The history of African Americans in the sport of boxing is full of era-defining fighters. As we celebrate Black History Month, we are looking back at five (5) of boxing’s legendary black boxers and their accomplishments, their contributions to the sport, and the fights they faced, both inside and outside of the ring.
5 of Boxing’s Greatest Black Boxers
1. Jack (John Arthur) Johnson
Jack Johnson became the first ever black heavyweight champion on December 26, 1908, defeating the ‘Great White Hope’ James J. Jeffries in the ‘Fight of the Century’. Known for his tremendous power and fighting tenacity in the ring, he was an important figure in boxing and in American culture. He ran a successful desegregated nightclub, but fell into controversy for marrying a Caucasian woman and for his generally unapologetic attitude. Despite the injustices he faced, he was still a proud and upstanding man, and his legacy inspires many of today's fighters, as well as the other boxers on this list, to greatness.
2. Joe Louis (Joseph Louis Barrow)
Often credited with inventing the modern straight punch, Joe Louis was extremely ahead of his time inside the ring. If you watch his footwork, you can see his movements were calculated, calm, and as small as possible, much like many of today’s modern boxers. Defeating German boxer Max Schmeling is arguably one of his most historic fights, as it elevated him to the status of National Hero during World War II. However, Louis did face incredible racial discrimination. The government credited charitable fights used to raise money for the war effort to Louis’ own income, therefore leaving him in debt and forcing the then-retired Louis back into the ring in 1951. Through all of this Louis remained, by all accounts, a good and generous man and was able to live comfortably towards the end of his life thanks to help from friends.
3. Sugar Ray Robinson (Walker Smith, Jr.)
Widely regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson was the very definition of a modern boxer-puncher. He was fast, slick, powerful, and fearless in the ring. With an incredible ending record of 174 (109 KO) wins to only 19 defeats (almost all of which came far past his prime), he certainly has one of the most impressive professional records of all time. His history as a man is also impressive. When he heard that black soldiers would not be allowed to attend, he courageously refused to box in exhibitions to entertain the military.
4. Joe Frazier (Joseph William Frazier)
Image Credit: Biography
After moving to Philadelphia from the South in 1961, Smokin’ Joe Frazier quickly became one of the heavyweight greats with his fearless come-forward style and his likable and humble personality. The highlight of his career came with his defeat of a young Muhammad Ali, and he continued to fight the best, earning the love and respect of many for his courageous conduct in the ring. Even with his losses to George Foreman and his rematch losses to Muhammad Ali, he still remains one of the legends in the sport.
5. Muhammad Ali
Image Credit: Biography
Muhammad Ali is often credited as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, as well as being widely recognized as one of the most influential sports figures of the 20th Century. From his flamboyant trash talk to his flashy footwork and the Ali Shuffle, he clearly has had an impact on the sport. Many of today’s boxers mimic the moves and boxing techniques he pioneered during his reign as heavyweight champion. With wins over Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Floyd Patterson, he certainly achieved success in an incredibly talented heavyweight era. That, coupled with his political activism and innate charisma, served to make him well-deserving of his nickname “The Greatest”.
Learning From The Legends
The history of African Americans in boxing is rich and full of stories of brave men and women overcoming adversity. It’s also full of amazing athletes that truly define entire generations of the sport. While we only recognized a few of these fighters here, there are many others whose legacies and achievements continue to shape and inspire the newest generation of fighters to always answer the bell, no matter what challenger is waiting in the other corner.