April 1998

Clash of the titans

By George MacDonald Fraser
Review by
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George MacDonald Fraser's hero in this latest history-as-novel entry is Tom Molineaux, a freed slave-turned-pugilist from New Orleans whose skills as a boxer during England's pre-Regency era both captivated and infuriated the "Fancy" (the British boxing and sporting establishment). In 1810, Molineaux, the "Black Ajax," fought and lost a legendary bout against Britain's champion Tom Cribb; in the re-match, in 1811, Cribb again bested Molineaux. There was never a third encounter, but those two titanic battles set both Cribb and Molineaux "aloft and apart; it was a case of Cribb first, Molineaux second, and the rest nowhere."

Cribb retired undefeated in 1822 the first superstar in the history of the sport. Molineaux died in 1818, a broken-down, drunken, prize-ring cast-off ; his chief claims to fame today are the two celebrated fights with Cribb and the fact that he was the first (and, according to Fraser, perhaps the best) in a long succession of great black heavyweight boxers.

Employing a variant of William Faulkner's use of multiple narrators, Fraser gives us the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux through the statements (as recorded by an unidentified interviewer) of 16 witnesses real, fictitious, and anonymous. The entire spectrum of society is represented, from Prinny (H.R.H. the Prince of Wales) to Senora Marguerite Rossignol (lady of fashion and independent means). Even Captain Buckley ("Mad Buck") Flashman, late of the 23rd Light Dragoons, makes his bow, with a spate of rodomontade and gossip reminiscent of the performances of his more famous offspring, Harry (the notorious centerpiece of Fraser's Flashman Papers).

The most moving witnesses, however, are those members of the Fancy who were closest to the Black Ajax–the retired pugilists and trainers and instructors and managers and promoters whose statements transform the story of Tom Molineaux into a drama with tragic dimensions. The voice of Bill Richmond (former slave, retired pugilist, and fight promoter) foreshadows this tragic element. Before the second fight with Cribb, Richmond comments, he had told Molineaux that, even when black people are free, they "will always think like slaves until one of them wins . . . some thing which the white man believes belongs to him alone. The Championship of England is such a thing . . . and I tell you, when a black man wins it, he will have changed the world."

Tom Molineaux lost that second bout, and during the remainder of his brief life, he lived out the doom that the voice of Paddington Jones (retired pugilist and former light heavyweight champion of England) pronounced for him: "There never was a pugilist with greater gifts, or one who squandered them so foolishly. He could have risen to the heights . . . why, for a moment he did. But there were two fighters he never could beat. One was Tom Cribb, and the other was Tom Molineaux."

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Black Ajax

Black Ajax

By George MacDonald Fraser
Carroll & Graf
ISBN 9780786705535

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