Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review: The Sundowners: the History of the Black Prizefighter 1870 - 1930

The Sunday Book Review by Peter Silkov
“The Sundowners: the History of the Black Prizefighter 1870 - 1930 (Volume 2, Part 1)”  
Written by Kevin R. Smith

One of the prime examples of this is the history of the black fighter in boxing. There is no other, so-called, sport in existence, which so clearly illustrates the struggle for racial equality, as does the history of boxing.  Ever since coloured fighters first began to throw punches in the ring, back in the bare-knuckle days of Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux, boxing has offered a way out. Yet, at the same time, a reinforcement of the racial confinements under which these men were forced to live during their daily lives. Black fighters proved their worth with their pugilistic endeavors, and in many cases became favourites with white audiences. They also struck fear, often into the same people who so enjoyed watching them fight. 

George Godfrey
 As a sport, boxing is unique in the endless amounts of fascinating stories that the lives of its protagonists provide to the interested reader. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that boxing is more than just a sport, it is a way of life, a calling for those who take it up. It has often been said that you can’t play at boxing. Over the many years of it’s history, there have been innumerable boxers, many known and many relatively unknown, but all with often fascinatingly individual stories to tell.  Many boxers’ life stories often break beyond the boundaries of simply boxing itself. Boxer’s lives have often been microcosms of the lives of those watching them fight.

 The lot of the black boxer during the 19th and early 20th century was not an easy one. Many top white fighters stated the colour bar as reason enough not to fight the top coloured fighters. Often these men were forced to fight each other countless times in order to maintain a living. The black race enjoyed a breakthrough in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when George Dixon, the first coloured world champion, won world titles at Bantamweight and Featherweight. Joe Walcott soon followed by winning the welterweight crown and Joe Gans the lightweight title in the early 1900s. These breakthroughs for the black race culminated in Jack Johnson taking boxing’s greatest prize, the World heavyweight championship in 1908.  However, Johnson’s victory would turn out to be bittersweet for his people, and other black fighters for years to come, as the white race was so disturbed by the loss of their most prestigious boxing title. As a result of Johnson’s world title reign, the Black fighter was excluded and discriminated against even more, and this would not begin to change until the days of Joe Louis.

“The Sundowners: The History of the Black Prizefighter 1870 - 1930 (Volume 2, Part 1)” written and published by Kevin R. Smith, provides an encyclopedic guide to the many black fighters who fought during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Many of these fighters’ names have almost been completely lost to history, while others will be familiar to the boxing history student.  In both cases, Smith provides enlightening biographical details about the fighter’s lives, both in and outside, of the boxing ring. Every fighter featured inside this book has at least a page devoted to his life and boxing career; many have biographies several pages long. Each man’s ring record and photograph accompany these biographical notes.

The photographs themselves make this a very fascinating and beautiful book; there are literally 100s of rare photos, many never before seen. The men portrayed in this book are in many ways very different and unique from each other. One major factor these boxers have in common is the fact that they are black fighters who tried to make their mark in the world. Because of their colour, they faced many hurdles throughout their boxing careers, not just in the ring, but outside of it too.

George Byers
 The life stories of these men are often bittersweet and disheartening, yet, uplifting at the same time. Many of them arose from poverty to find fame and riches, despite their colour, racism, and bigotry of the time. Yet, some of these men inevitably fell back into the very poverty and hardship from which they had originally began, and could escape from only fleetingly. 
Some of these boxers were terribly treated by white managers who saw them as little more than pieces of meat to make money, though it can also be said that this was a fate not reserved solely for the black fighter, but experienced by the white fighters as well. One telling aspect of this book is that, despite the undoubted class and in some cases, greatness of these black fighters, very few of them ever gained a genuine world title shot during their fistic careers. This is perhaps the most damning evidence of how these fighters were forever, during their careers and lives, restricted due to their race. They could have popularity, fame and fortune even, up to a point, but in most cases, they were not allowed to fight for the world titles.

Some of the better known of the dozens of fighters portrayed in this book are Frank Craig, Kid Norfolk, George Godfrey, Bobby Dobbs, Eladio Valdez, George Byers, Jeff Clarke, Frank Childs, Esteban Gallard, Jack Blackburn and Ramon Castillo. They are just a clutch of the many boxers whose names and fighting careers are brought back to life within these pages. Kevin Smith does an admirable job in this book of fleshing out fighters whom to many have only been faded names in boxing history. Many of the fighters portrayed in here have been almost totally forgotten and ignored as time has gone by; their achievements and toil within the boxing ring long since discarded…until now.

Kid Norfolk
In addition to the writing of Smith, a number of the biographies in this book are written by Ralph H. Cathcart, who is the son of one of the outstanding fighters within these pages, Ramon Castillo (real name Ramon Grenot Cathcart.)

Together, both Smith and Cathcart have provided an informative, entertaining, and often enlightening history of the black fighter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We find out more than just about these men’s boxing careers, but also about their lives outside of boxing, and the hurdles in which they had to overcome in order to try and make a better life for themselves. These are stories of triumph and defeat, success and failure. For most of the fighters in these pages the good times lasted only as long as their boxing peaks and then the inevitable slide downhill were often devastating.

This book is a tremendous asset for anyone interested in some of the most important aspects of boxing history. Perhaps it also represents a final victory for all of the men within its pages too. After many years with their records and lives condemned to obscurity, they have finally been remembered again.  

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