Tom Molineaux: The Ex-Slave Who Became America’s First International Boxing Superstar

George Cruickshank (NYPL), via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
George Cruickshank (NYPL), via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Tom Molineaux found freedom with his fists.

Regarded as America's first great prizefighter, very little is known about Molineaux’s early life. The most common account, however, says that he was born a slave in Virginia sometime around 1784. The local plantation owners took amusement in pitting their enslaved people against each other in bare-knuckle boxing matches, and Molineaux showed a knack for the sport. One day, he won a match that earned his master a huge sum in bets, and was consequently granted his freedom.

(There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that George Washington, a neighboring plantation owner, might have given Molineaux a few pointers in the ring. While that is almost certainly a fabrication, Washington did in fact know a great deal about combat sports such as wrestling; Sports Illustrated called him “a master of the British style known as collar and elbow.”)

After gaining his freedom, Molineaux moved north to New York City around 1804 and began honing his bare-knuckle boxing skills. Details are scarce, but it’s obvious that the young pugilist carved out a name for himself, as he soon earned the title of “Champion of America.”

After five years, Molineaux decided to take his talents across the pond to England. “He was the first American to rise to the eminence of an international challenger,” journalist Paul Magriel wrote in a 1951 edition of the journal Phylon [PDF].

But Molineaux wasn't just hungry for new competition. In Britain, there was big money in boxing. Though the sport was technically illegal, it was well-respected and well-attended. It also had a set of well-defined rules, which Brian Phillips wrote about in a fantastic piece for Grantland:

"Bouts were held outdoors, on bare ground, in rings marked off from fields. The fighters wore no gloves, which probably made them safer. (Gloves were introduced to protect the hands, not the head, and allowed fighters to punch harder.) But rounds didn’t end until one man or the other went down. And there was no limit to the number of rounds that could be fought. After a fall, fighters had 30 seconds to return to the scratch, a mark in the middle of the ring."

Arriving in England, Molineaux had one goal: To fight Tom Cribb. Cribb, who was born near Bristol, England, was considered Europe’s best boxer and routinely drew tens of thousands of spectators to his matches. He was also incredibly tough. According to Phillips, “he reportedly trained by punching the bark off trees.”

In London, Molineaux met a fellow American boxing aficionado—and ex-slave—named Bill Richmond. Richmond, who was considered one of the world’s first black sporting celebrities, was also a highly in-demand trainer. And he agreed to take Molineaux under his wing.

The duo was a perfect fit. With Richmond’s help, Molineaux began to vanquish his opponents fight after fight after fight. In one match, he beat a man so badly that it was impossible to discern his facial features. “The amateurs were completely astonished at the improvement exhibited by Molineaux, and the punishment he dealt out was so truly tremendous, and his strength and bottom so superior, that he was deemed a proper match for the champion, Tom Cribb,” wrote Pierce Egan, a celebrated journalist of the time, in his book Boxiana.

The momentous match was arranged for December 18, 1810. Immediately, the bout's implications were freighted by racism and nationalism. “Some persons feel alarmed at the bare idea that a black man and a foreigner should seize the championship of England, and decorate his sable brow with the hard earned laurels of Cribb,” one media outlet claimed, according to the book Pugilistica.

On the day of the fight, rain poured down. More than 5000 people attended anyway, including a gaggle of the first professional sportswriters. Long before the first punch was thrown, the pro-Cribb crowd began hurling racist invectives at the black American fighter.

Molineaux seemed undeterred. Round after round, he knocked the English champion down. At one point, Molineaux held Cribb in a legal headlock, and the fight's action stalled. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of impatient fans stormed the ring. The scrum injured—and possibly broke—a few of Molineaux’s fingers.

The American continued to dominate anyway.

By the 28th round, the afternoon’s wagers—which had started at 4 to 1 in Cribb’s favor—were now even. According to Egan, “In the 28th round, after the men were carried to their corners, Cribb was so much exhausted that he could hardly rise from his second's knee at the call of 'Time.'" It was clear that Molineaux was on pace to win.

In fact, many people believe he should have already been declared the victor. In the 27th round, Cribb fell and failed to get back up after the required 30 seconds. By all means, Molineaux should have been celebrating. But Cribb’s minders distracted the refs and managed to buy enough time for Cribb to regain both his consciousness and his composure. Whether they were complicit or just clueless, the refs let the time violation slide and the fight continued [PDF].

Shortly after, the momentum shifted.

Cribb landed a few lucky punches. Molineaux, whose eyes had swollen over, began to stagger. After 44 rounds, the American quit and Cribb was declared the winner. The crowd went nuts, leading Pierce Egan to call the whole event, "[T]he most dreadful affront to British sportsmanship ever witnessed."

A few days later, Molineaux sent Cribb a letter blaming the loss on the weather and asking for a rematch. A second fight, which occurred approximately nine months later on September 18, 1811, was attended by more than 15,000 people. This time, Cribb out-trained the American and defeated Molineaux in 11 rounds.

But history had already been made. The first match had secured Molineaux a hallowed place as one of the sport’s top athletes, and in 1997, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

An Explosive History of the T-Shirt Cannon

Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

As the mascot for the San Antonio Spurs from 1983 to 2004, Tim Derk—also known as the Coyote—was constantly looking for ways to make the live game experience better for fans. In addition to dancing, antagonizing players, and engaging with attendees, Derk did what many mascots do to raise morale: He gave the crowd free stuff.

Shirts, hats, and other apparel were tossed out on a regular basis, though the gifts were limited to the ability of a mascot’s throwing arm. Which meant that fans seated in the upper bleachers didn’t get much of anything, except maybe a nosebleed.

Derk and the other mascots used huge rubber bands to propel shirts to those people seated higher up in the stands, but even those had limited range. Then, in the 1990s, Derk and his peers decided to become apparel arms dealers. They designed and fabricated a massive, 90-pound cast-iron pipe 4 feet in length that used the pneumatic principle to blast T-shirts into the air and into the arms of fans.

Once Derk strapped it on for an appearance during a game as “Rambote,” sports would never be the same again.

The T-shirt cannon can be traced back to Britain during World War II, when sailors on commercial freighter ships were left vulnerable after their anti-aircraft weapons had been rerouted to warships. Desperate to protect themselves from enemy attack, the sailors adopted a weapon developed by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Dubbed a Holman Projector, it could shoot projectiles out of a tube using steam from the ship’s boiler.

Rugby mascot Captain Hurricane (L) stands near former Hurricanes player Norm Hewitt (R) as he fires a T-shirt cannon at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand in May 2018
Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

Sailors usually lobbed grenades in this manner, but when they weren’t under direct threat—which was most of the time—they loaded the gun with less-lethal ammunition, like potatoes. When Winston Churchill observed a demonstration and someone forgot the grenades, operators used beer bottles instead.

Without a wartime steam boiler, people still felt a need to launch projectiles. Contemporary “spud launchers” use compressed gas, usually carbon dioxide, that is delivered into an air tank. When the trigger is pulled, the gas is released all at once, and the energy shoots whatever’s in the barrel. That can be a potato, a paintball pellet, or a rolled-up T-shirt.

Derk was intrigued by the concept of the spud launcher and adopted it for clothing. When he began brandishing his T-shirt cannon, other mascots quickly followed suit. Kenn Solomon, also known as Rocky the Mountain Lion—a mascot cheering on the Denver Nuggets—had a friend build him one after seeing Derk’s. Solomon also got involved in selling them commercially. Pretty soon, the device was in heavy use across the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL organizations, growing smaller and lighter with each passing year. Once 90 pounds, the cannons now weigh as little as two pounds.

This T-shirt arms race grew to include multi-barrel guns like Big Bella, a 600-pound behemoth which debuted in 2012 at a Philadelphia 76ers game and could fire 100 shirts every 60 seconds. Not to be outdone, the Milwaukee Bucks introduced a triple-barreled gun powerful enough to propel vests and jackets. The Army’s football team built a tiny T-shirt tank.

Rumble, the mascot for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fires a T-shirt cannon at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in May 2016
J Pat Carter, Getty Images

Despite having a relatively innocuous payload, these guns have not always brought joy to attendees. In 2018, a mascot named Chip at the University of Colorado-Boulder suffered an injury when a T-shirt cannon malfunctioned, shooting him in the groin. (The video, of course, went viral.) That same year, a fan named Jennifer Harughty claimed that Orbit, the mascot for the Houston Astros, shot her with a T-shirt and shattered her finger, necessitating surgery. In 2019, Alex Swanson was at Citi Field for a New York Mets game and alleged that a shirt struck him in the eye and knocked him unconscious. Both sued the respective teams.

Derk surely had no idea there would be the occasional mishap, nor could he have predicted someone might misappropriate the gun for other purposes. In 2019, a woman named Kerri Jo Hickman was arrested after being caught while trying to deliver contraband—cell phones, chargers, ear buds, and drugs—by shooting it over the fence of North Folk Correction Center in Sayre, Oklahoma, with a T-shirt cannon.

A Show of Support: The Creators of the Sports Bra Are Now in the National Inventors Hall of Fame

jacoblund/iStock via Getty Images
jacoblund/iStock via Getty Images

In 1977, Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Smith wanted to find a way to make exercise more comfortable for women. So they sewed two jockstraps together to create a prototype for what would become known as the sports bra, and revolutionized the fitness apparel industry in the process. Brands like Nike, Champion, and Under Armour all market versions of the trio's invention. And now all three of them will be cementing their place in history with membership in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

According to WCAX, the three Vermont residents—who named their creation the Jogbra—were honored during a ceremony at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week for their work on the bra, which had a radical impact on the health of women.

The idea initially came from Lindahl, an avid runner living in Burlington, Vermont, who found that conventional bras lacked the support or design that would make physical exertion comfortable. She wanted a bra with stable straps, breathable fabric, and compression. So she asked Smith, a childhood friend and costume designer, for help.

Smith sewed two men’s athletic supporters together, which Lindahl tested while running. Later, the garment was modified with non-chafing seams and an elastic band for support. Lindahl partnered with Miller to co-found Jogbra Inc. in 1977, with the garment being patented in 1979. The sports bra market grew into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and their invention is credited with helping millions of women take up running.

Lindahl was CEO of Jogbra until it was sold to Playtex in 1990. Miller stayed with the company through 1997 and later became a Vermont state senator. Smith became a designer for the Jim Henson Company and earned seven daytime Emmys.

The three women will also be honored in May in Washington, D.C. for the Greatest Celebration of American Innovation event.

[h/t WCAX]

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