On December 10, 1810, in a muddy field around 25 miles from London, a fight took place that was so dramatic, controversial, and ferocious that it continues to haunt the imagination of boxing more than 200 years later. One of the fighters was the greatest champion of his age, a bareknuckle boxer so tough he reportedly trained by punching the bark off trees. The other was a freed slave, an illiterate African-American who had made the voyage across the Atlantic to seek glory in the ring. Rumors about the match had circulated for weeks, transfixing England. Thousands of fans braved a pounding rain to watch the bout. Some of the first professional sportswriters were on hand to record it.

It was the greatest fight of its era. But its significance went beyond that. Even at the time, it seemed to be about more than boxing, more than sport itself. More than anything, the contest between a white English champion and a black American upstart seemed be about an urgent question of identity: whether character could be determined in the boxing ring, whether sport could confirm a set of virtues by which a nation defined itself.

Brian Phillips on the boxing career of freed American slave Tom Molineaux – Grantland. A powerful story, beautifully told. Brian is so, so good.