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Jacovacci, Leone (1902–1983)

"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
Afro-Italian boxing champion Leone Jacovacci (a.k.a. John Douglas Walker and Jack Walker) was born in 1902 in the village of Pombo in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), the son of Umberto Jacovacci, a contracted Italian agronomist, and Zibu Mabeta, a local woman. His father took him to Italy to be raised by grandparents in Viterbo while he remained in Africa and had two more children with Zibu. Growing up with brown skin among Italian peasants was often challenging, and, as a restless sixteen-year-old, Leone Jacovacci, posing as an Indian from Calcutta, hopped aboard a British merchant ship docked in Naples to work as cabin boy.

After experiencing a shipwreck and rescue, he eventually landed in England. There he reinvented himself as John Douglas Walker, added a couple of years to his age, and enlisted in the 53rd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment of the British Army. Upon his discharge, he took up amateur boxing in rough London neighborhoods. Though successful, after one particularly disappointing defeat, he moved to France where he had a string of twenty-five consecutive victories. In 1922 he returned to Italy, pretending to be an American named Jack Walker until he found it too burdensome to maintain the fake persona (he occasionally slipped and spoke fluent Italian). His surprising confession in 1925 that he was Italian presented complications in a nation now controlled by Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF).

At the time, cycling and boxing were the most popular sports in Italy, and for two years, Jacovacci defeated every boxer he faced except for Mario Bosisio whose controversial victory over him forced a rematch with Jacovacci, organized by National Fascist Party which the Afro-Italian fighter won on July 24, 1928, at the National Stadium in Rome. Sitting in the audience and at ringside to watch Jacovacci’s unexpected victory were the proto-fascist writer Gabriele D'Annunzio, Edda Mussolini (daughter of dictator Benito Mussolini), and high-ranking government officials. After splitting the chin and defeating Bosisio, Jacovacci became both the Italian and European middleweight champion, a development that further enraged the racist fascists. Although Jacovacci tried to ingratiate himself with the government by joining the National Fascist Party, many officials remained chagrined that an Afro-Italian was the premier boxer in the nation.

Shortly after beating Bosisio, Jacovacci suffered a detached retina and eventually lost his boxing titles. He tried to disguise his disability, took up wrestling for a few years, moved to France, and only occasionally returned by special invitation to box in Italy. Just prior to Nazi troops entering Paris in 1940, he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim his British identity to exit France. Trapped there for the duration of World War II, his female companion, Berthe Salmon, changed her surname to Roquet to avoid being identified as Jewish and gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Nicole. As the Nazis were being pushed out of Italy in 1944, Jacovacci was finally allowed reenlist in the British Army. He returned to Italy after the war and for a time worked for the newly-formed United Nations where he assisted refugees. Later he was employed in the Italian film industry as a bit actor, but in his old age he was forced to work as an apartment doorman and janitor. Leone Jacovacci died of heart disease in Milan on November 16, 1983.

Sources:
Mauro Valeri, Nero di Roma: storia di Leone Jacovacci: l'invincibile mulatto italico. (Rome: Palombi, 2008); https://sportallarovescia.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/in-memoria-di-leone-jacovacci/; http://insorgenze.net/2009/07/04/leone-jacovacci-il-nero-che-prese-a-pugni-il-fascismo/.

Contributor(s):
Fikes, Robert
San Diego State University

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