Tom Molineaux: If You’re Black, Get Back
By Robert Ecksel/Boxing.com
He died penniless in Dublin in 1818 at the age of 34. The cause of death was liver failure.
Tom Molineaux, the first fighter from the United States to fight for a world title, was born in Georgetown, Virginia, on March 24, 1784…
“Have you ever been black? I was black once—when I was poor.”—Larry Holmes
Slavery is the wound on America’s psyche that never seems to heal. With every advancement, civil rights to counter uncivil wrongs, distinguished African-American entertainers and athletes, even a black president, that scab gets picked at over and over again, so that we’re not as far along as we need to be, if all men are indeed created equal.
Slavery, chattel and wage, is inhumane, as anyone who has ever been in chains, literal or metaphorical, can attest. When the Virginia settlers of 1619 needed cheap labor to grow corn for subsistence and tobacco for export, they turned to the Dark Continent and began shipping Africans to America as slaves. Africa already had its own internal system of slavery in place, so it was simply a matter of African brokers selling their black brothers to their Caucasian brothers for whatever they could get for a pound of flesh.
A million Africans had already been shipped to South America and the Caribbean, but America had until then been lily white, if one dismisses the Native Americans, the country’s original inhabitants, who resisted enslavement and backbreaking work or died trying.
The blacks who survived the arduous journey to the New World were of the hardiest stock. Death marches from inland to the coast, in which two of every five captured Africans perished, were testament to their resilience. If they were, for want of a better word, fortunate enough to get that far, the gruesome Middle Passage awaited them. Packed like sardines in the hull of gimcrack ships, one of three blacks died of disease, abuse and starvation in unspeakably brutal conditions overseen by unspeakably brutal overseers. Reflections on humanity or lack thereof had nothing to do with anything. The exigencies of capital, then as now, had rules all its own.
By 1800, 10 to 15 million Africans had been exiled to lives of servitude in the Americas.
It was into this circumscribed existence that Tom Molineaux, the first fighter from the United States to fight for a world title, was born in Georgetown, Virginia, on March 24, 1784.
Like his father Zachariah, Tom was the property of a Virginia plantation owner named Algernon Molineaux. What distinguished Tom Molineaux from his fellow captives were his size and strength, in addition to an innate ability to fight. For the amusement and betting pleasure of their masters, slaves from one plantation were often pitted against slaves from another plantation. It was like dog or cock fighting, but instead of dogs and cocks, black slaves did the heavy lifting.
Tom’s owner had an eye for talent, as well as an eye for free labor, and young Molineaux had proved his mettle more than once. Algernon Molineaux had an ongoing gripe with a neighboring plantation owner, who owned a man that was thought to be the toughest slave in all Virginia. Algernon offered the five-foot-nine-inch, 200-lb.Tom Molineaux the lordly sum of $500 and HIS FREEDOM if he could defeat the so-called toughest slave in all Virginia. Tom made short work of his opponent, took the money he earned and hightailed it out of Virginia.
Molineaux made his way to New York City. He worked as a porter on the docks for five years, and continued to make a name for himself with his fists. But even as a “free man” in New York, where slavery was in effect and blacks were treated as less than second-class citizens, Molineaux’s options were limited. So in 1809 Tom set sail across the Atlantic and landed in England.
When he arrived in London, Molineaux was befriended by a former slave turned fighter named Bill Richmond. Richmond was the first black man to gain international recognition as a boxer. Although his fighting days were over, he didn’t squander his winnings and owned a pub called the Horse and Dolphin on St. Martin’s Street in Leicester Square. Twenty years older than Molineaux, Richmond saw something of himself in the ambitious young ex-slave and became Tom’s father figure, trainer, and manager.
Under Richmond’s tutelage, Molineaux had his first fight on British soil in 1810. As reported in Sporting Magazine:
‘On Tuesday, 24 July, a bull was baited in Tot-hill Field, and as usual on such occasions, the amusements concluded with a boxing match…The combatants were a Bristol man, one of the old nursery, and a strong, athletic American black by the name of Molineaux…who had lately arrived in this country.’
Molineaux defeated Bristol’s Jack Burrows in 65 minutes. According to The Fancy; or a True Sportman’s Guide (1828), ‘The sable hero punished his opponent so severely that it was impossible to distinguish a single feature on his face.’ Burrows was seconded by Tom Cribb, England’s “Champion of Champions,” that afternoon, and the triumphant Molineaux, once he had finished rearranging Burrows’ features, challenged the British bare-knuckle champ to a fight. Cribb refused. Molineaux called him a coward.
On Aug. 21 Molineaux fought a stay-busy fight against Tom Blake, aka Tom Tough, who was also seconded by Cribb. Tom Tough failed to live up to him name and Molineaux defeated him in eight rounds. Again Molineaux called out Cribb, and this time he accepted the challenge. A match ‘was made for 200 guineas, with a subscription price of 100 guineas for the winner,’ to be held on Copthorn Common, near East Grinstead, Sussex.
Dec. 18 was a cold, rainy day, but the inclement weather which didn’t deter the 20,000 fans who came to witness the bout. Molineaux dominated Cribb for the first eight rounds, but Cribb evened the score as the two men traded punches and throwdowns for the next 20 rounds. By round 29 it looked as if Cribb could fight no more. But one of his cornermen, quick-thinking Joe Ward, pulled a fast one. He got the attention of the umpire (referee) Sir Thomas Apreece, and alleged that Molineaux was hiding lead weights in his fists. By delaying the fight, Ward was able to buy enough time for Cribb to regain his wits, and the action resumed.
In the 31st round Molineaux collided with a ring post and possibly suffered a concussion. Tom shook it off and continued to fight. Finally, after 44 rounds and 55 minutes of fighting, an exhausted and concussed Molineaux said “Me can fight no more” and collapsed unconscious to the ground. Tom Cribb had successfully defended his title. Then he promptly retired.
Three days later, Molineaux challenged Cribb to a rematch. Cribb refused. But because the public was clamoring for the two men do it again, Cribb agreed to come out of retirement to fight Molineaux a second time. They set a date of Sept. 28, 1811.
Molineaux fought a tune-up against Joe Rimmer from Lancashire on May 21, whom he defeated in 15 rounds.
With four months to go before the big fight, Cribb was getting himself back in fighting trim under the watchful eye of Captain Barklay. Molineaux, by contrast, spent his time traveling, lecturing, and supporting himself by giving sparring sessions, while ‘entering without restraint into all the glorious confusion of larks and sprees as they presented themselves.’ Were that not enough, on the morning of the fight Molineaux ate a boiled chicken, an apple pie, and consumed a half-gallon of beer.
The rematch between Molineaux and Cribb was fought at Thistleton Gap in the County of Leicester and 15,000 spectators were in attendance. Molineaux started strong and succeeded in closing Cribb’s eye. But his excesses were bound to catch up with him. Cribb landed several shots to Molineaux’s soft body, and a low blow in the sixth slowed down the challenger even more. With Molineaux’s mobility limited, Cribb started headhunting and broke the American’s jaw in round nine. Molineaux gave it all he had, but it wasn’t enough. Cribb stopped Molineaux in the 11th round after 19 minutes and 10 seconds of action.
Cribb retired for good after that bout and was feted until the day he died (on May 18, 1848, at the ripe old age of 66). Molineaux on the other hand continued to fight, and continued to gorge, imbibe and fornicate.
He had an impromptu bout against Power in 1811; lost a wrestling match to John Snow in 1812; won a 25-rounder over Jack Carter in 1813; was floored by William Fuller in 1814; and lost to George Cooper in 1815, in what was his final fight.
Molineaux left England for Ireland where he fought exhibitions in exchange for drinks.
He died penniless in Dublin in 1818 at the age of 34. The cause of death was liver failure.
Pierce Egan, the author of Boxiana (1812) wrote that in his prime Molineaux ‘possessed all the requisites of a modern gladiator—unbounded strength, and great agility. His frame was perfectly Herculean; and his bust, by the best judges of anatomical beauty, considered a perfect picture.’ Yet according to Pugilistica (1880), ‘Molineaux was illiterate and unostentatious, but good-tempered, liberal and generous to a fault. Fond of gay life and amorous to the extreme…’