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.

11 Facts About LeBron James

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

It's possible that no athlete has stood in a brighter spotlight from such a young age as four-time NBA MVP LeBron James. Born in Akron, Ohio, on December 30, 1984, James was a multi-sport star as a kid. Eventually, he became just the second of three NBA players to be drafted No. 1 overall straight out of high school (and the only one to go on to win Rookie of the Year). But even if you've followed his career from Cleveland to Miami (back to Cleveland) to L.A., you might not know these 11 details from the story of King James.

1. Two football coaches changed LeBron's life.

Gloria James was 16 when she had her only child, and when her mother died just a couple of years later, she and baby LeBron lost their entire support system. They spent six or so years bouncing around between couches and apartments in Akron's projects. Then, when he was 9 years old, he met Bruce Kelker, who was putting together a youth football team. Kelker took LeBron under his wing and the Jameses moved in with him so that young LeBron would begin to have some stability. By the end of that year, another youth football coach, Frank Walker, offered to let LeBron move in with his family. After missing 80-something days of the fourth grade because of their chaotic living arrangements, LeBron didn't miss a single day of fifth grade.

2. LeBron James made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior.

LeBron James goes up for a basket during a game with his St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school team in January 2003.
LeBron James goes up for a basket during a game with his St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school team in January 2003.
LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images

In February 2002, just shortly after turning 17, the pride of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was anointed "The Chosen One" in a now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover story (LeBron went on to get "CHOSEN 1" tattooed across his back). If the league would have allowed it, James would have entered the NBA draft that year, but draft eligibility hinged on graduating high school—so LeBron finished his senior year with his high school team, nicknamed the Fighting Irish. They won their third Division II championship, and the hype around LeBron and his teammates meant they traveled for high-ranking games that were aired on ESPN2. Time Warner even offered their games on pay-per-view.

3. A broken wrist sealed LeBron's basketball fate.

James played both football and basketball through middle and high school, and some have speculated that he could have gone pro with football. But in the June 2002, just before his senior year, he broke his wrist during an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) game. Because of the two-month recovery time, James decided he needed to forego football season so that he'd be fully healed for his senior basketball season.

4. LeBron subscribes to a "Work Hard, Sleep Hard" philosophy.

If you want to be the greatest of all time, you need to get plenty of rest. A whole lot of it, actually. LeBron once copped to sleeping 12 hours per night, though these days he's more likely to get a solid eight hours, with a nap sometime during the day. That extra shut-eye is key considering just how much mileage the man has logged on the hardwood. As of 2019, in his 16th pro season, he's already the NBA's all-time leader in playoff minutes played with 10,049. That's the equivalent of three extra 82-game regular seasons.

Another thing LeBron keeps in his health routine? A good red. "I've heard it's good for the heart," he told ESPN the Magazine in 2018. "Listen, I'm playing the best basketball of my life, and I'm drinking some wine pretty much every day." He does, however, have discerning taste. "Bron has a supercomputer in his brain" on the subject of vino, former teammate Kevin Love said, and their Cavaliers teammates agreed that he's usually the one they trust to order when they go out. Luckily for LeBron, his new L.A. residence is just down the coast from Napa.

5. LeBron was the first black man on the cover of Vogue.

Only two men had ever made a Vogue cover before LeBron did it in April 2008: Richard Gere and George Clooney. LeBron's cover arrived with controversy, however. Observers noted how much the Annie Leibovitz pictorial, which featured James alongside supermodel Gisele Bündchen, recalled racist U.S. Army imagery from World War I that used King Kong as a symbol of a "mad brute" alongside a white damsel in distress.

6. He's been a leader for labor and is no stranger to collective bargaining.

In February 2019, Akron's finest wrapped a four-year term as first vice president of the NBA's labor union, the National Basketball Players Association. As the No. 2 man in the organization, he played a key role in pushing for greater benefits for retired players and realizing a huge jump in the league's salary cap back in 2016 that changed the financial prospects of the upper and middle tiers of pro players (and helped the rival Golden State Warriors cement a dynasty by buying up a roster of top talent).

7. LeBron wasn't the highest-paid guy on his own team until age 31.

LeBron James as a Cleveland Cavalier in 2007.
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

James was the NBA's highest-paid player overall in the 2016-17 season, but he played a dozen years of professional ball before even being the highest earner on his own roster. He was surrounded by a number of league veterans during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, including an aging and injury-wracked Shaquille O'Neal, and James famously agreed to take less than his full market value in order to form a super-team with the Miami Heat in 2010. He hit the top of pay grade during his second go-around with the Cavaliers, and his new four-year deal with the Lakers puts him on track to be the highest paid player ever.

8. LeBron has helped fight for parity in non-sports arenas too.

When Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer was in salary negotiations with Netflix over her starring and executive producing role in an upcoming biographical series about groundbreaking entrepreneur and first female self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, she was struggling to secure a fair payday. That's when James and his business partner Maverick Carter, both executive producers on the show, stepped in to advocate on her behalf. "When I asked for certain things, they had to go and say, 'She deserves these things!'" Spencer said in an interview with The Undefeated. "That type of leadership has been important, and I'm thrilled about it."

9. LeBron married his high school sweetheart.

LeBron and Savannah James
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for ESPY

Savannah Brinson might have attended LeBron's rival high school, but when the senior sports star spotted the junior cheerleader, he asked her out. "I knew he loved me when I left my leftovers from dinner in his car," she told Harper's Bazaar in 2010 of their Outback Steakhouse date. "I'd totally forgotten about them, and he brought them to me. I think he just wanted another excuse to come and see me."

The two have been an item ever since, even after LeBron's fame shot off the charts; they married in 2013 and have three children. "I just thought he'd be a hometown hero for his era and it would be over," Savannah said. LeBron, for his part, appreciates their shared history. "[Savannah] was down when I was at my high school, no cameras, no lights. And she was there with me," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "You wouldn't be talking to me right now if it weren't for her."

10. LeBron has been compared to Michael Jordan since he was a kid—first on the court, and now on the silver screen.

LeBron James on the set of 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.'
Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon'

The opening scene of that 2002 Sports Illustrated feature—the one when James was a high schooler—showed the teen talking to the superstar as if they were old friends. "The moment feels charged, even a little historic," Grant Wahl wrote. "Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent."

Not only has James been living up to the MJ legacy on the basketball court, but he's hoping to at the theater. The original Michael Jordan kid-com Space Jam was the highest-grossing basketball movie ever, and the LeBron James-starring sequel is shaping up to be a slam dunk as well. A summer 2021 release date has been set (which will mark a convenient 25 years since the first intergalactic b-ball tourney), and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has signed on as its producer.

Of course, expectations are high after LeBron's surprisingly agile performance as a fictionalized version of himself in Judd Apatow's 2015 movie Trainwreck. Critic Ian Crouch even argued in The New Yorker that James was the funniest performer in a film that starred two bona fide comic heavyweights: Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Here's hoping he can hold his own next to the Looney Tunes.

11. LeBron's son and namesake is also tearing up the basketball court.

LeBron James Sr. once admitted that he may have made a mistake in naming his firstborn son after himself. The pressure that comes with being LeBron James Jr. could be knee-buckling, but "Bronny" has thrived on the come-up and is emerging as the next big thing. The eighth-grader is already dunking with ease at age 14, and he landed scholarship offers from powerhouse schools like Duke and Kentucky before turning 12. But his protective father—who certainly remembers a thing or two about being endlessly hyped as a teen—is definitely keeping a close eye on his son. "He's already got some offers from colleges," James told CBS Detroit in 2015. "It's pretty crazy. It should be a violation. You shouldn't be recruiting 10-year-old kids." But until then, LeBron is happy to sport Bronny gear, the way thousands of other kids wear his.

8 Sports Mascots Who Went Rogue

Doug Pensinger, Getty Images
Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Nothing livens up a sporting event quite like a team mascot—a polyester-filled costumed character that excites crowds, poses with fans, and raises team spirit. But sometimes, these harmless morale boosters wind up getting a little too involved in the action. Take a look at eight mascots who exceeded their boundaries and brought shame to the costume.

1. The Phillie Phanatic’s Pool Party

The Phillie Phanatic stands behind a police officer
Rich Schultz, Getty Images

Many well-known mascots are hired out to perform at private functions, spreading their trademark brand of cheer to people who recognize them from stadiums. The Phillie Phanatic, the Philadelphia Phillies's mascot of unknown species, saw one such side gig go awry in 2010, when he was booked for a wedding in New Jersey and thought it would be funny to toss a woman resting in a lounge chair into a pool. The unwitting participant, Suzanne Peirce, filed a lawsuit against the Phanatic, the Phillies, and the hotel that hosted the wedding, claiming she suffered shock and a herniated disc among other injuries. Because Peirce didn’t know who was in the suit at the time, she named several men known to wear the costume.

The suit was settled in 2014, but the Phanatic still holds the distinction of being the most controversial mascot in sports. He has been the subject of several lawsuits, including one in which he allegedly damaged a woman’s knees by crawling on her and another in which he was blamed for hugging someone too hard. In 2018, he was accused of injuring someone in the stands by shooting them with a hot dog gun. These misadventures have earned him the nickname "the Big Green Litigation Machine."

2. Tommy Hawk's Pecking Order

Despite the propensity of hockey players to punch opposing players when a dispute arises, their mascots are expected to keep the peace. Tommy Hawk, the cheerleading bird for the Chicago Blackhawks, was unable to keep his wings to himself in December 2018, when he responded to an aggressive fan by body-slamming him in the United Center arena concourse. The altercation, which went viral thanks to some intrepid fans with cell phone cameras, apparently ended with Tommy Hawk getting the best of his assailant. The next day, a Chicago police spokesperson told the Chicago Sun-Times they were still trying to locate the attacker. Tommy Hawk, who was not reported to have suffered any reprisals for the scuffle, is set to be inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame in 2019.

3. Miami Feels the Burnie

Burnie sits down during a Miami Heat game
Eliot J. Schechter, Getty Images

Basketball-nosed Burnie of the Miami Heat found himself playing defense in court after an October 1994 incident in which he dragged a spectator out by her legs during an exhibition game against the Atlanta Hawks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The woman, Yvonne Gil-Rebollo, sued for $1 million, claiming severe tendonitis. Burnie had lousy luck when he picked Yvonne out from the crowd: Gil-Rebollo happened to be the wife of Puerto Rico Supreme Court judge Francisco Rebollo as well as the sister of Guillermo Gil Bonar, the island’s U.S. attorney. In 1994, a jury found the Heat liable for $50,000 in damages.

Burnie has long had a penchant for causing trouble. In 1997, he was punched by Dolph Schayes, an NBA veteran whose son, Danny Schayes, played for the Orlando Magic. The attack came after Burnie sprayed Magic fans with a water gun. In 2015, the team was sued after the mascot lifted a teacher up during a school appearance to assist with a leg split during a dance routine and tore her hip. A confidential agreement was reached in December 2016. In 2018, an AmericanAirlines Arena security guard named Juanita Griffiths sued for a 2017 incident in which Burnie bumped into her while cavorting. She alleges that the collision caused her to fall and injure her leg. No resolution has been reported.

4. The Cincinnati Bearcat's Snowball Spiral

Few team sports offer more emotional investment than college football, a highly territorial clash of teams that can lead to emotions running high. During a December 2010 game between the University of Cincinnati and Pitt, the Cincinnati Bearcat began to spend an inordinate amount of time pelting people in the stands with snowballs. After security cautioned him to stop, the Bearcat became unruly and officials were forced to wrestle him to the ground. He was detained and cited for disorderly conduct.

5. Sebastian the Ibis's Fowl Play

Sebastian the Ibis appears during a University of Miami game
Streeter Lecka, Getty Images

Mascots often think of ways to put an entertaining spin on games, from dancing with fans to tossing giveaways into the crowd. In 1989, University of Miami mascot Sebastian the Ibis thought it would be amusing to walk onto the field carrying a fire extinguisher, ostensibly to put out the flaming spear of rival mascot Chief Osceola of Florida State University. Sebastian was spotted by a police officer, who was not enthused about the idea and tried to grab the extinguisher. In the ensuing melee, an officer was sprayed and Sebastian was tossed against a fence, while cops attempted to bend his wings behind his back. Perhaps sensing arresting a bird was not going to end well for anyone, authorities released Sebastian and cautioned him about trying to interfere with the ritual. The bird maintained he would never have actually put out the flame.

6. Harvey the Hound Loses His Tongue

When it comes to crossing over into hostile territory, it pays to be careful. That lesson was lost on Harvey the Hound, the mascot for the Calgary Flames hockey team, who opted to climb into the bleachers behind Craig MacTavish, head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, in January 2003. Following a protracted bit of taunting, MacTavish reached up, grabbed Harvey’s lolling tongue, and ripped it out of his mouth. A spokesperson for the Flames later said that Harvey was not supposed to be so close to the opposing team.

7. Georgia's Exploding Bulldog

Smokey appears during a Tennessee Volunteers game
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Prior to an NCAA women’s basketball title match between the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia in November 1996, Tennessee's mascot—a bluetick coonhound named Smokey—decided to have a little fun with a stuffed bulldog he brought out to center court for demonstration purposes. Smokey improvised a pro wrestling match, battering and smashing the plush animal with fierce blows. Smokey then delivered an elbow, which prompted his adversary to explode, the foam balls inside spreading all over the hardwood. After pausing for cleanup, game officials ejected Smokey.

8. Bob the Shark's Ill-Advised Attack

Bob the Shark appears with Julio the Octopus and Spike the Sea Dragon during the Great Sea Race at a Miami Marlins game
Marc Serota, Getty Images

In 2013, Beth Fedornak was attending a Miami Marlins game and watched as a costumed character named Bob the Shark was trotted out as part of the entertainment between innings. In the performance, Bob races other sea creatures like Julio the Octopus and Angel the Stone Crab. Suddenly, Bob was upon Fedornak, and tried to mime biting her head. Fedornak claimed the interaction caused her severe neck pain and injuries. She sued in 2015. The case went to mediation in 2017 in the hopes of avoiding a jury trial, but no resolution was disclosed. The team ended the sea creature race in 2018, retaining only the services of a single mascot: Billy the Marlin.

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