Blog post

Leone Jacovacci: the Afro-Italian boxer who faced fascism

Italian boxing champion in the 1920s

black and white photograph showing two boxers throwing punches
by
Marijke Everts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Born in Sanza Pombo in Belgian Congo (now in Angola), Leone Jacovacci was the son of an Italian engineer working for a Belgian company and a Congolese princess. At the young age of three, his father took him away to be raised in Italy by his grandparents.

Growing up, he faced a lot of racial prejudice, so, aged sixteen, he left Italy on a British Merchant ship. He headed to England, disguised as an Indian from Calcutta and worked as a cabin boy.

In London, having adopted a new name - John Douglas Walker - to make life easier, he enlisted in the British Army. After being discharged, he took up boxing in London, becoming a professional boxer in 1919 under the name Jack Walker. That name was a homage to the American champion Jack Dempsey.

He was successful in England but, in 1921, after a defeat to Ronald Todd, he moved to France where he fought 21 times, with 14 wins and one draw.

In 1922, he returned to Italy where he still pretended to be an American named Jack Walker - he struggled to maintain this due to slip-ups in speaking fluent Italian. He fought the Italian middleweight champion Bruno Frattini, but was defeated. He then returned to France and fought another 46 matches, with two in Switzerland and three in Argentina.

In 1925, he settled back in Italy. He then confessed that he was Italian, wanting his citizenship recognised. This proved to be complicated due to Italy’s Nationalist Fascist Party.

Boxing and cycling were the most popular sports in Italy at the time. For the two years he was back in Italy, he had beaten every boxer he had faced until his match with national champion Mario Bosisio in October 1927.

Jacovacci won the match on points, but the verdict was reduced which meant that Bosisio kept his title. In June 1928, in a rematch with Bosisio at the National Stadium in Rome, Jacovacci won points in 15 rounds and managed to win both National champion and European middleweight champion belts.

Proto-Fascist writer Gabriele D’Annuzio, Edna Mussolini (daughter of dictator Benito Mussolini) and government officials were in the audience for this match. His win angered the fascists and, though he tried to integrate himself through joining the National Fascist Party, he suffered from the regime’s ostracism who were displeased that an Afro-Italian was the national champion.

After beating Bosisio, Jacovacci suffered from a detached retina and lost his boxing titles. He took up wrestling for some years, trying to disguise his disability, moved back to France and would return occasionally to Italy on special boxing invitations.

During the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, he tried to leave the country by reclaiming his British identity but was unsuccessful. He remained trapped in France throughout World War II. His partner Berthe Salmon changed her surname to Roquet to avoid being identified as Jewish, giving birth to their daughter Nicole.

Once the Nazi’s were being pushed out of Italy in 1944, Jacovacci was able to re-inlist in the British Army. He returned to Italy after the war and worked for a period of time for the newly formed United Nations and assisted refugees.

He later had minor acting parts in the Italian film industry, then worked as an apartment doorman and janitor to earn some money in his old age. On November 16, 1983, he died of heart disease in Milan.

His life’s story is told in an Italian documentary called Il Pugile del Duce - The Duce’s Boxer in 2017 by Director Tony Saccucci.


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