Tom Molineaux: The Ex-Slave Who Became America’s First International Boxing Superstar

George Cruickshank (NYPL), via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
George Cruickshank (NYPL), via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Tom Molineaux found freedom with his fists.

Regarded as America's first great prizefighter, very little is known about Molineaux’s early life. The most common account, however, says that he was born a slave in Virginia sometime around 1784. The local plantation owners took amusement in pitting their enslaved people against each other in bare-knuckle boxing matches, and Molineaux showed a knack for the sport. One day, he won a match that earned his master a huge sum in bets, and was consequently granted his freedom.

(There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that George Washington, a neighboring plantation owner, might have given Molineaux a few pointers in the ring. While that is almost certainly a fabrication, Washington did in fact know a great deal about combat sports such as wrestling; Sports Illustrated called him “a master of the British style known as collar and elbow.”)

After gaining his freedom, Molineaux moved north to New York City around 1804 and began honing his bare-knuckle boxing skills. Details are scarce, but it’s obvious that the young pugilist carved out a name for himself, as he soon earned the title of “Champion of America.”

After five years, Molineaux decided to take his talents across the pond to England. “He was the first American to rise to the eminence of an international challenger,” journalist Paul Magriel wrote in a 1951 edition of the journal Phylon [PDF].

But Molineaux wasn't just hungry for new competition. In Britain, there was big money in boxing. Though the sport was technically illegal, it was well-respected and well-attended. It also had a set of well-defined rules, which Brian Phillips wrote about in a fantastic piece for Grantland:

"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."

Arriving in England, Molineaux had one goal: To fight Tom Cribb. Cribb, who was born near Bristol, England, was considered Europe’s best boxer and routinely drew tens of thousands of spectators to his matches. He was also incredibly tough. According to Phillips, “he reportedly trained by punching the bark off trees.”

In London, Molineaux met a fellow American boxing aficionado—and ex-slave—named Bill Richmond. Richmond, who was considered one of the world’s first black sporting celebrities, was also a highly in-demand trainer. And he agreed to take Molineaux under his wing.

The duo was a perfect fit. With Richmond’s help, Molineaux began to vanquish his opponents fight after fight after fight. In one match, he beat a man so badly that it was impossible to discern his facial features. “The amateurs were completely astonished at the improvement exhibited by Molineaux, and the punishment he dealt out was so truly tremendous, and his strength and bottom so superior, that he was deemed a proper match for the champion, Tom Cribb,” wrote Pierce Egan, a celebrated journalist of the time, in his book Boxiana.

The momentous match was arranged for December 18, 1810. Immediately, the bout's implications were freighted by racism and nationalism. “Some persons feel alarmed at the bare idea that a black man and a foreigner should seize the championship of England, and decorate his sable brow with the hard earned laurels of Cribb,” one media outlet claimed, according to the book Pugilistica.

On the day of the fight, rain poured down. More than 5000 people attended anyway, including a gaggle of the first professional sportswriters. Long before the first punch was thrown, the pro-Cribb crowd began hurling racist invectives at the black American fighter.

Molineaux seemed undeterred. Round after round, he knocked the English champion down. At one point, Molineaux held Cribb in a legal headlock, and the fight's action stalled. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of impatient fans stormed the ring. The scrum injured—and possibly broke—a few of Molineaux’s fingers.

The American continued to dominate anyway.

By the 28th round, the afternoon’s wagers—which had started at 4 to 1 in Cribb’s favor—were now even. According to Egan, “In the 28th round, after the men were carried to their corners, Cribb was so much exhausted that he could hardly rise from his second's knee at the call of 'Time.'" It was clear that Molineaux was on pace to win.

In fact, many people believe he should have already been declared the victor. In the 27th round, Cribb fell and failed to get back up after the required 30 seconds. By all means, Molineaux should have been celebrating. But Cribb’s minders distracted the refs and managed to buy enough time for Cribb to regain both his consciousness and his composure. Whether they were complicit or just clueless, the refs let the time violation slide and the fight continued [PDF].

Shortly after, the momentum shifted.

Cribb landed a few lucky punches. Molineaux, whose eyes had swollen over, began to stagger. After 44 rounds, the American quit and Cribb was declared the winner. The crowd went nuts, leading Pierce Egan to call the whole event, "[T]he most dreadful affront to British sportsmanship ever witnessed."

A few days later, Molineaux sent Cribb a letter blaming the loss on the weather and asking for a rematch. A second fight, which occurred approximately nine months later on September 18, 1811, was attended by more than 15,000 people. This time, Cribb out-trained the American and defeated Molineaux in 11 rounds.

But history had already been made. The first match had secured Molineaux a hallowed place as one of the sport’s top athletes, and in 1997, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

6 Things You Should Know About Boxing Day

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Relax, Hallmark conspiracy theorists: Boxing Day isn’t some prank to confuse America. It’s a real holiday in the United Kingdom and other European countries that dates back to the days of Queen Victoria. Here are some facts to get you up to speed.

1. It occurs on December 26th.

Boxing Day is observed annually on December 26. If it falls on a weekend, the public holiday itself will be celebrated on Monday. It became an official holiday during the reign of Queen Victoria, though some historians trace its origins back much further—to medieval times. Today, it's largely an extension of the Christmas holiday and a big day for sporting events and shopping.

2. No one really knows where the name originated.

Many historians think the holiday’s name is derived from the church practice of opening alms boxes the day after Christmas and distributing money to the poor. Historically, British employers followed the church’s lead by sliding workers and servants gifts or cash on December 26.

Others believe the "box" refers to the boxes of gifts employers gave to their servants on the day after Christmas. (In wealthy households, servants were often required to work on Christmas Day but given December 26th off in order to celebrate the holiday on their own.)

3. It's a big day for shopping.

Historically, Boxing Day's post-Christmas sales have long made it one of the U.K.'s busiest shopping days of the year. And while it still falls within the top five biggest shopping days of the year, the popularity of online shopping has reduced the overall spending people do on December 26.

“Fifteen years ago it was pretty much guaranteed that you would only get big sales a few times a year—Boxing Day and the big summer clearance," Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail, told The Telegraph in 2015. That is no longer the case.” 

“The Boxing Day sales are pretty much dead,” Roberts added. “Black Friday and Cyber Monday illustrate Christmas sales are starting earlier and earlier. There is a possibility prices will just keep on dropping in the run-up to Christmas. This makes the Boxing Day sales incredibly diluted."

4. There is no boxing involved.

Despite the name, British observances of Boxing Day involve no fisticuffs. For patricians, however, another sport rules the day: fox hunting. Though it's a long-held tradition, many animal rights activists and groups would like to see the practice done away with altogether. Especially since, technically, it's illegal. In the days leading up to Boxing Day, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is often very vocal in reminding citizens that "The chasing or killing of foxes and other British mammals with a pack of dogs was banned because the overwhelming majority of the UK public rejected this so-called 'sport' as cruel and abhorrent."

5. Some other countries do take the name more literally.

In other countries, Boxing Day celebrations are more literal. Some former British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean celebrate the holiday with prizefighting events.

6. In Ireland, December 26th is sometimes known as Wren Day.

Ireland sometimes refers to December 26 as Wren Day, a nod to an old tradition in which poor children would kill a wren, then sell the feathers to neighbors for good luck. In today’s celebrations, the wren is fake.

11 Brilliant Gifts for Outdoorsy People

iStock
iStock

Research suggests that exposure to nature has a number of health benefits—and at this time of year, your friends and family could probably use all they can get. Make their journey into the great outdoors fun and fuss-free with these gear picks, suitable for a variety of skill levels—from urban glamper to backcountry expert.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. FJÄLLRÄVEN Keb Touring Down Jacket

These lightweight, intensely squishable down jackets for men and women will keep your camping buddies extra-warm. The outer layer of recycled polyamide features reinforced panels on the shoulders, lower sleeves, and back, while the insulation of 95 percent ethically produced goose down and 5 percent feathers has a toasty 800 fill power. The whole jacket weighs only 150 grams (5.3 ounces)—perfect for ultralight backpacking as well as roasting marshmallows around the campfire.

Find It at Amazon for $450 and also at these other retailers:

2. Goal Zero Lighthouse 400 Lantern And USB Power Hub

This compact lantern emits 400 lumens of LED light for spotlight-level brightness, while the dimmable directional lighting feature saves power for extended use. It also recharges fast using USB, solar, or hand-cranked energy. The built-in USB port can juice up phones and other small devices so your pals never miss an Instagram post.

Find It at Amazon for $70 and also these other retailers:

3. Bike-mounted Bottle Carrier

Handmade in Boulder, Colorado from upcycled bike inner tubes and tent fabric, this convenient six-bottle carrier mounts over a bike frame and safely transports craft brews from fridge to frontier. The insulated sleeves cushion each bottle separately and the carrier includes a handle for toting on foot. Creator Davidson Lewis makes each carrier by hand, so colors and patterns vary.

Find It at Uncommon Goods for $40.

4. REI CO-OP FLASH 22 DAY PACK

Ideal for camping or commuting, this 22-liter lightweight pack features a roomy top-loading main compartment with an inner sleeve for hydration reservoir (or laptop or folders), zippered exterior pockets for small items, and two deep side pockets for bottles. The padded mesh back panel, detachable waist and sternum straps, and stretch-mesh shoulder straps offer breathable comfort even when the pack is fully stuffed.

Find It at Rei for $38 and up.

5. Hestra Sport Classic Deerskin Primaloft Rib Gloves

Inspired by nature's materials, these durable gloves are hand-sewn from North American white-tailed deer skin and insulated with Primaloft polyester for weather-resistant warmth. Hestra's attention to detail is obvious in the super-soft pair's elasticized knitted cuff—which helps the gloves stay on while keeping heat in—and pre-curved fit.

Find It at Amazon for $110 and up.

6. Yeti Hopper Flip 18 Cooler

There are many reasons why Yetis are the coolers du jour: They keep food and drinks ice-cold for days, thanks to their superior insulation, even when the outside temp climbs. They're extremely durable and packed with convenient field-tested features. And, let's be honest, they have elevated the utilitarian fishing cooler to an object of desire. The Hopper Flip 18, measuring about 10 by 13 by 16 inches, can stash 20 cans of beer with plenty of ice for bonfires on the beach, kicking back post-trek, or a weekend off the grid.

Find It at Amazon for $300.

7. Biolite Holiday Bundle

BioLite CampStove2 limited edition holiday bundle
BioLite

A one-and-done gift for adventurers who want to travel compactly, BioLite's limited-edition bundle contains everything necessary for a meal in the wilderness. BioLite's wood-burning CampStove 2 generates electricity for the attached battery and USB charger as well as heat for cooking. The bundle includes two accessories: the KettlePot, a grab-and-go cook pot; and the lightweight Portable Grill, a tabletop model that can fit four burgers at once. The included FlexLight shines a light on your next culinary masterpiece. Save $40 when purchasing these three items as a bundle.

Find It at Biolite Energy for $200 and also at these other retailers:

8. Lifestraw Universal Water Filter And Adaptor Kit

Your giftee can turn her fave water bottle into a powerful filtration system with the Lifestraw Universal. The two-stage filter first removes water-borne bacteria and protozoa (in up to 1000 liters), then improves water quality and taste with a replaceable activated charcoal capsule (up to 100 liters), meeting EPA drinking water standards. In addition to the filter and carry bag, the adaptor kit includes two cap sizes and two mouthpieces that are compatible with most Nalgene, Camelbak, Klean Kanteen, Hydro Flask, and other standard bottles.

Find It: Amazon for $30.

9. Kicker EB400 Waterproof Bluetooth Earbuds

Let your friends rock out to Taylor Swift in the great outdoors without preventing anyone else from enjoying peace and quiet. Kicker's earbuds are both waterproof and wireless, and they won't fall out of one's ears during strenuous activity in any climate. Their 8-hour battery life means users will be able to complete a day hike without needing to power up in the middle. The earbuds come with anti-skip Bluetooth technology to connect to phones and tablets, a microphone for calls, and three pairs of color-coded silicone tips for a custom fit.

Find It at Amazon for $98 and also at these other retailers:

10. Tentsile Vista Tree Tent

A mashup of a traditional tent and impressive treehouse, the Vista is a triangular three-person tent that connects hammock-style to anchor trees at three points, letting campers sleep suspended above wet, rocky or uneven terrain. This three-season model features open sides and a central floor hatch for entry, plus a removable insect net. The rain fly/roof can also be removed so users can lie directly under the stars. (The above photo shows an un-roofed Vista mounted below a roofed Vista.) The ingenious design can be put up by a single person in about 15 minutes and packed down into its carry bag for easy transport.

Find It at Tentsile for $550.

11. Pendleton Three-Notebook Set

Three Pendleton notebooks

Great for jotting down field notes, this set of three 6-by-8-inch notebooks features Pendleton Woolen Mills's heritage blanket patterns on the covers. Each center-stitched book contains 64 pages of lined, uncoated paper for a slim profile that will fit in your giftee's pocket or pack without adding too much weight or bulk.

Find It at Pendleton for $13.

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