From the UK Daily Mai, "The shameful story of how - 200 years ago this week - a bigoted mob cheated a freed slave out of the British heavyweight title," by David Leafe, on 14 December 2010
In one corner stood the British heavyweight champion, Tom Cribb, a former docker from Bristol whose brute strength had been developed by hauling coal barges since childhood.
Then 29, this 6ft beast was a giant by the standards of the day, his hands so hardened by years of bare-knuckle fighting that he could punch the bark off trees without flinching.
He was strong, resolute, and known never to surrender. In him, the public saw all the John Bull virtues which had helped trounce Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar five years previously.
This made the temerity of his opponent in challenging him all the more remarkable.
A former slave from Virginia with only two fights on English soil to his name, Tom Molineaux made history just by getting in the ring.
At 26, he became the first black man ever to fight for the British heavyweight boxing title and he would pay a heavy price for it.
Even now, in the week that marks this epic fight’s 200th anniversary, the events of that day remain some of the most shameful in our sporting history.
Britain was a nation which prided itself on gentlemanly conduct and fair play, but Tom Molineaux saw little of either after arriving here in the spring of 1810.
He had gained his freedom from life on a cotton plantation by beating another slave in a prize fight and winning a sizeable purse for his master.
As a free man, he had thrashed many other opponents in America, but he knew that real fame and fortune lay in Britain where pugilism had been a popular spectacle for at least a century.
The sport was technically illegal here, but vast sums were bet on matches, often by aristocrats fearing a revolution similar to that which had robbed their French counterparts of their fortunes only a few years previously.
If their money was going to be taken from them anyway, they reasoned that they might as well fritter it away.
The huge amounts riding on matches made stars of prize-fighters, with nicknames like The Gravedigger and The Jawbreaker.
In attempting to join their ranks, Tom Molineaux found himself taken under the wing of a man with a vengeful agenda.
Like Molineaux, Bill Richmond — or The Black Terror as he was known — was a former slave. Born in New York in 1763, he was brought to England as a young man by Lord Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, an enlightened man who encouraged him to set up in business first as a cabinet-maker and then as a prize boxer.
Richmond quickly established himself as one of the best fighters in Britain, earning upwards of 100 guineas a night. The poet Lord Byron wrote about him and he was much courted as an exotic novelty at society gatherings.
But none of this was enough for Richmond who had only one ambition: to beat the aforementioned Tom Cribb, regarded as far and away the best fighter in England.
They finally faced each other in October 1805 in Hailsham, Sussex.
Fights were then a brutal mixture of boxing and wrestling with almost anything allowed, including head-butting, bone-breaking and vicious kicks to the kidneys.
There were no timed rounds and fighting continued until a man was down. He was given 30 seconds of respite, before being ordered back to a square in the centre of the ring known as the ‘scratch’.
Failure to get ‘up to scratch’ lost him the fight, as happened to Richmond. After an hour-and-a-half of pummeling, his knuckles torn and his face bloody, he was finally forced to cry: ‘Enough!’
Realizing he was past his prime, he went into semi-retirement and set up a boxing academy in London. But he never forgot this humiliating defeat.
His resentment grew when Cribb won the heavyweight title soon afterwards. Richmond was determined to rob him of this crown and saw his chance when Tom Molineaux turned up at his gym — only 5ft 9in tall, but 14st of pure muscle.
His confidence in Molineaux grew after his first fight in July 1810 against an opponent known as The Bristol Butcher. Dubbed Black Ajax, Molineaux reportedly gave the other man such a severe beating that it was impossible to distinguish a single feature on his face.
Next month came a fight in Margate against Tom Tough, a man trained by Cribb. In the eighth round Molineaux ‘knocked all recollection out of him’, according to one boxing writer of the day.
By beating one of Cribb’s men insensible, Molineaux had laid down an indirect challenge to the champion himself. But Cribb had been in retirement for two years and had no desire to defend his crown.
Intent on provoking him, Bill Richmond encouraged Molineaux to boast about what he would do to Cribb and soon there was great public clamor for a fight between them.
Even ‘Mad’ King George III is said to have joined in with demands for the match.
Cribb had no choice but to fight a man he regarded as a still unproven novice. And so the two men met at Copthorne Common, near East Grinstead, on that bleak December day for what promised to be the greatest sporting event of the century.
A band struck up Yankee Doodle Dandy and then Heart of Oak, the Royal Navy’s official marching song, as the two men took their place in the ring.
As they squared up and fighting began, it was obvious that Cribb’s height was not his only advantage. He also had the support of a home crowd who were determined that no foreigner should be allowed to take away his belt.
‘The honour of the country was at stake,’ explained sports writer Pierce Egan in the journal Boxiana. ‘And no boxer ever entered the ring with so many wishes for his success as Tom Cribb.’
For 18 rounds, the mob shouted and cheered as Molineaux absorbed Cribb’s best shots and returned them blow for blow. They were happy to applaud his performance as long as there was no chance of him winning, but then, in the 19th round, Cribb appeared to be flagging.
As Molineaux trapped him on the ropes, they stormed the ring, hoping to give Cribb a chance to recover while order was restored.
In the confusion, with thousands of people pushing, shoving and trampling each other underfoot, several fingers on Molineaux’s left hand were broken.
Worse was to come in the following rounds when Cribb fractured Molineaux’s jaw and six of his ribs. Still both men fought wearily on, as described by George MacDonald Fraser in Black Ajax — a novel about Molineaux’s life based on meticulous historical research.
‘They were mauling each other like sleep-walkers floundering in the mud with the rain washing the blood and mire off o’them,’ he wrote.
‘You never saw two men so dead and yet alive, disfigured so bloody you could only tell ’em apart by their skins.’
In the 28th round, Molineaux seemed assured of victory once again. After one vicious exchange, Cribb lay senseless on the ground, with one hand pawing at the ropes, as if trying to raise himself up.
When ‘time’ was called, signifying that the 30 seconds recovery period was over, Molineaux was back in the centre of the ring, ready to fight.
But Cribb had only made it onto his knees and was still crawling exhaustedly towards the scratch.
At that point, realising that Cribb might not get back to his feet in time, one of his seconds approached the umpire and accused Molineaux of carrying bullets in his hands to add weight to his punches.
An argument followed and by the time Molineaux had opened his hands to prove that they were empty, Cribb was finally standing at the scratch.
The umpire was too fearful of the crowd’s reaction to declare that he had got there too late and the fight continued, robbing Molineaux of the victory which was rightfully his.
In the 35th round, the spectators finally got the result they had conspired to achieve.
His eyes swollen closed, his nose split in two places, and with one ear torn part away, Molineaux’s body was one mighty bruise. He was forced to concede the match.
Cribb’s supporters were triumphant, but journalist Pierce Egan was among those angry that foul play and the crowd’s bigotry had conspired against the contender. ‘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,’ he wrote.
Two days later, Molineaux sent a letter to Cribb demanding a return fight and a re-match was scheduled for the following autumn. But perhaps realising that he might once again be denied the title no matter how hard he trained, Molineaux’s heart did not seem to be in it.
Certainly, the two men’s preparations could not have been more different. Cribb was taken away to a secret training camp where his fists were soaked in vinegar to toughen them and all contact with women was forbidden, lest his strength be drained. Meanwhile, Molineaux was enjoying new-found celebrity as the man who had dared to take on Cribb.
Much to his trainer Bill Richmond’s fury, he became a man about town — eating freely, drinking heavily and wearing stylish clothes chosen for him by the dandy Beau Brummell.
Wherever he went, he attracted the attention of admiring women, the gossip columns hinting that he had enjoyed dalliances with at least one female member of the aristocracy and many actresses, prostitutes and others of lower social standing.
‘Pleasure was the order of the day with him and the stews of the metropolis tended to undermine his manhood,’ wrote Pierce Egan.
The re-match was held at Thistleton Gap, Leicestershire, on September 28, 1811.
That morning, Molineaux downed a boiled fowl, an apple pie and a tankard of beer. Not surprisingly, the fight lasted only 19 minutes and was an easy victory for Cribb.
The trainer Bill Richmond’s dreams of revenge had come to nothing. He was furious that his protege had blown his chances and threw him out of his gym.
Without Richmond’s backing, Molineaux was forced to scrape a living by taking on all-comers in carnivals, sideshows and fairs. He and Richmond never spoke again.
In the coming years, Richmond’s boxing academy was pulled down to make way for Nelson’s column and Trafalgar Square, but his pugilistic past was not forgotten.
In 1821, he was invited to join the guard of honour at the coronation of King George IV and when he died in 1828, at the age of 58, it was in the comfort of his luxurious London home.
As for Molineaux, he ended up sleeping rough in a barn in Ireland, overweight and flabby, with a bottle of cheap spirits constantly at his lips.
He succumbed to liver failure in August 1818 at the age of 34.
So ended the life of a man who — for a brief moment — was as famous as Napoleon but, thanks to the trickery and prejudice of his opponents, died forgotten and alone. (source: UK Daily Mail)