On December 10, 1810, in a muddy field around 25 miles from London, a fight took place that was so dramatic, controversial, and ferocious that it continues to haunt the imagination of boxing more than 200 years later. One of the fighters was the greatest champion of his age, a bareknuckle boxer so tough he reportedly trained by punching the bark off trees. The other was a freed slave, an illiterate African-American who had made the voyage across the Atlantic to seek glory in the ring. Rumors about the match had circulated for weeks, transfixing England. Thousands of fans braved a pounding rain to watch the bout. Some of the first professional sportswriters were on hand to record it.
It was the greatest fight of its era. But its significance went beyond that. Even at the time, it seemed to be about more than boxing, more than sport itself. More than anything, the contest between a white English champion and a black American upstart seemed to be about an urgent question of identity: whether character could be determined in the boxing ring, whether sport could confirm a set of virtues by which a nation defined itself.
The fight cemented a set of stock characters — the fast-talking, ultra-talented, self-destructive black athlete; the Great White Hope; the canny coach who’s half devoted to his pupil and half exploiting him — that have echoed down the centuries.1 In fact, so much about the fight feels familiar today, from the role of race to the role of the media, that if you had to name a date, you could make a good case that December 10, 1810, was the moment sport as we know it began.
In the winter of 1809, a freed American slave named Tom Molineaux arrived in London with the intention of fighting the most famous boxer on earth. Molineaux was 25, penniless, and friendless, a complete stranger to England’s close-knit prizefighting subculture — “unknown, unnoticed, unprotected, and uninformed,” as the 19th-century boxing writer Pierce Egan later wrote. At a muscular 5-foot-8, 200 pounds, Molineaux looked the part of a fighter. But he was a black outsider in a white city, and he was completely alone.
In 1809, Napoleon was the emperor of France, James Madison followed Thomas Jefferson in the White House, and England was the unquestioned center of the pugilistic arts. Prizefighting was illegal, but was followed by a large public, collectively known as “the Fancy,” that comprised fashionable lords, chimneysweeps, dockworkers, prostitutes, gamblers, princes, and pickpockets — the whole giddy mess of Georgian society. Fights were held in fields outside the city, their locations kept secret till the last minute to avoid alerting the magistrates.2 Newspapers wrote up the matches, and the top fighters — men like “Gentleman” John Jackson, Henry “The Game Chicken” Pearce, and Jem Belcher, the Napoleon of the Ring — were a source of national pride. After all, it had been England that developed the tactics and techniques of boxing, the “science” of fighting as opposed to the mere crudity of brawling. England’s boxers were seen as brave, tough, honest embodiments of the Empire’s dauntless spirit.
The king of this mad world was Tom Cribb, the idol of the Fancy and by universal acclamation the champion of England. A former porter on the London wharves, Cribb had battled his way to supremacy with a combination of tactical savvy, punching power, and grim determination. On the wharf, Cribb had once been crushed beneath a 500-pound crate of oranges, coughed blood for days, and then made a full recovery. He was second to none in science, “gluttony” (the slang term for a fighter’s ability to absorb punishment), and “bottom” (a fighter’s stamina and resolve, as in the bottom of a ship).3 In 1807 he upset Jem Belcher in a brutal 41-round match, then leveled the giant Bob Gregson in a bloody fight in 1808. Since crushing Belcher in a rematch in early 1809, the 28-year-old Cribb had gone into semi-retirement — not because his skills had declined but because he was thought to be so invincible that no opponent was worthy to face him.
For an unknown, dark-skinned foreigner like Tom Molineaux to show up demanding to fight Cribb was roughly as viable a plan as for you or me to wander down Bourbon Street demanding to start at quarterback for the Saints. But Molineaux was charismatic, confident to the point of brashness, and an effective, if crude, self-promoter. Calling himself “the champion of America,” he began hanging around the taverns and pubs known to be havens of the Fancy — the Horse & Dolphin on St. Martin’s Lane, Bob’s Chop-House in Holborn — and boasting to an incredulous crowd about what he’d do to the champion of England if he got him in the ring. That was how he met his trainer, and where he found his first stroke of luck.
So little is known about Tom Molineaux’s early life that he looks almost as mysterious to us as he must have appeared to those incredulous English fight fans. He was born, probably in 1784, probably in the South — Virginia is the most commonly cited state, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. He seems to have made it to New York City by around 1804, where he probably took part in the illegal dockside fights at Catherine Market, which may be where he learned about English boxing and heard the name Tom Cribb. Beyond that, the historical record is blank, and biography shades from speculation into fiction. Early versions of Molineaux’s life (including, most likely, Molineaux’s own) were full of embellishments and inventions. Later writers picked these up, sometimes without realizing they were fictions, and then added their own fictions.4 The result is that today, if you look Molineaux up in the encyclopedia, what you’ll find is likely less an authoritative account of the facts than two centuries’ worth of distilled legend.5
The legend goes like this. Tom Molineaux was born into a family of fighting slaves. His father and brothers were all boxers; his father may have been the first prizefighter in America. As a young man, Tom was entered into slave fights, brawls pitting black slaves against one another for the entertainment of their white masters. Before one particularly important fight, Molineaux’s master hired an English sailor to improve his boxing technique, then had him whipped when he didn’t want to learn. Molineaux won the fight. His master won $100,000 betting on him, then granted Molineaux $500, and his freedom, as a reward.
Now fighting for himself, Molineaux headed north. Prizefighting was practically unheard of in America, but he thrashed enough men in New York to make something of a name for himself: This may be where the “champion of America” title came from. The bouts were chaotic, amateur affairs, not much at all like the prize fights in England. A member of the Fancy would have said they were all gluttony and no science. When the sailors on the docks told him about the money and fame someone like Tom Cribb could earn fighting in England, Molineaux started looking for a ship. Then, as Pierce Egan wrote, he “left his native soil in quest of glory and renown.”6
The most important person in Tom Molineaux’s life, apart from Cribb himself, was an older fighter named Bill Richmond, whom he met shortly after his swaggering arrival in London. Richmond, whose fighting sobriquet was “the Black Terror,” was one of the most colorful characters of the entire nineteenth century. Like Molineaux, he had been born a slave in America. As a boy during the Revolutionary War, he came to the attention of Hugh Percy, an English officer and the future Duke of Northumberland, who saw him fighting a group of redcoats who were tormenting him in a stableyard. Percy took him on as a servant. At 13, Richmond was reportedly given the task of securing the noose around Nathan Hale’s neck.7 When Percy resigned from the army in 1777, he brought Richmond with him to England. There, the young man educated himself, adopted English manners, and — partly to defend himself against racial insults8 — took an interest in boxing.
A welterweight by today’s reckoning, Richmond was too small to be an obvious threat during a time when boxers weren’t divided by weight class. Instead, the Black Terror relied on intelligence, defense, and footwork to defeat fighters who outweighed him by 40 and 50 pounds. In 1805, in his early 40s, he brought all his science to bear in a hopeless fight against the 24-year-old Tom Cribb. Richmond lasted 90 minutes. A proud man, he seems to have resented the defeat and longed for some way to avenge it.9 He retired from the prize ring, opened the Horse & Dolphin pub, and started a respected fighting academy.
Temperamentally, Richmond and Molineaux could hardly have been more different. Richmond was cool, self-possessed, and polished: He was a brilliant gambler.10 Molineaux was loud, headstrong, and uneducated. But they were both outsiders in a cold country, and Richmond saw right away that Molineaux was strong enough to hurt the champion if he could only be taught how to box. Eternally practical, Richmond must also have grasped the potential of this exotic new arrival to make him money.
He decided to take the younger fighter under his wing. To see what he had to work with, he arranged Molineaux’s first fight against a proper English opponent.
In early 19th-century England, the culture of sport was undergoing a rapid transformation. Sport was becoming a mass entertainment on a national scale. Athletes were now celebrities, covered by a dedicated professional media.11 Important contests were preceded by something like modern hype.
Most important, sport was turning into something that could reflect the larger social questions of the day. One of the major anxieties that shows up again and again in the English sportswriting of the era is whether sport weakens society or makes it stronger. Is there some innate connection between winning an athletic contest and moral virtue? Do the qualities that matter in the ring pass themselves on to spectators? What exactly are we getting out of this? Why do we like it so much?12
One of sport’s most articulate defenders was Pierce Egan, arguably the most important early sportswriter working in English. Egan’s writing in the Weekly Despatch — and later in his own journal, Boxiana — was for many years the semi-official voice of the Fancy. The excitement his columns generated, with their vivid slang and colorful depictions of life around the ring, helped to establish boxing as England’s national pastime. A.J. Liebling, the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived, called him “the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived.”13 Liebling also called him “a hack journalist, a song writer, a conductor of puff-sheets and, I am inclined to suspect, a shakedown man,” but he meant it as a compliment.14
Egan’s case for boxing essentially rested on the idea that England was dangerously prosperous. A rich, powerful country was at risk of growing soft, of losing the hardihood that made it powerful in the first place. Boxing’s critics saw it as a den of gambling, drinking, and vice, but for Egan, fighting was a check against decline, preserving the toughness and fair-mindedness that lay at the center of the English national character. The prize ring was “one of the corner stones towards preventing effeminacy from undermining the good old character of the people of England” and preserving “the daring intrepidity of the BRITISH SOLDIER.” Nelson didn’t win Trafalgar thanks to the ballet.
Prizefights themselves provided vivid evidence for both sides of this debate. It took enormous courage to step into the ring. On the other hand, there was little that was obviously virtuous about what went on there. For all that the English prided themselves on the sophisticated science of their fighting, matches contested under Broughton’s Rules of 1743 were bloody, exhausting, and dangerous.
Bouts were held outdoors, on bare ground, in rings marked off from fields. The fighters wore no gloves, which probably made them safer. (Gloves were introduced to protect the hands, not the head, and allowed fighters to punch harder.) But rounds didn’t end until one man or the other went down. And there was no limit to the number of rounds that could be fought. After a fall, fighters had 30 seconds to return to the scratch, a mark in the middle of the ring.15 The battle went on until one of them either surrendered or couldn’t make it. Boxers fought on through concussions and broken bones, sometimes suffering dozens of knockdowns severe enough to stop a fight today. Wrestling throws and holds above the waist were permitted, but it was illegal to strike while the foe was down. To add to the fun, constables occasionally descended in the middle of a match to arrest the fighters and fans. Spectators were occasionally known to rush the ring and attack one of the fighters. The overall effect was somewhere between modern boxing, MMA, and a bar fight.
Tom Molineaux’s first English opponent was a novice fighter from Bristol, possibly named Jack Burrows, who just happened to be a protégé of Tom Cribb. Although the fight was between two unknowns, curiosity about Molineaux was high. A small crowd turned out to see how the strange, self-aggrandizing black fighter would fare against an opponent trained in England.
Molineaux obliterated Burrows. He pounded him so severely that, according to Egan, “it was impossible to distinguish a single feature in his face.” After the fight, an irate Cribb accosted Richmond, claiming that Molineaux had fouled his fighter. Words were exchanged, and a second fight broke out between Cribb and the Black Terror. Richmond, always a cool head in a crisis, stood down quickly, but two things were now clear to the Fancy. First, Molineaux, for all his rough technique, was a fighter worth watching — “a promising CHICKEN,” as the contemporary boxing writer William Oxberry wrote. And second, the champion was not at all happy about it.
For Molineaux’s second fight, Richmond arranged a more daunting challenge. Tom Blake was an established fighter and veteran of the British navy who went by the name “Tom Tough.” In 1805 he’d given Cribb all he could handle in a 90-minute loss. A year earlier, he’d sprained his knee so severely in the 29th round of a fight against Jack Holmes that he could barely stand, then endured the pain for 31 more rounds before forcing Holmes to yield in the 60th. Now 40 years old, he was still a formidable opponent. Cribb helped him raise his share of the stake and stood in his corner against Molineaux.
The fight was held on the coast near Margate on August 21, 1810, about a month after Molineaux’s win over Burrows. Word of that victory had spread, and a large crowd braved the heat to see whether the newcomer could stand against Tom Tough. Molineaux had power to spare, but to beat Blake he’d need to know how to fight at a distance, how to break down his man’s guard, how to defend himself. How much science had Richmond been able to teach his raw pupil in the few months they’d been working together?
For all practical purposes, the match was over by the second round. As Egan wrote, “Blake soon discovered that … his blows, however well directed, were not strong enough to knock his adversary down.” Molineaux shrugged off Tom Tough’s punches, used his left to dismantle Blake’s guard, then stretched him out with his right. Blake landed a good hit to Molineaux’s jaw in the third, but it hardly slowed the beating. Here’s Egan’s account of the final four rounds:
Fifth. — Blake covered with blood; but with great resolution rallied, when Molineaux held him round the neck with his left arm, and fibbed him so tremendously, that Blake fell, completely exhausted.
Sixth. — Molineaux had it all his own way in this round, and, without ceremony, went in and knocked down Blake’s guard with his left hand, and with a terrible blow, put in with his right, leveled his adversary. All betters, but no takers, in favour of Molineaux.
Seventh. — Blake’s game was not yet extinct, and he rallied with considerable spirit, and some good blows were exchanged; but who fell from weakness.
Eighth. — Molineaux, determined to finish the contest, went in with uncommon fury; Blake endeavoured to retreat from the violent efforts of his opponent; but was compelled to rally, and who put in a good blow upon the cheek of his opponent. Molineaux returned with a tremendous hit upon Blake’s head, that completely took all recollection out of him; the effects of which he did not recover from so as to be ready to time, when Molineaux was proclaimed the conqueror.
Molineaux’s victory caused a sensation, first in the crowd and later across England. For the second time in as many months, a former slave had crushed an English fighter backed by Tom Cribb. What astonished the Fancy was the dramatic advance in Molineaux’s technique. Where he’d looked overpowering but unpolished in the match against Burrows, he now combined that same strength and endurance with tactics that were — almost — plausibly English.
Would he keep getting better? It was a frightening idea. “It was generally considered,” Oxberry wrote, “that should he be able to combine an equal degree of SKILL with his GLUTTONY, he would mill the whole race of modern pugilists.”
Molineaux was now famous. While Richmond maneuvered behind the scenes to get Cribb into the ring, his protégé bought new clothes, paraded around London with fashionable members of the Fancy, and got drunk in boxing pubs, keeping up a steady stream of braggadocio about his inevitable win over Cribb. He “never ceased amusing his visitors and patrons with grotesque illustrations of how he would serve out ‘Massa Cribb,'” Miles wrote. Molineaux loved the wild life. He washed up in a different brothel every night and clashed with Richmond over how his excesses were affecting his training. The older fighter urged him to temper his behavior, but Molineaux laughed off his trainer’s warnings. He liked doing what he liked, and with a constitution as strong as his, he declared, a little bit of fun would never slow him down.
For many members of the Fancy, however, Molineaux’s fame was a source of growing anxiety. It was no longer possible not to view him as the top contender for the championship. But if he was a threat, however slight, to Cribb, then the pinnacle of English prizefighting might soon be occupied by a black American — a horrifying thought, especially if you believed in Egan’s idea that boxing was uniquely tied to the English character.
How much of this anxiety had to do with race and how much with nationality is unclear. Egan often makes it sound as though Molineaux’s real crime was not being English, but then Egan was impatient with racism and eager to play up nationalism whenever he got the chance. In other accounts, however, Molineaux is continually called “the darkey,” “the nigger,” “the sable gladiator,” “the black,” “the terrible black,” and — even by Egan — “the Moor.” Miles, writing in the 1860s, calls him “the aspiring nigger” and says he was afflicted “with the vanity so remarkably characteristic of his race.” Oxberry says that the English “felt somewhat alarmed that a man of colour should dare to look forward to the championship of England, and threaten to decorate his sable brow with the hard-earned laurels of Crib.”
But the Fancy’s unease only added to the pressure for Cribb to take the fight and reaffirm English superiority. “The national honour was at stake,” Egan wrote. After ignoring the clamor for several weeks, Cribb finally agreed to do what he must have seen as his duty. Richmond and Cribb agreed on terms of 200 guineas a side, with the match to be held at Copthorn, near Surrey, in the winter.
The day of the fight was miserable and cold. Rain came down in sheets, but 10,000 people tromped five miles through deep mud to the field where the bout was set. At around noon, “Gentleman” John Jackson, the master of ceremonies, roped off a 24-foot ring at the foot of a hill, then had it surrounded by spectators’ carriages to shield the contestants from the wind. The fighters stripped off their shirts.
The first few rounds were tense and indecisive. The fighters were coping not only with the pressure of the occasion and, in Cribb’s case, with nearly two years’ worth of rust, but also with the heavy rain and a sodden, mud-streaked ground. Cribb was not only the crowd favorite but a heavy favorite in the betting as well — 4-1, with the smart money saying Molineaux would lose within 15 minutes. Cribb landed a hard left over Molineaux’s eyebrow in the second round. Molineaux staggered but kept his feet. In the next exchange, Molineaux caught Cribb on the mouth and drew the match’s first blood.
In the fourth, the champion caught Molineaux flush in the face. Molineaux lost his footing in the mud. In the sixth, Molineaux returned the favor. Cribb was most comfortable “milling on the retreat” — that is, as a defensive counterpuncher — but, not viewing this opponent as a serious threat, he spent the early part of the fight going after Molineaux aggressively. He cracked Molineaux’s head in the seventh, and battered him throughout the eighth. Molineaux amazed the Fancy by absorbing blow after blow, until, at the end of the round, he fell down nearly unconscious.
By this point, Egan writes, both fighters looked like they’d taken a beating. Molineaux’s head was bloody, and Cribb’s was “terribly swelled on the left side.” The crowd was getting edgy. Molineaux hadn’t gone down as easily as they’d hoped, and Cribb looked uncharacteristically vulnerable. Then, in the ninth round, Molineaux struck a blow that changed the course of the fight. Driving in ferociously on Cribb, he punched right through the champion’s guard, caught him full in the face, and laid him out. Words, Egan wrote, could not do justice to the expressions in the crowd. In the next round, Cribb switched back to milling on the retreat. In the round after that, Molineaux leveled him again.
Against all odds, the black fighter was not just holding his own against the invincible English champion. He was winning.
The defenders of boxing thought that, first and foremost, what made the sport worthwhile was that it instilled a sense of fair play. No stabbing an opponent in the back, no attacking a defenseless man. Fight only when both men are up and ready, and in that way, with both combatants given an equal chance under the rules, you can determine which is the better man. Egan, in the dedication to his first collection of boxing writing, illustrates this ideal by telling the story of a British sailor during the capture of Fort Omoa in 1779. The sailor, who had two swords, suddenly came head-to-head with a Spaniard who had none. Rather than kill an unarmed man, the British sailor threw the Spaniard one of his swords to give him a fair chance for his life.
Cribb and Molineaux fought in the rain for half an hour. By the 19th round, both their faces were beaten so badly that the spectators could tell them apart only by their skin color. Exhausted, Molineaux pinned Cribb against the ropes and held him there, trying to catch his breath. While Cribb struggled to escape, a mob of angry fans rushed into the ring. To free Cribb from Molineaux’s hold, they attacked the American, hurting, possibly breaking, one of his fingers. The umpires cleared the ring, and the boxers kept fighting.
In the 28th round, Molineaux knocked Cribb out. The champion misjudged a punch and left himself unguarded; Molineaux dropped him in the mud. In the chaos of rain and screaming fans that followed, Richmond didn’t hear when the umpire called “time! time!,” the announcement that meant Molineaux had won the fight. While the champion slowly came to, one of his seconds, Joe Ward, rushed into the ring to distract Molineaux’s corner. He did this reportedly by crying out that Molineaux was holding bullets in his fists to make his blows land harder. While Molineaux and his seconds disproved the accusation to the umpire, Cribb regained consciousness and somehow got to his feet.
Although Cribb had not made it back to scratch in the allotted 30 seconds, and thus by rule had lost the fight, the umpires decided to allow the bout to continue. (Maybe with a glance at the large, howling, vehemently pro-Cribb crowd.) Molineaux rallied repeatedly, but Cribb rallied as well. In the 40th round, utterly exhausted, with his eyelids swelling shut and his face a mass of bruises, Tom Molineaux yielded.
Cribb’s victory was regarded as the final confirmation of his greatness. Egan praised Molineaux’s effort, but wrote that the fight “had completely decided [Cribb’s] just pretensions to the CHAMPIONSHIP OF ENGLAND … Notwithstanding his game had always been well known, his courage in this instance astonished all the spectators, who expressed their admiration at his being ever ready at the mark fighting his man.”16 The entire Fancy agreed that it had been one of the great fights, perhaps even the greatest, and that Cribb’s triumph had upheld the honor of England. In defeat, Molineaux was paraded before the London Stock Exchange and given a purse of 40 guineas.
Cribb and Molineaux fought again, in September 1811, but it was an anticlimax. Cribb, determined not to repeat the mistake of taking Molineaux lightly, spent the interval undergoing intensive training under the direction of Captain Barclay, the famous pedestrian, who had won fame by walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.17 Molineaux, by contrast, was leading a madder and madder life, drinking too much, eating too much, arguing with Richmond, spending half his money on prostitutes. To keep the partnership solvent, the frustrated Richmond sent him out on lengthy provincial tours, where he sparred with local hayseeds for a few shillings a head. He had one legitimate fight before facing Cribb again, against a novice called Will Rimmer. The crowd subjected him to sustained racial abuse. He was beating Rimmer senseless when the Fancy stormed the ring and rioted for 20 minutes.
So it was no surprise that he was unprepared, mentally and physically, for the rematch. The morning of the fight, he drank a tankard of porter and ate an apple pie. He held his own early in the bout, but was out of breath by the fourth round. Cribb knocked him out in the eleventh. It caused even more of a national sensation than the first fight.
And that was the end of Tom Molineaux. “His day was then gone by,” Egan writes. Richmond, disgusted with his pupil’s wild life and lack of commitment to training, cut him loose — in some accounts, even had him locked up in debtor’s prison. Richmond went on to enjoy a prosperous old age, accepted by the English, all his affairs in order. In his later years he trained, and befriended, Lord Byron. With Cribb and a few other fighters, he served as a page at the coronation of King George IV. Cribb opened a pub, remained a national hero, and got a large stone lion on his grave.
Molineaux wandered north, washed up as a fighter and trying, heartbreakingly, to get together a career as a trainer in the mold of Richmond. He ended up in Ireland, where he traveled from town to town looking for students. He had collapsed physically — Egan says he was “a walking skeleton” — and had to be cared for by three black soldiers who played in the band of the 77th Regiment of Foot in Galway. He died in the band’s rooms in the summer of 1818. He was 34 and had drunk himself to death.
It’s not exactly correct to say that Molineaux is “forgotten” today. Like Richmond and Cribb, he’s in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The British writer George MacDonald Fraser wrote a novel about him, Black Ajax, which was published in 1998. For decades after they took place, the Cribb-Molineaux fights lingered in a corner of the European imagination, and there are still prints, drawings, even pottery sculptures representing the fighters scattered around regional museums and archives. The most famous of these is Théodore Gericault’s masterful lithograph The Boxers (1818). It’s currently in storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s nothing new, of course, in saying that sport is frequently unfair, or that society would often rather use sport to confirm the wrong thing it thinks it knows than to tell it something true and different. But every now and again there’s a crack in the story that’s impossible to paper over. Tom Molineaux, the former slave, was wronged by boxing and boxing never forgave him for it. But in 1809 and 1810 he did something amazing — something so amazing that even Pierce Egan, who never stopped lionizing Cribb’s victory, couldn’t quite let himself get over it.
Eight years after the first fight, in a eulogy for Molineaux, Egan wrote that “It will also not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that his colour alone prevented him from becoming the hero of that fight.” It was the closest he ever came to acknowledging that sport can make us great without ever making us good.