“A Fighter Abroad” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 21)

I’m traveling most of the day, so I’ve got limited time to write up this latest longread, but here’s a fast look at a great long story: A Fighter Abroad by Brian Philips for Grantland.

Fighters Molineaux and Cribb face off in 1810

Art by THÉODORE GERICAULT

Philips writes up the story of an almost forgotten bare-knuckled boxing match in 1809 between the British champion Tom Cribb and a freed American slave, Tom Molineaux. It’s fascinating on many levels: it was the world first “super fight”; the role of sports in British culture in the 1800s; race had strong undercurrents affecting how the event was promoted and viewed; and it featured two interesting, larger-than-life characters. And on top of that, it’s about a boxing match, in the mud, between two huge guys who didnt wear gloves. What’s not to like?

Philips does a fine job reconstructing the history leading up to the event and the accounts of their fight, and writing it up in an entertaining way. Considering this all took place 203 years ago, it’s no small feat. Consider this account of the start of the fight:

The day of the fight was miserable and cold. Rain came down in sheets, but 10,000 people tromped five miles through deep mud to the field where the bout was set. At around noon, “Gentleman” John Jackson, the master of ceremonies, roped off a 24-foot ring at the foot of a hill, then had it surrounded by spectators’ carriages to shield the contestants from the wind. The fighters stripped off their shirts.

The first few rounds were tense and indecisive. The fighters were coping not only with the pressure of the occasion and, in Cribb’s case, with nearly two years’ worth of rust, but also with the heavy rain and a sodden, mud-streaked ground. Cribb was not only the crowd favorite but a heavy favorite in the betting as well — 4-1, with the smart money saying Molineaux would lose within 15 minutes. Cribb landed a hard left over Molineaux’s eyebrow in the second round. Molineaux staggered but kept his feet. In the next exchange, Molineaux caught Cribb on the mouth and drew the match’s first blood.

The story centers around a long-forgotten sporting event, but Philips brings it alive, connecting it with contemporary sports culture as well as attitudes about race that persist today. Great stuff.

Read A Fighter Abroad →

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