On June 14th The Italian Cultural Institute in Belgravia hosted a screening of this documentary about a little known black Italian boxer called Leone Jacovacci who lived for a while in London, adopting the English name John Douglas Walker while he pursued his fighting career. He actually first started to box in the British Army when he enlisted with the 53rd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. His life was remarkable because in 1928 he fought in an all Italian European Championship fight against a Mussolini-backed fighter.
Comparisons can be drawn with another fight a decade later when black American boxer Joe Louis beat Hitler-backed Max Schmeling, again upsetting the right wing racial politics leading up to the Second World War. But Louis was a household name before and after his win while Jacovacci’s victory was removed from the record books by Italian historians acting under Fascist orders. He was also stripped of his titles.
Directed by Tony Saccucci, it is based on a book called the Black Roman by Mauro Valeri who headed Italy’s National Xenophobia Observatory. The Jacovacci story begins in 1909 when he and his brother emigrate with their white Italian father to Rome from their birthplace of Pombo in the Belgian Congo. Jacovacci’s father had married the daughter of a local chieftain but the two children were never to see their mother again.
Archive footage from the Instituto Luce (the Italian state film institution) show the events leading up to the historic bout in Rome’s National Stadium before 40,000 fans. Also, his family gave permission for photos, notebooks and other personal items to be used, with his now middle-aged daughter Nicole appearing before the cameras to honour his memory. Former WBO cruiserweight champion boxer-turned Sky Sports presenter Johnny Nelson was in attendance to sum up this achievement before the director took the stage for a Q & A..