George Godfrey, boxer (born 20 March 1853 in Charlottetown, PEI; died 18 October 1901 in Revere, Massachusetts). George Godfrey was a successful Black Canadian boxer who began his career at the age of 26. He won the World Colored Heavyweight championship in 1883 and held the title for five years. Godfrey retired in 1896 after competing in over 100 fights. He was the first of many great Black Canadian boxers from the Maritimes; others included George Dixon and Sam Langford. Godfrey was inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
George Godfrey was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, one of eight children of William Godfrey, a labourer, and Sarah (née Byers). The family lived in an impoverished area in the city’s west end known as the Bog. It was a settlement of formerly enslaved people who had been brought to British North America after the American Revolutionary War. When Godfrey was still a toddler, his father stole a cow to provide milk for the family. He was caught and convicted of petty larceny and spent a short time in jail.
Godfrey took to fighting from a young age. Like many Black Canadians in the Bog, he was subjected to bullying and racist taunts. But he quickly gained a reputation for balancing a calm demeanor with a ready willingness to fight. He took his first boxing lessons in Charlottetown under the instruction of local boxer Dick Cronin.
Early Boxing Career
In 1870, around the age of 18, Godfrey moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he found a job as a porter for textile warehouses. He continued to hone his boxing skills and trained at Professor Bailey’s Hub City Gym.
It was not until age 26 that Godfrey competed in his first bout, a bare-knuckle match in Boston, versus Joe Doherty on 15 March 1879. Godfrey won via knockout.
At five feet ten and 175 pounds, Godfrey was undersized for a heavyweight. Under today’s classifications, he would be a light heavyweight. Despite his relative old age and small stature, he was an immediate success in the ring. Given the nickname “Old Chocolate,” Godfrey went undefeated through his first seven matches, earning him a shot at the World Colored Heavyweight title.
On 23 February 1883 at Boston’s Cribb Hall, Godfrey defeated the heavily favoured Charles Hadley in six rounds to become the champion. Boxer Billy Edwards is said to have attributed Godfrey’s victory to “skillful [ring] generalship, undoubted courage, and more than ordinary [ring] science.”
Although Godfrey competed against both Black and White fighters, racial segregation in boxing at the time prevented him from competing for championships against White fighters. Godfrey famously pursued a match with local Boston legend John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy.”
Sullivan, who notoriously dodged matches against Black opponents, is believed to have agreed to face Godfrey at the Bailey Gym in Boston in September 1881. But as the story goes, local police intervened before either could throw a punch. He and Sullivan never did face each other. Yet the alleged incident earned Godfrey a degree of fame and opened the door to matches against some of the world’s top fighters.
Godfrey went on to compete in over 100 bouts, including against such notable figures as Denver Ed Smith, McHenry Johnson, Jake Kilrain (their bout lasted 44 rounds) and the legendary Australian heavyweight, Peter Jackson.
Loss to Peter Jackson
Godfrey was 36 years old at the time of the Jackson fight and had held the heavyweight title for five years. The two met on 24 August 1888 at the California Athletic Club in San Francisco and put on a show. Godfrey went toe to toe with Jackson, who was nine years younger, three inches taller and at least 20 pounds heavier. But in the 19th round, Jackson delivered a knockout blow to end the match.
Godfrey retired at age 43 following a draw against Nick Burley at the Music Hall in Boston on 5 March 1896.
Between 1919 and 1937, another Black heavyweight boxer — Feab Smith Williams of Leiperville, Pennsylvania — fought under the name George Godfrey.
As his boxing career wound down, Godfrey invested in property in the Boston area and operated a boxing school and gymnasium. He and his wife, Clara Jane Forbes, had six children and settled in Revere, Massachusetts, about 8 km outside of Boston.
Godfrey died of tuberculosis on 18 October 1901 at the age of 48. He was inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in 1990.