Editor's Note: Today our resident boxing expert brings us the story of a very unusual match which took place at the Orchard exactly seventy-nine years ago, on July 31st, 1931.
George Godfrey possessed every attribute necessary to become heavyweight champion of the world except the proper skin tone. So even though he beat plenty of other contenders, he never got the chance to fight for the big enchilada himself because after Jack Johnson the people running boxing weren't about to go through that again.
Johnson, the first African-American to win the title, reigned from 1908-'15, and was hated for that, for the ease with which he bowled over the White Hopes sent up against him, plus his very public fondness for fast cars and white women.
John L. Sullivan, the first modern-era heavyweight champ, was a drunken blowhard, but that didn't bother many back when the heavyweight champion of the world was as exalted a figure as the President of the United States. It was considered a sign of Sullivan's true moral character that he refused to risk his title against black Australian Peter Jackson, and when his successors also drew the "color line" against black contenders they were cheered for it as fervently as Tommy Burns was condemned for fighting Johnson and losing to him.
After Jess Willard unhorsed Johnson in 1915, the heavyweight championship of the world was again made off-limits to black fighters for another 22 years.
Shut out of title consideration, they had their own "colored championship," and in the late 1920s it belonged to George Godfrey.
"He was a legendary fighter, a most fearsome man," wrote Larry Gains, another famed black fighter of that time. "With the possible exception of (Jack) Dempsey, he was the best and most destructive heavyweight in the world. He was so powerful that he didn't just beat men, he ruined them. It came to the point where no white man would fight him, unless the handcuffs were on."
The handcuffs were on in 1930 when the 6'4", 230-pound Godfrey was matched with Primo Carnera, the Italian giant being steered to the world title by his mobster handlers in a series of blatantly fixed fights. In the February, 1948 issue of Sport magazine, Jack Sher wrote that Godfrey "had a terrible time losing to Primo. It was almost impossible for this boy to fight badly enough for the huge Italian even to hit him! He finally solved the dilemma by fouling Primo in the fifth round.
"After the fight, several suspicious reporters came into Godfrey's dressing room and began to ask how hard Primo could hit. 'Hit?' the large Negro grinned, 'That fellow couldn't hurt my baby sister.' The reporters began to laugh and then into the room walked several of the gentlefolk" — mobsters — "who were handling Carnera. Godfrey's face changed. 'That white boy sure has some punch,' Big George said quickly. 'I thought the house had fallen in on me a couple times there.'"
Whether Godfrey was the "colored heavyweight champion" when he stepped into the ring at Borchert Field on July 31, 1931 isn't certain. It didn't make any difference, though, because he wasn't wearing boxing gloves. Tired of the runaround he got in boxing, Big George was now a wrestler.
Wrestling was popular in Milwaukee, and the reigning local idol and Godfey's opponent at Borchert Field was Ernst "Ernie" Scharpegge, about 6'4" and 230 pounds, whose losing match against heavyweight champion Gus Sonnenberg a year earlier had sold out the Auditorium.
About 1,500 fans were at Borchert Field for what the Wisconsin News called "one of the worst, and yet one of the most exciting, grin and grunt affairs in Milwaukee."
On the eve of the match it sounded like Big George wasn't quite reconciled to his new profession.
"There is nothing that would suit me better than to have one of those big beef artists use the wrestling holds and let me punch him full of holes," he told the Wisconsin News.
But when the match started he managed to refrain from reverting to old habits. After 10 minutes of grappling, Scharpegge won the first fall with a crotch hold and body slam.
When the best two-out-of-three falls match resumed, it was Scharpegge who resorted to fisticuffs after Godfrey got him in a strangle hold, punching George in the stomach and chin. Godfrey retaliated with a right that sent Scharpegge to the mat.
At that point, more than 12 uniformed policemen rushed into the ring and surrounded Godfrey. As the bell rang and the crowd started to boo, "It looked like the start of riot," reported Ronald McIntyre of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
But then Scharpegge and Godfrey shook hands and the match resumed. Within moments, Scharpegge took another swing at Godfrey, and when the referee objected he took a swing at him. The cops rushed back into the ring, and Scharpegge took a few of them on, too.
The result was a win by disqualification for Godfrey ("whose forbearance," wrote "English 'Arry" in the Wisconsin News, "proved that a white heart beats beneath an ebony exterior"), and a column in the Milwaukee Sentinel the next day by Ronald McIntyre blasting promoter Tom Andrews for making the "sad mistake" of pitting a white man against a black man in the ring.
"He might have known that the chances were about 10 to 1 it would end up the way it did -- in a near riot," wrote McIntyre, who oddly blamed Godfrey even though Scharpegge tossed the first punch.
"If Andrews had stopped to consider the possibilities of a Godfrey-Scharpegge match, he might have realized its shortcomings. In the first place, Godfrey cannot wrestle, and in the second place, he cannot get away with the rough tactics Scharpegge might get away with in a match with a Sonnenberg or a McCoy.
"Because he knew little or nothing about wrestling holds, Godfrey had a stranglehold on Scharpegge's Adam's apple most of the time after the first fall. This goaded Ernst into action and he got rough… When the punching started, Godfrey might just as well have quit for he realized that if he started slugging, a race riot might have ensued."
From the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 1, 1931
Since apparently he was going to get belted in the ring no matter what, Godfrey returned to boxing. In 1935, he even won recognition as heavyweight champion by an obscure European outfit called the International Boxing Union.
"Godfrey has had a remarkable career," wrote columnist John Lardner. "Like most negroes who devote their spare time to fisticuffs, he has been a magnificent but erratic fighter. If I had George in his prime, and were sure that he meant business, I would back him to beat the Joe Louis of today. He was bigger, faster and wiser than Louis, and he carried a knockout punch in both hands.
"But George was an employee at heart. When the evening's program called for him to lose by foul, knockout, or decision, he did so. He was satisfied to do so, provided he received his ration of pork chops after the entertainment. George made a bum out of our national pork supply. He also made a bum out of himself."
That was a pretty harsh judgment about a fighter whose race and not his appetite rendered him "an employee at heart." Harsher still was the end for Big George. At age 50, he "died in poverty in his dingy little room" in Los Angeles on August 13, 1947, reported the Associated Press, "with only his large black dog by his side."