Saturday, August 13, 2016

On This Day: George Godfrey The Black Shadow of Leiperville Remembered

By Peter Silkov 

George Godfrey, the ’Black Shadow of Leiperville’ was an outstanding heavyweight boxer who fought the best heavyweights of the 1920s and 30s. Godfrey stood 6’ feet 3” inches and weighed between 210 and 250, and despite his size, he was surprisingly fast.  He also had a devastating punch, and although he possessed these attributes, Godfrey was held back during his career due to his colour.

Due to the colour bar, Godfrey was never able to fight for the genuine World heavyweight championship, and for much of his career, he had to face his fellow coloured fighters. When he was matched with white contenders, Godfrey was often 'handcuffed' and told to ‘carry’ them or even to lose. There are a number of fights that Godfrey lost suddenly when he had been winning; usually getting himself disqualified with low blows.   In addition to this Godrey was the victim of a number of very dubious decisions when fighting white opponents.  With such obstacles in front of him it could be said that Godfrey's career is all the more impressive. 

Born Feab Smith Williams in Mobile, Alabama, on January 25, 1897, Godfrey moved to Leiperville, Pennsylvania, where he resided for most of his career.

Williams took on the name George Godfrey to honor the original George ‘Old Chocolate’ Godfrey, who was a great contender in the 1880s and 90s. Unfortunately, Godfrey would be as much a victim of his colour as was his namesake, ‘Old Chocolate.’ For much of his career he was trained by Jack Blackburn, the famed ex-lightweight contender, who would later train Joe Louis.

Godfrey's official career started in 1919, at the age of 22, but it is likely that he had fights previous, but have not been recorded.  His career really started in earnest after he met up with the legendary Sam Langford, who then took him on as a sparring partner. Godfrey then accompanied Langford  in his travels, for a number of months, as Langford continued to take on all-comers. Godfrey's official record tells us that he would fight Langford for real in just his second professional contest, and hold his employer to a draw.  Godfrey would carry on fighting top liners for the rest of his career.  At least the top fighters who would face him.  No reigning world champion would ever put his title on the line against Godfrey. Interestingly, Jack Dempsey, who would spend his whole title reign avoiding Sam Langford and Harry Wills, did not draw the colour line when it came to sparring partners, and took on Godfrey as a sparring partner when he was getting ready to defend his world heavyweight title against Tommy Gibbons.  However, Godfrey is rumored to have floored or even koed Dempsey during one sparring session, and his services were quickly canceled, with the official line being that Godfrey had injured his ribs.

Despite the colour bar, which Godfrey had to deal with throughout his career, his record still holds an impressive list of the many of the top heavyweights, both black and white, of the 20s and 30s.  Including men like Bill Tate, Jack Renault, Tut Jackson, Fred Fulton, ‘Tiny’ Jim Herman, Jack Sharkey, Larry Gains, ‘Bearcat’ Wright, Jack Roper, Jim Maloney, Paulino Uzcudun, Johnny Risko, Primo Carnera, Seal Harris, Jack Gross, Tiger Jack Fox, Obie Walker, and Pierre Charles.

One of the reasons why many of these fighters agreed to fight Godfrey was due to the fact that he was such a draw with the fans, because of his size and his ability.  Boxing fans were both thrilled and fascinated with him. Indeed, when he traveled to Europe to fight he was a sensation.  For this reason, Godfrey's opponents were well paid when they got into the ring with him, due to him being such a big draw. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Godfrey, despite the fact that during his career he should have earned a fortune. Unfortunately Godfrey's manager, Jimmy 'Baron' Dougherty, who handled all his business and booked his fights for him, saw Godfrey as a meal ticket before anything else, and took full advantage of Godfrey's lack of formal education, and the ability to either read or write.

Godfrey won the World ‘Coloured’ Heavyweight title on November 8, 1926, when he stopped Larry Gains in 6 rounds. He would hold this title until August 15, 1928, when he lost to Larry Gains in 3 rounds on a disqualification. In February 1931 he would win the vacant Mexican Heavyweight title against Ricardo Rosel and held it until June 1932 when he vacated it. Godfrey regained the World ‘Coloured’ Heavyweight title on August 24, 1931, when he knocked out Seal Harris in the 2nd round.  Godfrey’s 2nd reign lasted until October 9, 1931, when he was out-pointed over 10 rounds by Obie Walker.

In the early 30s, as his boxing career began to wane, Godfrey took up wrestling to supplement his boxing career, and at times would feature on mixed wrestling and boxing shows, and would feature in a wrestling match and then a boxing match on the same night.  Godfrey also took part in some films in the early 30s, and received much praise for his performances. 

Godfrey won another version of world title on October 2, 1935, when he beat Pierre Charles for the IBU World heavyweight title on points over 15 rounds. Godfrey never defended this title after he was stripped by the IBU for not paying his sanctioning fee.

In his last fight on August 10, 1937, he lost to Hank Hankinson on a 8th round stoppage.  Godfrey retired with a final record of (99-21-2, 81koes.)

Unfortunately retirement was not kind to George Godfrey, as he began suffering from ill health. He suffered a stroke in 1938, and was also troubled by heart and kidney aliments. In addition to this, Godfrey was also nearly penniless, having been mercilessly ripped off by his own manager. What little he had been given of his earnings was long gone. When he was well enough Godfrey made ends meet by working odd jobs, such as working as a bouncer at night clubs, while living in a tiny hotel room.

George Godfrey died of heart disease on August 13, 1947, at the age of 50.

Looking beyond his 'handcuffed' performances, it is safe to say Godfrey's true ability would have seen him will the World heavyweight title had he been granted a shot during his prime. 

Ring Magazine named Godfrey in their top 100 punchers list in 2003 and in 2007, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved.

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