The blacker they are, the harder they fall

John Sutherland on ringside racism, Regency style; Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

An African-American heavyweight boxer is dying. Once "the Greatest", he has taken the one-way ticket to Palookaville: broken-down and broke, an empty husk of the supreme athlete who once floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, the dark destroyer.

Who is it: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali or Iron Mike Tyson, 10 years after his last judgement day with Evander Holyfield? No, it is Tom Molineaux, the "Black Ajax", the American ex- slave and "uppity nigger" who came from America in 1811 to challenge the nonpareil champion of all-England, the darling of the Regency bucks, Tom Cribb, to two bare-knuckle contests.

George MacDonald Fraser has set himself a tricky problem as a historical novelist. Anyone who knows the history of boxing knows that Molineaux did not pull it off. He was thrashed in a gruelling 34-rounder. (Rounds were marked by one of the contestants being put on the ground. The contest went on until one fighter failed to "come up to scratch", a line drawn in the middle of the "ring" of spectators). In a rematch in front of 20,000 spectators (a quarter of whom were "nobility"), Cribb disposed of Molineaux in a mere 20 minutes.

The American died four years later of dissipation and disappointment. How can the novelist create any suspense out of these historical facts? Fraser does not try. Before becoming a novelist relatively late in life, with Flashman, he was a journalist on the Glasgow Herald. Fraser poses Black Ajax as a journalistic investigation. The novel takes the form of 16 eye-witness "reports". Some are from fictional characters (such as Molineaux's mulatto lover, "Mollybird"). Others are literary - William Hazlitt and Pierce Egan, notably. Still others - such as the Prince Regent himself - are historical voices. As always, Fraser's command of period slang is wonderfully convincing (and, as a glossary indicates, scrupulously researched).

For devoted Fraserians a particular interest attaches to the testimony of Buckley ("Mad Buck") Flashman, Flashie's father. Molineaux's downfall is precipitated by his offending this wicked old man, who has all his son's vices without the self-mockery.

The unknown reporter's investigation establishes that Molineaux in fact won the first contest and Cribb was saved (like Gene Tunney against Dempsey) by a dishonest "long count". The chronicles I have looked at record that the Bristol battler won it fair and square, both times. More persuasively, Fraser's reporter narrates how, like many black athletes since, Molineaux was spoiled by early success. He ruins his condition with drink, doxies and the flattery of hangers-on. Molineaux, the stronger and cleverer fighter, should have won, but threw it away.

This relates to the most interesting feature of Black Ajax: its analysis of the complex relationship between white spectators and black athletes. Molineaux's worldly-wise black trainer enlightens his fighter as to the treacherousness of his English fans: "They love their fight game, and they invented it, and they think they own it! You think they'll admire to see a sassy loudmouth nigger take it away from them ...? A black man, Champion of England?"

Black Ajax ventures into that currently most undiscussable of topics, black-white race relations. Not surprisingly (although it seems to have surprised Fraser) a plan to dramatise the novel for the American screen fell through; the subject was too sensitive. Fraser's Molineaux is not a comforting black athlete (like, for example, our beloved Frank Bruno) but, as his trainer says, a sassy, loudmouth nigger: a predecessor of Ali and Dennis Rodman, the in-your-face black basketball player with the violently dyed hair and the off-court habit (when not dating Madonna) of wearing dresses.

In their hearts, white spectators do not like to see rebellious black athletes win, and crave their comeuppance - think of the glee with which sections of the press reported Linford Christie's humiliation in Atlanta. Like everything Fraser writes, Black Ajax is addictively readable. But it is also the first of his novels that can be termed genuinely disturbing.

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