The Astonishing Life of The Black Terror

In modern boxing, unless your name happens to be Rocky Balboa, it is generally advised that you not try to block punches with your face and chin. Back in the early days of the sport in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the idea of slipping or dodging a punch was so alien that most pugilists didn’t even consider it to be an option, and, instead, simply traded blows until one of them fell over half-dead. This all changed when American-born boxer Bill Richmond put up his dukes and astounded the world of boxing with an amazing new boxing technique called, and we can’t make this stuff up- the dodge. Here now is the remarkable story of the American slave turned boxing superstar known as “The Black Terror”.

Born a slave in 1763 in a small town in modern day Staten Island, New York, Richmond spent his formative years in the service of a man called Reverend Richard Charlton. Little is known about Richmond’s early life or his parentage, excepting there being a persistent rumor that Richmond’s father was Reverend Charlton himself. It was also noted that descriptions of Richmond as a fully grown man note that he had significantly lighter skin than many of his black peers, leading some to assume that he was of mixed race. At the time, this led to many a cruel barb being thrown at Richmond, including comments about him being, to quote, “half-human”, slurs it may please you to learn Richmond eventually learned to respond to by beating the person saying them to within an inch of their life.

Moving on, contemporary sources seem to suggest that Richmond’s early life was relatively uneventful and he was reportedly a precocious and energetic child who was seemingly shielded from at least some of the racial prejudice that existed at the time (another factor that supposedly lends credence to that hypothesis that he may very well have been Charlton’s son). As Richmond entered his teens, his amiable personality made him popular with guests to the house, who he conversed with endlessly and enjoyed mimicking the many idiosyncrasies of to entertain others. This eventually brought him to the attention of a visiting English noblemen during the American Revolutionary War in 1776, one Lieutenant General Hugh Percy- a man who would later become the Duke of Northumberland and would change Richmond’s life forever.

Percy is said to have been particularly impressed by two specific interactions he had with Richmond during his time visiting Staten Island. The first came when Percy was having lunch with Charlton and Richmond was asked to give the Royal Toast in honor of the occasion- something he supposedly did in a perfect English accent, much to Percy’s amusement. The second came after Richmond had enlisted with the British army as a stablehand, during which time Percy witnessed him being harassed by three British soldiers in a local tavern. According to Percy, after being tripped by one of the soldiers while carrying a bucket of water, causing him to spill its contents all over the floor, an enraged Richmond (who remember was only 13 to 14 years old at the time) effortlessly beat the three fully grown men into submission, causing two to flee and the third to fall to the floor clutching a broken nose and begging for forgiveness. Richmond reportedly said nothing to the man, responding only by casually picking the bucket up and continuing his work as if nothing had happened. Percy promoted Richmond on the spot, making him his personal valet after “encouraging” Reverend Charlton to release the young slave into his care.

Percy then took Richmond back to live with him in the North of England where he paid for him to be educated out of his own pocket. When Richmond came of age, Percy then secured an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker for him in the city of York.

During his time in York, Richmond became smitten with a white woman identified today only as Mary, and eventually worked up the courage to ask Mary to marry him. She accepted and the newly wed couple reportedly stayed in York for a few more years, during which time they began popping out babies. As for his other passions, Richmond’s passion for fighting was once again ignited as well during this time.

You see, Richmond would regularly find himself on the receiving end of torrents of racial abuse when out walking with his white wife and mixed children. Not being one to turn the other cheek at anyone besmirching his or his family’s honor, Richmond would quickly make anyone who thought this was a good idea regret their decision via a lightning fast punch to the face. Naturally, it soon became apparent to Richmond that he possessed an affinity for boxing and he began to pursue it as a career, honing his skills by taking part in several prizefights across Yorkshire, reportedly all of which he won in the early going.

Richmond’s boxing prowess eventually resulted in him being dubbed “The Black Terror” by crowds. For the most part, it would appear that he largely tolerated this particular nickname but would punch out anyone he heard saying it with venom in their voice or in close proximity to his wife or children.

What makes his achievements in the sport especially impressive was not only that Richmond had no formal training, a fact that probably actually helped him as we’ll get into in a bit, but also Richmond’s size in comparison to most, if not all of his opponents. To explain, at the time, there were no weight classes in boxing and as such, most pugilistic bouts were inevitably won by the larger man when there was any real disparity. Richmond, who stood no larger than 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed only around 147 pounds, was an apparent exception to this. Besting men as much as a foot taller and significantly heavier than himself with relative ease.

Richmond was largely able to do this thanks to his blistering speed, which he used to dance around opponents, dodging their lazy, easily telegraphed haymakers whilst peppering their midsection and chin with punches of his own. Richmond is largely thought to have been the first pugilist to do this as a general strategy, or at least he was the one that began to popularized it, and his style was so alien to the refrigerator-shaped men he was tasked with fighting that they would frequently tire themselves out just trying to hit him. This also being a time before a mandatory limit to the amount of rounds a bout contained (pugilists back then literally fought until one of them physically couldn’t continue), only served to make Richmond’s style all the more effective.

As a brief fun fact concerning this whole no limit to rounds, the longest professional boxing fight in history took place in New Orleans on Apr. 6, 1893, between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke. The fight was for the lightweight world title and lasted an astounding 111 rounds! After seven hours of brutal fighting, when the bell sounded for the 111th round, both fighters – dazed and exhausted- refused to come out of their corners and the referee ruled the bout as a no contest. So yes, after 111 rounds of using their bodies as punching bags, the contest ended in a tie, as ever reminding us that everything is pointless, nothing matters, and we’re all going to die and be forgotten.

In any event, going back to Richmond, dodging blows at the time was largely thought of as being a cowardly way to fight, as it suggested that the boxer couldn’t take a punch like a real man. However, given the entertainment value of watching a beast of a man swinging wildly at a smaller opponent floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, crowds seemed to loved the technique when Richmond used it, turning up to his bouts in droves to witness him doing his thing. And, while other boxers initially wrote off Richmond’s style of boxing as lacking courage, the ruthless efficiency with which The Black Terror put down opponents massively bigger than him eventually shut them right the hell up. After all, hard to think of someone as less manly when they literally just pummeled you into submission. I mean, if they aren’t manly, what does that now make you?

Before long, Richmond was being called upon by everyone from fellow pugilists to Lord Byron to teach them his unique version of the sweet science. In many ways, Richmond was the first “modern” boxer and as such, many boxing scholars feel comfortable matter-of-factly stating that he near-singlehandedly “revolutionized the sport” with his defensive style. A fact that becomes all the more amazing when you realise that Richmond was, as alluded to, entirely self taught, which likely in this case was why his style so separated him from the norm at the time.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After making something of a name for himself in Yorkshire, in the mid 1790’s Richmond and his family moved to London. Upon arriving in London, he entered into the employment of one Lord Camelford, a lover of boxing who took Richmond under his wing and had him accompany him to many illegal boxing bouts across the city as his valet and bodyguard. During one such outing in 1804, Richmond was challenged by a boxer called George Maddox. The ensuing fight between the two men was nothing short of vicious and ended in the 9th round when Maddox struck Richmond with a blow that opened a deep cut above one of his eyes. Richmond later suffered another, albeit much closer, loss against famed bare knuckle boxer Tom Cribb. A veritable mountain of a man almost 2 decades younger than Richmond (Richmond was 42 at the time the fight occurred while Cribb was just 24) who is said to have trained by punching trees.

The fight between Richmond and Cribb reportedly went on for some 60 rounds and saw Richmond deftly avoid Cribb for almost an hour, wearing him down with hacking shots to the body. However, Cribb’s sheer size allowed him to power through most of these hits and eventually land a series of blows on the much older Richmond. Depending on which source you consult, Richmond either called an end to the fight himself by raising his hands or was felled by an explosive, dynamite-like strike to the chin in the 60th round. Either way, Richmond lost. In his very next fight, Cribb became the boxing champion of the world.

No doubt disheartened by the loss, Richmond opted to instead teach boxing to the noblemen of Britain, becoming something of a celebrity and leading to numerous calls for him to un-retire and once again step into the ring. Despite being in his 40’s at the time, Richmond was eventually convinced to begin boxing competitively again in 1808, scoring a string of victories that intrigued Maddox enough to arrange for a rematch a year later in 1809.

This time Richmond beat Maddox “mercilessly” for almost an hour, slipping every punch Maddox threw and countering it with organ-bruising body blows accompanied by face smashing fists of fury. As an idea of how badly Richmond beat Maddox, a spectator present, an MP called William Windham, would later recall that Maddox was left “hideously disfigured” by Richmond’s hellacious, punch-based assault to his face.

Although Richmond and Cribb never had a rematch, Richmond did fight the champion by proxy by training another slave-turned-boxer called Tom Molineaux. Molineaux and Cribb eventually fought two times, with Cribb emerging victorious from each bout, narrowly in the first and decisively in the second.

Richmond himself continued to box well into his 50’s, with his fame ever rising. In fact, in 1814 Richmond was invited to spar for Frederick William III of Prussia to demonstrate his unique style of boxing alongside other prominent pugilists of the era. During the event, Richmond was introduced to the king as one England’s foremost and “celebrated professors of the fist”.

Speaking of 1814, during this year he defeated famed fighter Jack Davis with his ultra-defensive style, and another boxer called Tom Shelton a year later in 1815. During his bout with Davis, Richmond was hit only twice and so badly beat his opponent that he needed to be carried out of the ring. Richmond’s fight with Shelton was an altogether more vicious affair and went for some 22 rounds. During this bout, Richmond was hit with an illegal punch toward the end of the 21st round while he was on the ground recovering. A typically stoic Richmond shrugged the literal low blow off and entered the 22nd round with renewed zeal, zeroing in on Shelton’s temple with a series of heavy rights that sent him tumbling to the ground. In celebration, Richmond leapt five feet into the air over the ropes surrounding the ring and into the crowd. Richmond’s victory and the remarkably athleticism he displayed at such an advanced age would later prompt poet Pierce Egan (who witnessed the bout) to write of him: “Impetuous men must not fight Richmond, as in his hands they become victims of their own temerity … The older he grows, the better pugilist he proves himself.”

This victory cemented Richmond’s reputation and rumors of a rematch with Cribb swirled. However, Cribb feeling he had nothing else to prove having dominated the sport for many years at this point, instead opted to retire for the final time, spending the rest of his days teaching boxing and hobnobbing with royalty.

As for Richmond, he died at 66 in 1829, reportedly after spending an evening sharing stories and drinks in the pub of his one-time rival Tom Cribb.

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