Tiger Flowers (1895-1927)
In 1926 Theodore "Tiger" Flowers became the first black boxer to capture the world middleweight championship. He was the first African American after Jack Johnson to challenge for a world title. Flowers helped to reform the image of black prizefighters, prefiguring the great Joe Louis with his ability to garner broad support among both whites and blacks.
Flowers was born in Camilla, in Mitchell County, in 1895 and moved with his family to Brunswick as an infant. After working as a stevedore on the Georgia coast, Flowers temporarily relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he took up boxing. It was only after his move to Atlanta around 1920, however, that he started training seriously, with manager Walk Miller. Over the next six years this lightning-quick lefthander competed all over the country in a grueling ascent to the top of the boxing ranks. Flowers combined showmanship inside the ropes with a public persona characterized by sobriety and religious devotion (he carried a Bible into the ring for each fight). So evident were these qualities, Flowers became known as "the Georgia Deacon." His unthreatening behavior helped to expunge the memory of the more inflammatory Jack Johnson.
Flowers finally earned an official challenge against the world middleweight champion, Harry Greb, in February 1926, winning the title and then defending it in a closely fought rematch. Yet his glory was brief. In December 1926 he lost to Mickey Walker in Chicago on points. The decision united fans and reporters alike in loud condemnation of the judges and referee, and there were persistent rumors that the bout was fixed by local mobsters.
Less than a year later, in November 1927, at thirty-two years of age, Flowers died while undergoing an operation to remove scar tissue from around his eyes. At the time he was negotiating a return match with Walker. Miller died within a year of his former charge.
Flowers had been an important figure in Atlanta's black community—as a deacon at the Butler Street CME Church and as a member of the Masons, Elks, and Knights of Pythias. His house on Simpson Road was one of the most luxurious in the city. Estimates put the number of mourners, of both races, who filed past the coffin in Atlanta at 75,000. Another 7,000 crammed the City Auditorium to witness a lavish memorial service. Atlanta was not to demonstrate its grief again on anything approaching this scale until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
One poll has ranked Flowers as the number five all-time middleweight boxer. He ended his career with 115 wins, 14 losses, 21 no-decisions, and 6 draws. Flowers was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1976 and elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.