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.

What Happens to the Losing Team's Pre-Printed Championship Shirts?

Adam Glanzman, Getty Images
Adam Glanzman, Getty Images

Following a big win in the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, or any other major sporting event, fans want to get their hands on championship merchandise as quickly as possible. To meet this demand and cash in on the wallet-loosening "We’re #1" euphoria, manufacturers and retailers produce and stock two sets of T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise that declare each team the champ.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that means apparel for the winner—either the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams—will quickly fill clothing racks and gets tossed to players on the field once the game concludes. But what happens to the losing team's clothing? It's destined for charity.

Good360, a charitable organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, handles excess consumer merchandise and distributes it to those in need overseas. The losing team's apparel—usually shirts, hats, and sweatshirts—will be held in inventory locations across the U.S. Following the game, Good360 will be informed of exactly how much product is available and will then determine where the goods can best be of service.

Good360 chief marketing officer Shari Rudolph tells Mental Floss there's no exact count just yet. But in the past, the merchandise has been plentiful. Based on strong sales after the Chicago Bears’s 2007 NFC Championship win, for example, Sports Authority printed more than 15,000 shirts proclaiming a Bears Super Bowl victory well before the game even started. And then the Colts beat the Bears, 29-17.

Good360 took over the NFL's excess goods distribution in 2015. For almost two decades prior, an international humanitarian aid group called World Vision collected the unwanted items for MLB and NFL runners-up at its distribution center in Pittsburgh, then shipped them overseas to people living in disaster areas and impoverished nations. After losing Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Arizona Cardinals gear was sent to children and families in El Salvador. In 2010, after the New Orleans Saints defeated Indianapolis, the Colts gear printed up for Super Bowl XLIV was sent to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

In 2011, after Pittsburgh lost to the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers Super Bowl apparel went to Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania.

Fans of the Super Bowl team that comes up short can take heart: At least the spoils of losing will go to a worthy cause.

An earlier version of this story appeared in 2009. Additional reporting by Jake Rossen.

All images courtesy of World Vision, unless otherwise noted.

Super Bowl 2019: How to Live Stream the Big Game

Andy Lyons, Getty Images
Andy Lyons, Getty Images

How big is the Super Bowl? Last year, 103.4 million viewers watched as the Philadelphia Eagles pulled an upset victory over the New England Patriots. Previous editions from 2010 to 2017 rank among the 10 most-watched television programs of all time, dominating a list with only one non-NFL entry: the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII meeting between the returning Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams also promises to be a tremendous attraction for viewers, but the 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS won’t necessarily require you to have a broadcast antenna or cable subscription. There are a number of ways to live stream the big game.

You can point your browser to CBSSports.com, where the network will be offering the entire event at no charge. If you prefer to use an app, the CBS Sports App can be downloaded and used on your Android or iOS smartphone or via one of the major TV devices like Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire TV.

CBS also has a paid streaming service, CBS All Access, that will broadcast the game to subscribers. Why opt for the $9.99 service when the game is free elsewhere? CBS All Access offers a huge library of content, including original series like Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight. It also offers a one-week free trial.

Want more options? Both Hulu and YouTube are rolling out live television options with local affiliates. You’ll have to check the services to see whether CBS is one of the options in your area. Hulu charges $44.99 a month for more than 60 channels of live television. YouTube’s services, dubbed YouTubeTV, run $40. You can also find similar cable bundle-type plans with DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue.

If you’re unsure which to choose, remember that not all of them carry Animal Planet, which will broadcast Puppy Bowl XV at 3 p.m. ET.

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