Tom Molineaux is a story that has captured the imaginations of boxing fans, movie makers and playwrights for 200 years.
Now the American slave, turned bare-knuckle prize-fighter, is back in the ring in a new play that opened at London’s Jack Studio Theatre last night.
Tom Green’s 90-minute play doesn’t pull any punches about the rise and fall of this flawed heavyweight pugilist whose brief brush with fame ended prematurely at the early age of 34.
But it is Nathan Medina as Tom “The Black Ajax” Molineaux, a raging bull of a man, who takes the purse, giving, pound for pound, a champion performance.
Molineaux sailed to Regency England with a massive $500 in his pocket and his earned freedom at the turn of the 19th century.
Born on a plantation he, his father and twin brother, were fighters who would put on exhibition bouts for their master.
All he knew was how to fight and he came here for a shot at the British heavyweight title, held by Bristolian Tom Cribb. It was to be a marathon 39-round match that was, arguably, the most controversial and bloody bouts in the sport’s history.
“I was born to fight!” roars the quick-tempered Virginian. “I’m the best! I am the strongest. No-one has ever beaten me! No-one ever will!” It is the same rhetoric we heard, centuries later, from Ali, Frazier and Tyson.
Sitting ringside in the intimate Brockley Jack, you can see the sweat glisten on Medina’s muscular body as he strips off to fight a string of contenders before facing Cribb in a muddy Sussex field in December 1810.
It would be another 50 years before the Queensberry Rules came into force. The Cribb-Molineaux bare-knuckle battle was dirty, unjust and illegal but such was its infamy that nearly 20,000 people turned up to watch the rematch.
Director Kate Bannister ducks and dives when it comes to “spilling claret” in the boxing ring.
There are no real opponents. Instead Medina shows some fancy footwork by shadow boxing with himself and, occasionally, with Brendan O’Rourke, who plays sports journalist Pierce Egan.
It’s Egan’s blow-by-blow accounts of The Moor’s fights that created, enhanced and invented the mystique surrounding the American.
O’Rourke narrates, his soft Irish accent and glib patter a welcome contrast with the brutality of the story, and occasionally he trades a few glancing blows with Medina.
But this is very much Medina’s exhibition match and he wins by a knockout.
Molineaux’s fight with Cribb brought him national fame yet, with it, followed an even harder fight with the demons inside him.
Tom Green’s play takes the audience through the highs and lows of this remarkable fighter’s short career and it is skilfully told.
But Green’s script includes inter-cuts between some scenes, of video interviews with modern day young boxers about what the sport means to them.
While laudable I couldn’t help feeling that the very 21st century footage sits at odds with the period piece unfolding on stage.
I’m not sure any of the amateur boxers, boys and girls, would find a useful lesson here despite Molineaux’s astonishing story.
Sadly, he went off the rails ending up a consumptive alcoholic, taking on amateur all-comers for a drink and a few shillings.
But the former slave’s undoubted drive and determination does offer some inspiration.
Green’s intense and gritty narrative play takes a different angle to Ed Viney’s 2014 drama, Prize Fighters, which is about the same subject, in that it is taken from the contender’s corner rather than Cribb’s.
Here Tom Molineaux offers a spirited account of an incendiary fighter who is now no more than a footnote in boxing history – and that’s a tragedy.
Tom Molineaux runs at the Brockley Jack until June 3.
Nathan Medina packs a powerful punch as quick-tempered slave turned bare-knuckle prizefighter, Tom Molineaux in Tom Green’s play of the same name. Gritty, intense and powerfully told.