The black boxing pioneer who made home in 19th-century Ireland
Tom Molineaux’s strange life story is every bit as fascinating as his career as a pugilist
Undated painting of boxing pioneer Tom Molineaux.
Imagine the strangeness: an African-American moving through the Irish countryside in the late 1810s, the Famine more than 30 years in the country’s future and the villages teeming and overwhelmingly white and Gaelic, and everyone agape, no doubt, at the pure exoticism of Tom Molineaux, boxer and freeman.
Molineaux had travelled an indescribable distance in miles and circumstance from the tobacco plantation into which he was born, though he held onto his slaveowner’s surname after winning his freedom through boxing and leaving the toxic Southern states as fast as he could.
Like most liberated African-Americans of that period, he made his way to New York, where he boxed all-comers for money. Eventually, he took a three-month ship journey to London, where he sought to fight Tom Cribb, the champion of England.
“Tom Molineaux is simply a huge figure,” says Patrick Myler, the boxing writer and historian.
“He would really be considered the pioneer. At the time he reached his peak, England was at the centre of the boxing universe. So this would have been the first international big fight in boxing history. He was an inspirational figure to a lot of boxers and you would often hear reference to him.
“Once he became famous through the fight with Cribb, he rapidly went downhill after that. I don’t know what kind of attraction he was in Ireland. But he was on the end of a slippery slope by the time he arrived here.”
Myler had come across Molineaux in contemporary writings about fights of that era and learned that he was buried in Galway. But it is the audacity of his life story that is as fascinating as his boxing career.
A new documentary made by Des Kilbane speculates that Molineaux may have been given a few lessons in the rudiments of boxing by none other than George Washington, an appealing if fanciful idea.
However he acquired his skill, he was persuaded to fight a slave from a neighbouring plantation in a bout which would settle a wager between their owners: by winning the fight, Molineaux saved the slaveowner’s plantation and, as agreed, was granted free status and money in return.
There is no written record of the exact location of the Molineaux plantation. The chances are the fight merely delayed its loss and transference as a result of chronic gambling.
But Tom Molineaux followed the gift that had earned him an unlikely reprieve from the tobacco fields to its logical conclusion. There is no reportage, either, of his fights in New York; boxing existed there in an illicit, hastily arranged way. But after he made the crossing to England he began to show up in the books.
First, Molineaux sought and found Bill Richmond, another former African-American slave who had been brought to England by Lt-Gen Earl Percy and made a living from boxing before buying an inn, the Horse and Dolphin, in Leicester Square.
Richmond secured a fight against Tom Tough, then an aging regular on the boxing circuit, in order to raise Molineaux’s profile, and by December 1810 London was giddy at the prospect of a fight between the new arrival and Cribb, landlord of the Union Arms pub on Panton Street in Soho and revered for his boxing prowess.
Copthall Common in East Grinstead was the venue for the fight and the date was fixed for December 18th.
Because boxing was technically illegal, fights were often located right on the border of two counties. If the constabulary of one county came to break up the gathering, participants and the audience merely skipped into the neighbouring jurisdiction.
Boxing attracted all walks of life, from the prince regent and his posse to members of the judiciary to the masses from England’s industries.
If boxing is regarded as brutal today, it was utterly unforgiving and barbaric in its 19th-century guise. Bare-knuckle, the aim was to fight to the finish: until one of the combatants could no longer get up.
Rounds ended when one of the boxers hit the ground: they might last for a few seconds or for 10 minutes.
Copthall Common was dismally wet and cold on that December morning as a crowd of about 12,000 people turned out for the fight. Pierce Egan, the celebrated boxing writer, was among those who attended.
“His opinions were very much sought after,” says Myler. “He was the standout boxing writer of the bare-knuckle era and a remarkable figure. Nobody is sure if he was born in Ireland or London but his father was definitely Irish. He went over to pave the streets of London. But he was the guy who went out in all weathers with his notebook and pencil and jotted down the details.
“His great books are Boxiana, four volumes which detail the fights he covered. He was the supreme chronicler of that early, bare-fist boxing era.”
Boxers had patrons at that time, who provided for their charges while they trained and then fought for an agreed purse. The real money lay in the huge wagering that went on. Cribb, a mythical figure in England, was expected to make light work of his challenger. The bout contained all the storylines which defined the sport through the following two centuries: white versus black, American versus English, New World versus Old World. It was hyped to the last.
And Cribb apparently placed faith in his own legend, showing up for the fight having done the minimum of training, only to be surprised by the physique and ability of his opponent. The fight lasted a staggering 39 rounds.
“If you compare them to modern boxers, the one thing they had was their durability and courage,” Myler says.
“They wouldn’t match today’s boxers in terms of proper training or diet. There was a certain level of technique but it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny today. There wasn’t a lot of footwork involved. They mainly stood toe to toe. But there was a lot of blocking involved and they would resort to holding if a guy was hurt.
“They had tricks of the trade to preserve stamina. They weren’t just like street fighters. It stands to reason that if you hit a blow with an uncovered hand against a skull there will be more damage to the hand. So a lot of them aimed for the throat, below the jaw line, where they could cause damage without hurting their hands. And body punching came into it. You just couldn’t stand there and hit a guy in the head for any length of time without breaking your hand.”
As Egan’s notes make clear, Molineaux used a throat shot to weaken Cribb, and as the fight deepened, it was clear to the partisan crowd that a huge upset was on the cards.
By the 19th round, Egan writes that it was all but impossible to tell the men apart, “so dreadfully were both their faces beaten”.
The fight hinged on the contentious 29th round, of which Egan wrote: “The Moor was running in with spirit, but the Champion stopped his career by planting a hit upon his right eye and, from its severe effects, he went down, which materially damaged his peeper. The fate of the battle might be said to be detected by this round.”
But it is also accepted that the English champion was given a long count prior to coming out for the round. His corner had accused Molineaux’s trainer of having slipped bullets into the boxer’s palms to add weight to the punches.
The delay enabled Cribb to gather enough energy to fight on when, by rights, he should have been disqualified. The crowd also charged the fighting area, causing another delay.
The 34th was “the last round that might be termed fighting”, but both men dragged themselves out for another five before Molineaux, according to Egan, “complained that he could fight no more”. It was a riveting contest – “50-minutes of unprecedented milling” – and led to a rematch the following September at Thistleton Gap, near Grantham.
That instalment provoked huge interest and, as Egan testifies, “for 20 miles within the seat of action not a bed could be obtained on the preceding night”.
Twenty-thousand people showed up, including the Marquis of Queensbury. Cribb, who had undergone a training regime supervised by his patron, Captain Barclay, had dropped by three stone to weigh in at just in excess of 13.
Molineaux, however, had spent much of the last year enjoying all of the advantages and opportunities of his newfound celebrity. Any hunger he had for boxing had dissipated.
His stamina had deteriorated and he was unable to survive for more than 20 minutes. Cribb earned £400 for his win; Barclay pocketed £10,000. London society soon lost interest in Molineaux after Cribb had preserved England’s honour.
The American then struck up a friendship with George Cooper, and the pair travelled to Dublin in 1815, where Molineaux attempted to engage Dan Donnelly, the Irish champion, in a fight similar in scale and profitability to his Cribb challenge.
“For whatever reason it didn’t happen,” says Kilbane.
“Maybe it was because of his skin colour or that Donnelly said he wouldn’t fight a defeated man.
“But he fought Cooper instead. That would have been his last pay day – 35,000 people came out to that fight [in Kilcullen, at what is now known as Donnelly’s Hollow] and Molineaux would have made a lot of money. And he would have been well known in Ireland. But he did stay in Ireland rather than return to England. It wasn’t easy for him here but he found it preferable to England.”
Molineaux drifted for the next three years, seeking exhibition fights at fairs, his alcoholism deepening. He finally took up residence in Galway, which was the aspect that attracted Des Kilbane’s interest. He went to see Tom Kenny, the Galway historian, who immediately told him: “That’s the guy who is buried up in Mervue.”
Kenny showed Kilbane a book, a 1906 chronicle of 19th-century boxing titled Pugilistica, which contains an in-depth article on the Molineaux-Cribb fight. In researching his story, Kilbane found an odd symmetry in the thriving trade routes between Galway and the Caribbean.
“Cromwell rounded up the waifs and strays and forced them to Montserrat and Barbados where the sugar plantations were. In fact, the Lynches who owned half of Galway back in the day had many sugar plantations. Same with the Bodkins, Blakes, Burkes and Browns.
“We didn’t want to go into the Caribbean story, but many of them only spoke Irish and one of the Blakes’ letters from Montserrat included a request for an English teacher to be sent out or they would end up speaking Irish all their lives.
“But the ironic thing is that Irish people were going over and working in the tobacco plantations in Virginia and Carolina while Tom, who was born on and worked on those plantations, ended up in Galway. And he is buried on land owned by the Lynches. He is buried alongside them there, which is really ironic, I think.”
For well over a century, Molineaux lay in an unmarked grave. But his life story didn’t disappear: it has been the subject of a play, several films and a novel, and he came to be regarded as the frontiersman by future African-American boxing champions, from Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson, who recently told XXL magazine that the rapper LL Cool J’s lineage can be traced to Molineaux’s bloodline.
“He’s the first black champion who earned his freedom through fighting,” Tyson said.
A simple stone plaque marks Molineaux’s final resting place at St James’s in Galway city.
Crossing The Black Atlantic (DesK productions) will be broadcast on TG4 on Wednesday, October 18th, at 9.30pm.