Leone Jacovacci (a.k.a. John Douglas Walker and Jack Walker) was born in 1902 in the village of Pombo in the then Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), the son of an Italian man and a Congolese woman. He was raised in Italy which was rough for him, given that he was bi-racial, and as a result, in his late teens, found himself in England where 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.
After being discharged, he took up amateur boxing and was mostly successful, bouncing between England and France, racking up 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 that was then ruled by Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.
He continued boxing, and for two years, under his real name, Jacovacci won just about every match, becoming both the Italian and European middleweight champion – a development that further enraged Italy’s racist fascists. Although Jacovacci worked to ingratiate himself with the government by joining the National Fascist Party, many officials hated the fact that an Afro-Italian was the nation’s top boxer.
A detached retina (a result of an illegal punch during one of his matches) would eventually end his boxing career.
He would move between Italy, France and the UK during the next several years, taking up wrestling, and even still occasionally boxing, despite his disability, which he tried to disguise. Living in France during World War II, he would have a child (a daughter named Nicole) with a Jewish woman named Berthe Salmon, which presented significant problems for them under Nazi persecution.
After the war, Jacovacci returned to Italy and took a job at what was then the newly-formed United Nations, where he worked helping refugees. He would also enter the Italian film industry, and worked briefly as a bit actor.
He would eventually die in Milan in November 1983 from heart disease, after spending his latter years working as a doorman and janitor.
A documentary on Jacovacci’s life, titled “The Duce’s Boxer” (“Il pugile del duce”), is being shown in Italian cinemas this month, to finally honor the man, his life and his contributions.
According to London’s Sunday Times (in an article titled “Honour for black boxer who took a swing at fascism”), a preview of the documentary was screened in Rome last week, with the British embassy staff in attendance.
“He became a hero to Romans who resented that all Italian boxers came from Milan, and that popularity saved him from the racist disapproval of Mussolini’s fascist government,” said Mauro Valeri, who has written a book on Jacovacci titled “Black Roman.”
“Hundreds would pay just to see him train in Rome, and schoolchildren sang songs about him,” he added. “The regime cancelled him from memory.”
And that apparently almost worked, as he was stripped of his titles and, after the war, drifted into obscurity until his death; although he lived a relatively long life. And this documentary will serve to revitalize his memory and ensure his legacy.
“It made me proud to hear that he started to box in the British Army,” said Ken O’Flaherty, the UK’s deputy head of mission in Italy. “It sends a message about British openness that still resonates today.”
There’s very little English-language coverage of the documentary online at this time; other than the above news of its premiere in Italian cinemas this month. But that will likely change in coming weeks/months. We’ll keep our antennae on alert for any future updates. Jacovacci does have an IMDB page with just one acting credit on it – a 1954 Italian film titled “Era lei che lo voleva!”
A teaser and poster for “The Duce’s Boxer” (“Il pugile del duce”) are embedded below: