Black History Month: UK Boxing Pioneers

Throughout the history of boxing, many black fighters have gallantly overcome racial hatred during appalling periods in time to become symbols of hope, pride and equality.

Despite facing personal hardship and being denied deserved opportunities due to skin colour, they proudly paved the way for future generations to enjoy success in the ring.

This UK Black History Month, we celebrate the impact of boxing on promoting racial equality and look back to honour the often unheralded Black British pioneers of the sport.

Bill Richmond

Before iconic trailblazers Joe Gans and Jack Johnson left their mark on boxing for the good of racial equality, Bill Richmond rose to fame as the first black sporting icon in history. The king of the prize ring during the bare-knuckle era, Richmond was born into slavery in New York in 1763 but was released when he turned 13 years old by British army commander General Percy.

Impressed by Richmond’s ring prowess and overall manner, Percy brought him to England, where the young fighter was provided education in York before marrying a local white woman and beginning his pugilistic career.

Bill Richmond was a trailblazer who reigned as bare-knuckle boxing champion.

Constantly targeted by racially motivated attacks on the street, Richmond moved to London at the turn of the 19th century and was involved in brutal, high-profile clashes with the likes of George Maddox, Jack Holmes and, most famously, Tom Cribb.

Successfully battling up to the age of 50, he later took another former slave and rising contender Tom Molineaux under his wing while becoming the landlord of the Horse and Dolphin pub in Leicester Square.

Richmond is believed to have ended his career with a record of 17 wins and two defeats and, as was his eventual standing in society, he would act as an usher at the coronation of King George IV in 1821.

This capped off an incredible rise from slavery on American soil for Richmond, using his fists to bring equality among UK communities in his era and leave a lasting legacy that still stands almost two centuries after his death.

Len Johnson

One of Manchester’s finest fighters who was ultimately an uncrowned champion. Len Johnson’s life story of refusing to accept the systematic racism he encountered throughout his career is one that must be remembered and celebrated.

Born to an Irish mother and a father from Sierra Leone in Manchester, Johnson was introduced to boxing by the latter parent after getting involved in a street fight as a teenager. A 1925 victory over the British middleweight champion Roland Todd, in a non-title fight, should have set up a crack at the belt but racial discrimination stood in the way.

Len Johnson was one of the UK's boxing pioneers.

He was denied his deserved shot. Fearing the prospect of a black British champion, a colour line was in place. At this time the rule stated both fighters had to have two white parents in order to contest for the title. This would eventually be abolished in 1948.

Nevertheless, Johnson earned many top wins including against British legend Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis and moved to Australia to become the Commonwealth champion. Throughout his career and life, he relentlessly campaigned for equality, showing the drive and resilience he had in the ring to make an impact outside of it too, as a true civil rights fighter.

Dick Turpin

A ban on black boxers clinching the British title was in place from 1911 to 1948. It was Dick Turpin who became the first man to break that colour barrier.

The UK’s most prestigious honour was off-limits to non-white fighters for 37 years, stemming from Winston Churchill’s decision to stop Jack Johnson facing Billy Wells in London in 1911. His move set a precedent that would be used regularly to stop "coloured" fighters from competing for the British belt.

History was made when Dick Turpin became British champion (Image: PA Images).

Like his father, Turpin served in the armed forces and actually refused an exemption in order to fight during World War II. He returned unharmed to continue his boxing career and claimed the British crown with a monumental triumph over Vince Dawkins, making history as the first black holder of the title in any division.

Turpin’s momentous success is an unforgettable moment after an unforgivable period of racial exclusion on British soil, as he kickstarted a new era for UK boxing.

Randolph Turpin

In spite of Dick Turpin’s historic British title feat, he was overshadowed by younger brother Randolph just years later as he achieved one of the greatest victories in the sport’s history.

In 1951, Randolph Turpin welcomed the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to London as part of his ongoing European tour. The reigning middleweight world champion had been unbeaten as an amateur star and tasted defeat just once to Jake LaMotta in 132 professional bouts before meeting Turpin.

Randy Turpin famously dethroned the great Sugar Ray Robinson in London.

The home hope wasn’t affected by the seismic task at hand though, going on to dethrone Robinson and become the new middleweight ruler with a 15-round decision win which sparked jubilant celebrations.

Despite a rematch loss and subsequently tragic end to his life, Turpin is renowned in British boxing history and fondly remembered as a trailblazer in his home nation.

Bunny Sterling

Basil Sylvester Sterling, better known as Bunny, first arrived in London from his birth nation of Jamaica when he was eight years to attend a funeral. He remained there until he died at 70, having become a skilled fighter and pioneer in the face of the racial ignorance he was forced to deal with daily.

Ahead of his defining 1970 victory over Mark Rowe, Sterling had to overcome despicable racist ringside chants at his previous bouts and went on the road to earn a living from the sport. But, despite just 16 wins from 27 career outings entering the ring that night, he wasn’t going to be denied.

Bunny Sterling earned a historic British title success in his career.

Sterling’s success made him the first ever immigrant fighter from the West Indies to win a British title. Unfortunately, his ring abilities never secured him a world title shot. Despite being promised big fights and ring riches, it never materialised. But he was never bitter about the rejection that was shared by many black boxers before and during his time.

Ironically, Sterling stopped Antigua-born British middleweight champion Maurice Hope in eight rounds in 1975, an opponent who would later become the first black immigrant British boxer to win a world title four years later.

While he left boxing with little financial rewards to his name, a chance meeting with a Saudi royal led to a career in the oil business. Despite the odds being stacked against Sterling in his career and life, he fought them and succeeded.

Lennox Lewis

Born in London to Jamaican parents, Lennox Lewis rose from humble beginnings to become an Olympic Gold medallist and undisputed world heavyweight champion in an illustrious ring career.

Lennox Lewis was one of the greatest heavyweights in boxing history (Image: Getty Images).

As well as cementing his legacy as one of the greatest heavyweights in boxing history, Lewis focused on giving back to the community he grew up in. In 1994, he opened The Lennox Lewis College in east London, with the aim of giving wider opportunities to young black people who needed guidance in life.

Arguably the best British boxer of all-time, Lewis was also a towering role model throughout his career. He was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of North London for his services to both boxing and the education of disadvantaged young people in his community.