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.

Philadelphia Phillies File Lawsuit to Prevent Phanatic From Cheering for Other Teams

Hunter Martin/Stringer/Getty Images
Hunter Martin/Stringer/Getty Images

Even people who don't follow baseball would likely recognize the mascot of Philadelphia's baseball team. The Phillie Phanatic—a furry, green, bird-like creature who's been entertaining Phillies fans for decades—consistently ranks among the most popular mascots in the MLB. Now, NPR reports that the Philadelphia Phillies have filed a lawsuit against the character's creators to stop the Phanatic from becoming a free agent.

In the 1970s, the mascots for the Phillies were the fairly forgettable 18th-century siblings Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis. Looking for a change, the baseball team commissioned the New York design firm Harrison and Erickson—whose previous credits included Muppets and the Montreal Expos' Youppi!—to craft a new character to personify Phillies fans. The energetic, passionate, frequently misbehaved Phillie Phantic debuted at Veterans Stadium in April 1978.

More than 40 years later, creators Wayde Harrison and Bonnie Erickson (the puppet designer behind Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf) are threatening to make the Phanatic a free agent that cheers for teams other than the Phillies, according to a lawsuit filed by the Philadelphia baseball team. The team claims it paid the design firm $200,000 by the end of 1980, and that a separate licensing deal was struck in 1984 when terms were renegotiated for $215,000. That 1984 agreement, the lawsuit alleges, gave the Phillies the rights to the Phillie Phanatic in perpetuity.

Harrison and Erickson allegedly disagree. According to the lawsuit, the creators sent the Phillies a notice saying they would forbid the team from using the Phanatic's likeness past June 15, 2020 unless a new licensing deal was agreed upon. They also apparently threatened to shop the mascot around to other teams.

This isn't the first time the Phillie Phanatic has been involved in legal trouble. In 2010, the Phanatic was working a private gig when he decided to surprise a woman by tossing her into a pool. She sued, targeting several men known to wear the costume at the time because she didn't know who had been behind the mask.

[h/t NPR]

The Red Sox’s Historic 19-3 Win Over the Yankees Saw Boston's Highest Run Total in Their 117-Year Rivalry

Adam Glanzman / Getty Images
Adam Glanzman / Getty Images

Although the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox have faced each other in more than 2200 games over the course of their 117-year rivalry, the score from Thursday night's game proves that there’s still plenty of history yet to be made between the two iconic ball clubs in 2019.

Earlier this season, the teams took part in MLB’s first-ever series in London, with the Yankees winning both games. Though the June 29-30 series produced a staggering 50 combined runs between the teams—setting a two-game record for the rivalry in the process—a more lopsided bit of history happened last night when the Sox bludgeoned the Bronx Bombers 19-3 at Fenway Park.

If you’re into baseball trivia, that’s the most runs the Red Sox have ever scored against the Yankees in a single game, with seven coming in the first inning alone (which also tied a 1989 first-inning record against New York). That 16-run difference is also tied for the highest margin of victory over the Yankees in a game—the Sox previously beat the Yanks 17-1 two times in 2005.

New York made even more dubious history last night: The 12 earned runs given up by starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was the most against the Sox since the stat was officially recognized back in 1913. (Earned runs is a stat that counts runs given up by a pitcher without the help of an error by a fielder.)

Even all those runs still slightly trail behind the Yankees's high-water mark for the rivalry: Back in 2000, New York went into Fenway and beat the Sox 22-1. The two teams have 11 more games against each other before the start of the playoffs, so there is still plenty of time to break even more records. 

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