Updated: Oct 9, 2020
That there ever was a need to have something called “The World Colored Heavyweight Championship” speaks to the troubled past of the USA. It’s as distasteful now as it was then – perhaps moreso – but it’s also an indelible part of boxing history and ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away
I thought it wise that we pay some homage to these fine men and fighters, whose achievements fade further into oblivion with each passing year. I chose to write about Morris Grant first because his story is such a compelling one.#
Born into slavery on James Island, South Carolina, in 1845, there was little about Grant’s childhood that hinted as to what he would achieve as a man. That the poverty into which he was born was abject, barely needs mentioning. Yet it was that same poverty – or more accurately, Morris’s desire to escape it, that would be his motivation to pick up.boxing. And so he did.
Grant’s problem was that he wasn’t very good – at all! He was big. He was strong. He was brave. But he couldn’t fight a lick. He got his start in the game when a promoter noticed him working as a bouncer. He thought he saw potential in Morris. He was wrong. Throwing fisticuffs with a drunk patron at some seedy bar in The Bronx was an entirely different animal from fighting a trained pugilist who was every bit as desperate and hungry as Grant was. Morris lost almost every fight.
But fate has a funny way of rewarding those who never give up. In 1878, Grant entered a Police Gazette boxing tournament for “colored’s”. The Police Gazette, first published in 1845, was the first “men’s lifestyle” type magazine. It also had overtones of a classic gossip rag, and was quickly anointed a “favourite” among the in-crowd of the day.
As there was little to no formal regulation of boxing at the time, organizations of all sorts were free to hold boxing tournaments and bestow pretty much any title they wanted to, on the eventual winners. It was in this environment that Morris Grant fought in, and won, the Police Gazette tournament of 1878. As his hands were raised in victory over the only man he faced, Grant was probably more surprised than anyone to hear that he was now the “World Colored Heavyweight Champion.”
Grant’s reign would be rather short-lived. He lost his title in his first defence against Charles “The Professor” Hadley. In point of fact, Grant would fight Hadley an astonishing twelve times, losing a total of ten. Even more galling? Morris’ registered career record was 5-10-1 (2KO’s), making him the only fighter with more than three losses in his career where all the documented losses were to the same opponent. Some historians though have listed his “unofficial” record at 15-48-5. Regardless, he was obviously not very accomplished in the squared circle.
While there’s no film of Grant, there is one rather a well-written account of one of his few wins, against a Mr White of Philadelphia. The description of Grant’s physique is really quite startling. Grant was 6′ 1″ tall and about 185 lbs. But in the ring, he appeared to be only about 5′ 9″ because his legs were so compromised by rheumatoid arthritis. Standing straight was out of the question. Ironically, this leg problem led to awkwardness in the ring that a few of his opponents found tricky.
His fighting style was something along the lines of the pullets used in cock-fighting. He moved his noticeably small head in the same odd pecking motion of barnyard fowl. His footwork was described as “herky-jerky” and his overall demeanour was often labelled as “clownish.” He had virtually no power, as might be expected of a man whose legs never allowed him to turn into a punch. Morris Grant was certainly an entertainer, but a boxer? The jury remains out.
What he definitely was though, was a pioneer. And it’s in this that we can find both this man’s greatness and his humanity. Morris Grant and the other early “coloured champions” paved the way for Jack Johnson – and every fighter of colour since. They changed the way society looked at black athletes. They quietly “forced” the integration of boxing. Their courage in – and even more so, out – of the ring, was nothing short of legendary.
Men like Grant would fight, win, then vanish; only to turn up deceased a few days later, the victims of promoters who would rather have them killed than pay them, or of some gangster who had bet a wad on them and lost because they refused to lie down in the chosen round.
They weren’t welcome in very many hotels and often fought hungry because most eating establishments wouldn’t serve them. Their trainer was also often their manager, travel agent, and cutman all rolled into one. Even when things went “right,” they were really “wrong” in the sense that they were paid a pittance and treated like “the help.”
Despite this, men like Morris Grant persevered. Some (many?) will argue that it was because they had few other if any, prospects. But in my opinion, that’s too simplistic a view. I believe they continued because at their core, they had a belief, a knowledge, that they were as good as any man, as deserving of respect and recognition as any man – regardless of colour – and they were bound and determined to prove it; not to themselves, they already knew who they were; but to a world that had always treated them as second class citizens.
Morris Grant might not have been a very good boxer, but he was a very brave man. It is in this bravery, this courage, that we find his championship mettle. The second World Coloured Heavyweight Champion maybe couldn’t box; but he fought and won a much bigger fight – the fight for recognition and respect. For this alone, Morris Grant deserves our undying respect.