The Time Tunnel: Tom Cribb

05.01.06 - By M.C. (Mike) Southorn: Tom Cribb was born in Hanam, about 5 miles from Bristol, 2 July 1781. He left home to seek his fortune in London when he was only 13, and he wound up working on the wharves before joining the Navy. Upon his release from the Navy in 1804, Tom returned to London, flat broke. He had taken up boxing while in the Navy, and he decided to try his hand at prizefighting. His first fight took place at Wood Green on 7 January 1805. George Maddox was the opponent. The following month he beat Tom Blake for a purse of 40 pounds. In July of that same year he suffered his only defeat in 16 fights against George Nichols in a fight that went 52 rounds.

But it was October 8th 1805 when Tom Cribb had his first significant fight: The opponent was Bill Richmond, an American - a former slave who had fought his way to freedom and crossed the Atlantic to try to win The Title, which, at that time was still in the hands of Henry Pearce. The bout lasted 90 minutes and the American was defeated. This was probably not the first such trans-Atlantic battle, but it was one of the first: The United States was learning the sport of boxing.

For some reason Cribb did not fight again for 18 months after his win against Richmond. Perhaps he was ill, or perhaps he was having second thoughts as to whether or not he wanted to fight for a living. Whatever the reason, it took no less of a prize than Jem Belcher to lure him back to the ring. The one-eyed former Champion was still wildly popular, but he desperately needed money and a fight with a fellow Bristol boy who was coming off an 18 month layoff must have seemed like a fairly easy task.

With The Champion, Henry Pearce in the audience, the one-eyed former Champion treated Cribb to a boxing clinic, dropping the challenger in the 18th round, but by now Belcher’s hands were brittle, and the effects of dissipation brought on by hard living were beginning to show. He broke his left hand in the 20th round, and the determined Cribb mounted a counter-attack. The end came in the 41st round when Belcher failed to come up to scratch. Instead he sat weeping tears of frustration in his corner.

There was a rematch in 1809, and Cribb was now at his peak, having fought twice in 1808. Belcher had not fought in the interim, and he was by now a mere shell of his former self. Matters were not helped in the 11th round when Belcher broke an arm on one of the ring-posts. He bravely fought on for another 20 rounds before conceding defeat for a second time. When Pierce’s successor John Gully retired The Championship later that year, Cribb claimed it based on his two wins over Belcher, and a win each over George Horton and Bob Gregson.

For his first defence of the title in 1810, Cribb made history: The challenger was Tom Molineaux, who, like Bill Richmond, was a freed American slave. Molineaux was the first American to challenge for The Championship, and he was the first fighter of African descent since the days of the Ancient Greek Olympics to be given the opportunity to win The Title. The fight took place outside on 18 December, 1810 at Copthall Common, in England. It was an extremely cold day, and the battle was brisk and violent, until, in the 19th round Molineaux grabbed the Champion in a bear hug so that he could neither fight nor fall. The irate crowd entered the ring and Molineaux had a finger broken in the scuffle. His main concern, though, once the fight resumed was the cold; raised in the American south, Molineux could barely tolerate the north Atlantic winter. The American fought on, however, and after the 28th round, it seemed that Cribb was finished. It was then that his second crossed the ring and accused Molineaux of carrying a lead shot in each hand. The accusation was false, but it bought Cribb enough time to recover. After 33 rounds, with both his eyes closing, Molineaux succumbed to shivering (brought on by cold and dehydration) and could not continue. Both parties agreed that a rematch was in order during a more temperate time of year. The second fight was scheduled for 28 September, 1811.

It was in preparation for this fight that Cribb made history again, by initiating the first modern training camp. Cribb hired a trainer, one Captain Barclay and they departed London for the highlands of Scotland where The Champion abstained from alcohol (no mean feat for Cribb) and undertook a training program consisting of walking, running and sparring. He had weighed 225 lbs going into training camp.

Nine weeks later, on the day of the fight, he arrived at Thistleton Gap a trim 189 lbs. Molineaux later confessed that when he saw the condition of The Champion, he knew he would not win. To compound his troubles, the former slave was enjoying the good life in England, and, while Cribb warmed up with his seconds before this fight, Molineux was reportedly busy eating a chicken and a pie, washed down with a half a gallon of port wine. Nevertheless, the American fared well in the early rounds, bloodying The Champion’s nose and mouth and swelling his eyes, but Cribb responded with body blows, and in the ninth round he landed a left to the jaw that floored the challenger. Molineaux, did not beat the count, but Cribb insisted that the fight continue, and it did until the 11th round, when he knocked the American unconscious. To celebrate his victory, Cribb was awarded a Silver Cup at Castle Tavern, Holborn the following month.

Following the second Molineaux fight, Cribb went into semi-retirement. He defended his title only twice more before retiring from the sport in 1820. Upon his retirement he returned to his pubs, the King’s Arms and the Union Arms, both in London, and, like all good former Champions of the day, he proceeded to run his establishments into the ground. He lost at least one of the establishments to creditors in 1839, and spent the last years of his life living with his son and daughter-in-law above their family bakery. He died 11 May 1848 of “diseased Pylorus and Marasmus”.

Article posted on 05.01.2006

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