Camelford refused him permission, wanting to protect his investment and avoid seeing Bill fight an apparently-unbeatable opponent. Cribb wasn’t a technically-gifted fighter, but he did outweigh Bill by fifty pounds (mostly muscle) and his determination to be knocked out rather than give up made him a crowd favourite. When Camelford lost a pistol duel with a Captain Best later that year Bill saw no further obstacle to challenging Cribb for his title. Being 16 years older and fifty pounds light than Cribb, Bill probably didn’t think he had much time to waste, either.
Their fight in October, 1805 was a classic of its time. The lighter, older, cleverer boxer versus the younger, stronger, heavier, cruder brawler. Bill put up a tremendous display but after over 90 minutes of bare-knuckle battering, Cribb’s youth, weight, stamina and punching power began to tell. Bill was knocked out and his challenge had failed. ‘Cribb vs Richmond’ attracted more press attention than the departure of Nelson’s fleet for the Battle of Trafalgar and the public wanted to know everything. How was their training going? How did they train? Where were they training and where would they fight? Very few boxing matches have ever overshadowed such major historical events as Trafalgar, but ‘Cribb vs Richmond’ certainly did even though Cribb was victorious and the ‘Black Terror’s’ challenge had failed.
But it hadn’t failed completely. Being a black foreigner who was smaller, older but also more skilful, having the audacity to challenge the native English champion earned Bill both attention and respect. Taking so severe a beating and refusing to quit, having to be knocked out rather than giving up, earned him unbridled admiration from many people. Bill, smart man that he was, used the fame and the money to move upwards in London society. He opened ‘Richmond’s Rooms’ a private boxing academy standing where Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column stand today.
‘Richmond’s Rooms’ were a runaway success. It became a Mecca for anybody interested in boxing. Wealthy gentlemen, including Lord Byron, considered it fashionable to visit and, if they were lucky, be able to spar with Bill. Gamblers and fight organisers used it as a meeting place. Fans turned up simply to cast their eye over likely contenders and Bill trained his own fighters.
One of those fighters was freed American slave Tom Molyneux, known as ‘Black Ajax.’ Molyneux’s style was as crude as his appearance and social graces (which were very crude indeed), but he had great stamina and enormous punching power. If he couldn’t beat Cribb himself, reasoned Bill, then Molyneux had the strength and the youth that maybe looked like he could. Cribb however, by now a wealthy man and celebrity in his own right, wasn’t keen to fight again. Not without a little persuasion…
The persuasion came in the form of Bill setting up a match between Molyneux and one of Cribb’s own proteges, Tom Tough.. Molyneux took only minutes to prove that Cribb’s hot prospect wasn’t anywhere near as tough as his name implied. English honour (and our collective ego) demanded that the master step in for his badly-beaten student and humble this foreign interloper. Cribb had no choice but to agree. Fortunately for Cribb Molyneux had been thoroughly seduced by London’s bright lights and his own darkest desires. While Cribb was hidden away training, Molyneux was spending huge amount’s of Bill Richmond’s money by spending more time carousing, drinking and whoring his way around London to the delight of the local gossips and the fury of his patron.
They fought on December 18, 1810. Their first fight lasted 19 rounds before the oh-so-sporting English crowd, not keen to see a white English legend battered unconscious by a black foreigner (and Cribb was losing heavily by then) started a riot during which one of Molyneux’s hands was broken. Fighting one-handed and with six broken ribs and a shattered jaw, Molyneux carried on. But the outcome was inevitable. Cribb finally knocked him out in the 40th round, but Richmond soon publicly demanded a rematch.
The rematch was lost even before it was fought. Cribb hid himself away, training with some of the best athletes of the time. He regularly soaked his hands in vinegar to toughen knuckles that were already said to be hardened enough that Cribb could punch the bark off an oak tree. He went on walks and jogs of up to twenty miles per day. He ate properly, rested properly, avoided alcohol, tobacco and women.
Molyneux didn’t. His first fight with Cribb made him famous and he took full advantage by immersing himself in as many of London’s dirtiest, most sordid pleasures. And he was indulging instead of training while using Bill’s money to do it. The rematch in September, 1811 was farcical. Cribb, probably in the best shape of his life, used the bloated hungover, physical wreck vaguely resembling an opponent as though he was a human punchbag. Bones were broken, blood was spilled and Molyneux was destroyed in a matter of minutes. Molyneux’s having lost so easily and his debauchery having been funded by Bill’s money caused a bitter split and Molyneux, whose debts far exceeded his ability to pay, soon found himself in the Debtor’s Jail on Horsemonger’s Lane. After his release he eaked a very small income fighting all-comers at travelling fairs and carnivals before finally drinking himself to death in August, 1818. He was only 38 years old.
For Richmond, whose cutting Molyneux off completely, not paying his bills and never speaking to him again probably comes under the heading ‘Harsh, but fair’, life continued almost as comfortably as before. Granted, his boxing academy was pulled down to make way for Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square, but he was famous to the point where King George IV wanted to meet him, wealthy enough to have more money than he could spend and became one of the foremost sporting legends of his time.Possibly the greatest honour of his life came when, at the Coronation of King George IV, Bill was invited to join the ceremonial guard of honour, met the King and was decorated by George IV personally. He finally died at his home in London on December 28, 1829 aged 66. Remarkable that a bare-knuckle fighter should live so long, even more remarkable that a former slave and bare-knuckle boxer should rise so high.
Not bad for a slave boy, when you think about it.