Admire Tom Molineaux, the American freedman and heavyweight boxer billed as “The Black Ajax”. Born on a plantation in South Carolina, he had won his freedom in a prize fight and after many victories in America had been invited to England by another ex-slave, Bill Richmond. Also known as “The Black Terror”, Richmond boxed and ran a famous boxing academy in London.
The Greek hero Ajax was not a boxer, but a champion wrestler; in Iliad 23, at the funeral games for Patroclus, his bout with Odysseus is declared a draw because he is physically stronger but Odysseus is his superior strategically. This makes the ultimate defeat of the Black Ajax at the hands of English heavyweight champion Tom Cribb, a former Bristol docker, all the more poignant. On December 18th 1810, near East Grinstead, in front of a cross-class audience, laying enormous bets, which included aristocrats and what an eye-witness called a large number of “fancy lads of the Westminster School”, the 26-year-old Molineaux faced the most celebrated boxer in Britain. By the end of the match, “you never saw two men so dead and yet alive, disfigured so bloody you could only tell ’em apart by their skins”.
The gigantic Cribb, now the prosperous proprietor of the Union Arms in Panton Street, London, had been persuaded to come out of retirement to defend the honour, it was felt, not only of Britain versus the apostate United States but of all white men against their black brethren. Britons felt outraged at the ease with which the Black Ajax had that summer demolished two famous English pugilists, The Bristol Terror and Tom Tough.
On what was dubbed the “Campus Martius” (Field of Mars) that stormy winter’s day, Black Ajax gave as good as he got and laid out Cribb decisively in the 28th round. Appalled that the American was about to be declared victor, Cribb’s second accused him of cheating, creating a long delay which allowed Cribb to get back on his feet. Molineaux was finally defeated in the 35th round. Contemporary journalist Pierce Egan, however, insisted that underhand means and the crowd’s bias had robbed him of a glorious victory: “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.”
Molineaux’s career never recovered. He got drunk before the rematch and lost in only 19 minutes. Richmond abandoned him. He died of alcoholism in Ireland just eight years later.