America’s First Boxing Superstar: Tom Molineaux, the Slave Who Boxed His Way to Freedom

By now we should all know about Jack Johnson, who was the First Black heavyweight boxing champion BUT have you ever heard of Tom Molineaux, who was the first Black person to compete for the heavyweight championship AND was America’s first international boxing superstar? Molineaux, who was born into slavery in Virginia, 1784, “fought fellow slaves while plantation owners wagered on the contests.” I would like to note that his fighting other slaves was probably 99.999999999999999999999999999999% not his choice. A bare-knuckle boxer, Molineaux won $500 and his freedom, as well as winning his owner $100,000,  after beating another slave in a match sometime in early the 1800s. Once freed, Molineaux moved to New York around 1809 and eventually headed to England, which at the time was the center of the boxing universe.

While in England, Molineaux linked up with Bill Richmond, a former American slave and notable boxer in England. Richmond put his boxing career aside to help train Molineaux. That is Richmond to the left of Molineaux in the featured photo of this post.

In 1810, with the help of Richmond, Molineaux began making a name for himself in England’s boxing world, eventually drumming up enough interest to earn a fight with England’s heavyweight champion Tom Cribb, once in 1810 and again in 1811. Molineaux lost both fights but not without controversy. Reports from sports writer Pierce Egan, who covered the 1810 fight, stated that “it was the most dreadful affront to British sportsmanship ever witnessed”. This was due to the bloody brutality resulting from 44 rounds of the bare-knuckle fight, which left both fighters – a white man (Cribb) and a black man (Molineaux) – so battered that spectators were unable to tell them apart. Molineaux quit in round 44 and Cribb was declared the winner. There were reports that Molineaux had Cribb in a legal headlock resulting in the fans storming the ring attacking him, which gave Cribb the upper-hand in defeating Molineaux. It is also noted that Cribb went down during the 27th round and did not get up after the required 30 seconds, which means Molineaux actually won but Cribb was given the benefit of the doubt because the the refs were distracted and…racism. The 1811 rematch was an easy win for Cribb as Molineaux was out boxed by his opponent.

Molineux fired Richmond and in 1815 he moved to Ireland where he fought in fairs and exhibitions.  A 1906 boxing book titled Pugilistica reported that “Molineaux went on a sparring tour to Ireland. At the later end of the year 1817, he was travelling over the northern parts of that country, teaching the stick-fighting natives the use of their fists… Molineaux was illiterate and ostentatious, but good-tempered, liberal, and generous to a fault. Fond of gay clothes, gay life, and amorous to the extreme, he deluded himself with the idea that his strength of constitution was proof against excesses.”

On August 4, 1818, at the age of 34, Molineaux died penniless in Ireland. May his legacy and place in our history books never be overlooked or forgotten.

Fun facts about Tom Molineaux:

Swipe through below for more pictures of Tom Molineaux. 


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