The sport of boxing has always been a great equalizer. If you’ve got the goods, you’ve got em, and not much else matters. While boxing certainly doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to inclusivity and that egalitarian spirit that governs combat sports, it has played an important part in African-American history, providing an avenue to success that was not always historically available to their communities elsewhere. That is why we are honoring the longest-running African-American holiday, Juneteenth, with a brief history of racial integration in the sport of boxing.
The Era of Slavery Prizefights
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Boxing was the first sport to be fully integrated in America, and its history in the African-American community goes all the way back to pre-civil war and slavery when slaves often fought in prizefights and sometimes won their freedom if they made their owners enough money and prestige.
One such fighter was Tom Molineaux, an African-American born into slavery in Virginia on a plantation who often participated in slave fights. The story goes that he won his freedom after winning a high stakes bout that the plantation owner’s son had bet 100,000 dollars on. Now a freedman, he traveled to Europe in order to live as a prizefighter, having several notable fights. Perhaps the most well known of these is the pair of bouts with English champion Tom Cribb in the early 1800s.
Molineaux vs Cribb 1&2
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Molineaux and Cribb met for the first time in December of 1810 where they fought for a truly astounding 35 rounds. During the 19th round of the fight, the crowd rushed into the ring, injuring Tom Molineaux’s hand in the process and separating the fighters (who were locked in a hold at the time). Due to the referee’s confusion, Tom Cribb was allowed to continue despite him possibly not returning to the arena in time after the crowd had been cleared. Molineaux fought bravely despite a possibly broken hand for the remaining 16 rounds but was finally defeated in the 35th.
In the second fight, Molineaux and Cribb were almost a stone lighter (which means Molineaux was far below his normal weight at 185 pounds (at most). During this fight, Molineaux again proved to be one of Cribb’s toughest challenges but was out-fought, Cribb breaking his jaw and knocking him out in the 11th round.
Image Credit: @TeresaMannion
Molineaux was deservedly inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, and in 2010 also took his place in the Bare Knuckle Hall of Fame. His exploits have given rise to many stories based on his life. In 2019 Irish boxing champion Katie Taylor unveiled a headstone over Molineaux's grave that had been unmarked till then, at the St. James graveyard in Galway, Ireland. On it is an inscription from our FightCamp family member Mike Tyson - "The first Black champion that got his freedom through fighting".
The Racial Divides of Early Boxing
While African-American boxers were excluded from lucrative fights until well after the civil war, boxing would very quickly become an integrated sport with fighters like Jack Johnson, who became the first American black heavyweight champion in 1908 with his defeat of Tommy Burns, and Joe Louis who was a known patriot and often credited as the father of modern boxing form. The reasons for this integration are often ugly to think about (many saw it as a struggle for race superiority at the time) but regardless of the reasons behind it boxing suddenly offered a way out of the institutional poverty held against people of color for so long. And fighters like Johnson and Louis often invested back into their communities and pushed the boundaries of what a black man was ‘allowed’ to do at the time.
Boxing has always, and will always, be a meritocracy first. It does not matter how rich you are, where you come from, or what color your skin is, boxing is the sport of warriors and if you can fight, you can fight. Men like Tom Molineaux, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis prove that the road is not always easy but in the end, the better man always wins.