“A brave black man is Molineaux” – British boxing, the Black Ajax and foul play at a championship fight

18 December 1810, at Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire in a not-so-clean fight for the English title, boxing champion Tom Cribb from Bristol accepted the challenge of Tom Molineaux, an ex-slave from Virginia, and defended his title by KO in the 35th round.

“On the eighteenth of December, of a fight I will sing,
When bold Cribb and Molineaux entered the ring,
With hope and expectations our bosoms beating high
While the rain pour’d in torrents form a dark low’ring sky” 
(“Cribb and the Black”, contemporary folk song)

George Cruickshank: "The battle between Crib [Cribb] and Molineaux" (1811)

Fist fighting competitions are old as mud. Pankration of the Ancient World is actually one of the more recent examples. When this combination of boxing and wrestling was introduced into the Olympic Games in 468 BCE, they claimed it was invented by either Heracles or Theseus a long time ago and those heroes of antiquity learned it from an old caveman, in all probability. However, Fist- and Price fighting never became such an integral part of cultural identity as it was in Georgian England, when beef, beer and boxing were the three things that constituted an Englishman. And while the rest of Europe, especially the French, goes without saying, found this to be a bit beyond the pale, the islanders wallowed in this state of affairs and thought that was why British soldiers won their battles. Because they were used to strip to the waist and batter at each other, with bare knuckles, stand firm and never give up. And, it’s hard to believe, but there was some art to it. In fact, bare knuckle boxing was known as the “the Art”, the “Science” or the “Fancy” and there was a set of rules drafted as early as 1743, usually accommodated on the spot to what the huge crowds wanted to see when they flocked to popular prize fights or just to a match fought at the local trade fair. As awkward and infective the pugilists’ “milling” appears today, and it has been ridiculed since 1867, when the Marques of Queensbury introduced the rules of modern boxing, they didn’t call it “science” for nothing. A lot more brutal and bloody, winners were determined either by KO or death. Quitting was usually not an option and prize fights could last for hours, until one of the combatants could no longer stagger unaided to the scratch, the box chalked on the ring’s floor by the referees, hence the term “not up to scratch”, meaning “almost beaten to death”. The pugilists usually were the heroes of their day, James Belcher, Henry "Hen" Pearce, the “Game Chicken”, Dan Mendoza, the first Jew who was allowed to talk to King George III, Gentleman John Jackson, called the “Emperor of Pugilism” by Lord Byron, Tom Cribb, naturally, the champion, and Bill Richmond, a “gentleman of colour” as Pierce Egan put it, journalist and publisher of “Boxiana” a magazine about "The Sweet Science of Bruising”, illegal in England, since prize fighting was actually outlawed. Cultural icon or not. 

"Cribb's parlour: Tom introducing the champion of England", from "Life in London", 1821

Charges were seldom pressed, though, against prize fighters and the boxing community in Georgian times and the days of Prinny’s regency. Both he and his entourage were avid boxing fans, along with most of the rest of Britain’s upper echelons of society. And it says a lot about late 18th century England that society’s dregs as well as the Prince of Wales and the king himself, in the moments when he realised where and what he was, cheered a freed slave from Virginia who became a champion of illegal sporting events. While slavery was unsupported by English law on English soil, it was still legal in most of Britain’s colonies until 1807, and even if the abolition movement gained ground, there was still enough racial prejudice present, usually among those who’d never seen a black person before. Ironically enough, Bill Richmond, then a carpenter's apprentice in York, started his career after he had trashed a brothel keeper, of all the people, who insulted Richmond’s white girl friend for dating a black man. A couple of years later, in 1805, Richmond was known as the “Black Terror”, a darling of the sporting crowd until he challenged Tom Cribb, the All English Champion. And while they were songs sung that Boney could land in England all right, they’d just send Tom Cribb against him to show the Frogs what’s what, the announcement of the fight between the champion and Richmond made more headlines than the departure of Nelson’s squadron for Trafalgar. England’s honour was at stake in the ring, it was as if Bill Richmond had challenged John Bull himself. He fought in a bob and weave-like style not unlike Joe Frazier’s or Tyson’s. By modern standards though, the “Black Terror” was a welterweight. Tom Cribb would rate as a typical heavyweight, rumour has it that he could punch bark from a tree, bare-knuckled, mind you, but during the first rounds in the ring with Bill Richmond in September 1805, he couldn’t even land a blow. Then Cribb’s superior weight and ability to take punishment began to tell. In the 60th (in words: sixtieth!) round, Richmond couldn’t get up any more and Cribb had won. However, Richmond did  win the championship of hearts, though, he opened a boxing school on Leicester Square and the rich, the famous and their camp followers took boxing lessons from him, Byron among them, the former “Black Terror” was now in his forties, still a celebrity, maybe even more than before the fight with Cribb, well off, training his own stable of boxers along with the lounge lizards, still brooding over his defeat in 1805 and along came Tom Molineaux. 

George Cruikshank: "The Champion Triumphant" (1811)

Like Richmond, Molineaux was an ex-slave from Virginia, he called himself the American champion, allegedly he had won his freedom in a boxing match and now he was in England to challenge the cream of English boxing, Tom Cribb, undisputed master of the Science. Richmond became aware of Molineaux in 1810 after he won a few fights against provincial notables. He trained him, showed him the finer points of the Art and recognised that Molineaux, a modern heavyweight, standing 5’8’’ tall with a fighting weight of fourteen stone two, 90 kg, and an immense resilience, was just the man who would help him to get back at Cribb. Like Richmond, Molineaux had become the darling of London society during his time in the boxing stable on Leicester Square, although not quite with charm, wit and good manners, like his trainer, a behaviour that drove Richmond almost to tears on a regular basis. However, in Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire, the “Black Ajax” fought Cribb, who wasn’t at the top of his game either, for the English title in front of at least hundreds of spectators. Trained by Richmond, Molineaux proved to be a powerful and cunning fighter and the bets on Cribb winning before the 10th round were off pretty soon. In the 19th round then, Cribb didn’t look very good, Molineaux had the champion pressed against the ring in a wrestler’s hold, allowed under the rules of the day, the referee did not break the two apart and the eager crowd had it and stormed the ring, presumably led by Cribb’s followers and those who had their money on him. In the following hubbub, one of Molineaux’s fingers was broken, but the fight went on and Cribb didn’t seem to win it regardless. When he couldn’t make it to the scratch after the customary 30 second break in the 28th round, Molineaux was accused of carrying lead bullets in his fists. He didn’t, but meanwhile Cribb had staggered back to continue and after the 35th round in the icy December rain, Molineaux mumbled that he could “fight no more” and stayed lying down. “It will not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that it was Molineaux’s colour alone that prevented him becoming the hero of that fight”, Pierce Egan wrote later, and being American. Not English. Richmond and Molineaux challenged Cribb to a rematch, the champion didn’t like the idea one bit but was honour-bound to accept and while Cribb was brought back into shape with a rigorous training, Molineaux ignored his trainer, debauched himself with wine, women and song, so to speak, and was thoroughly beaten by Cribb in September 1811 in the return fight with 11,000 spectators watching in the 11th round. Richmond and Molineaux parted ways after that and the almost first black boxing champion died three years later in Galway from a liver failure at the age of 34.

The image of Cribb's Parlour above was found on the wonderful blog "Richmond Unchained" on: