Remembering 'fight of the century': how boxing helped fight racism

A young Muhammad Ali.
A young Muhammad Ali.
Image: Supplied

Too little recognition is given to the sport of boxing, yet a number of yesteryear boxers such as Muhammad Ali, Mpush “Lion King” Makambi and Jack Johnson put their lives at risk of being assassinated for taking a stand against racism. 

Ali refused to go and drop bombs and kill “brown people” in Vietnam when the US government treated “Negros” in Louisville, where he was born, like dogs and denied them human rights.  

Ali was stripped of his world boxing title and banned for three years.

SA's Mpush Makambi with the IBO middleweight belt after beating Adrian Dodson at Bethnal Green in London.
SA's Mpush Makambi with the IBO middleweight belt after beating Adrian Dodson at Bethnal Green in London.
Image: Getty Images

Makambi turned professional in 1983 but put his career on hold and joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) which deployed him to its military wing‚ the Azanian People's Liberation Army (Apla).  

The Lion King was shot in the leg after a skirmish with the South African Defence Force (SADF) on the Botswana border and crawled to a nearby village where the Botswana army got to him before the SADF. 

He went into exile in the US where he resumed his boxing career and after the unbanning of liberation movements in February 1990‚ returned home to Mdantsane and continued boxing to win the South African junior middleweight belt in 1994. 

“My involvement with Apla scared people off‚ especially white promoters‚” said Makambi who retired in 2007. 

“I do not regret having joined the PAC because we wanted to change the country’s political landscape.”  

Today marks the anniversary of “The fight of the century” between the first African American world heavyweight champion Johnson and James Jeffries, which took place in front of 20,000 fans at a ring built for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada, on July 4 1910, which is US Independence Day. 

It was one of the most eagerly anticipated boxing matches, with betting odds significantly favouring Jeffries who had come back from retirement for that fight. 

Jeffries was the chosen representative of the whites and the New York Times editorial wrote: “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.” 

Johnson stopped Jeffries in the 15th round, about one hour after the fight began. Jeffries fell three times to Johnson's punches and was being counted out. 

That fight earned Johnson $65,000.  

A black man was the undisputed world champion. 

The outcome triggered race riots across the US, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, St Louis, Little Rock and Houston. 

Riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities.  

It was reported 20 people were killed and hundreds more injured. 

That was because Johnson's victory had dashed white dreams of finding a “great white hope” to defeat him. 

Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries while blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant and celebrated Johnson's great victory and viewed it as victory for racial advancement.


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