We’re in Tothill Fields, on a windy day in July, 1810.
The Thames is high, and so are the expectations of the small crowd, who gather to watch Tom Molineaux’s first fight on British soil. His opponent, Jack Burrows, is beaten after more than an hour of ducking, swinging, and thumping, and the ex-slave from Virginia makes his boxing debut with a win.
One-hundred and fifty years later, a radio man called Murray Woroner, created an algorithm that would have predicted that outcome, without the rule-free and limitless battle that Molineaux had to endure.
Woroner determined that, if you gathered all the statistics of previous fights - the method by which the fighter won, the round in which that happened, the physical details of each fighter, the weight of their mother’s handbag - into a computer, you could determine who would win and how.
He then took an NCR 315 data processing machine with a staggering 12-bit slab memory structure, housed in three cabinets of internal processors, as well as some flashing console lights to make it look hip, and calculated who would conquer and who would fall, if they ever met in the ring of dreams.
A month or two after Molineaux’s first fight, he was at it again, this time against Tom ‘Tom Tough’ Blake. He only needed eight rounds to beat Blake, an astonishingly-quick end to a fight in the early nineteenth century. And fully-predictable, one suspects, by Woroner and his NCR 315.
As was the fight between Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, better known as Muhammed Ali, and James Jackson ‘Jim’ Jeffries, which Woroner’s algorithm predicted would end in defeat for Ali. Muhammed Ali, being Muhammed Ali, took umbrage at this prediction, and told Woroner how he felt. Woroner being Woroner, came up with a plan.
Now, being an entertainer by birth, Woroner had added an element to his predictions that transcended the computer print out. He’d had actors recreate the fight and the eventual outcome for radio and television, as a sort of historical reenactment of an algorithmically-imagined future.
At the time, Ali was certainly down if not out, and on the verge of bankruptcy, and so quickly accepted Woroner’s offer to stage a choreographed fight against none other than Rocco Francis Marchegiano, better known as Rocky Marciano, in what was billed as the Super Fight, between the only two undefeated heavyweight champions of the world.
The two fought for about seventy-five rounds to obtain the coverage and exact fight action, as described by the algorithm, that Woroner needed to reproduce his 1970 fantasy fight and its suggested ending.
In December of 1810, Molineaux faced Tom Cribb in his own Super Fight, for the English title, no less. The fight lasted thirty-five grueling rounds, included a crowd invasion into the ring, and some very odd controversial decisions, but finally Cribb won, beating the challenger, but only just.
In Woroner’s fight, Ali lost to Marciano, in the thirteenth round, but there was no harm done. It earned the trio around five million dollars between them, and they went off for a cigar and a martini afterwards. In contrast, Molineaux’s return fight with Cribb in 1811 cost him the fight, his trainer, and his jaw.
Though he fought more after this, and toured in exhibition contests around England, Scotland, and Ireland, Molineaux never boxed competitively again. Maybe for the first time, but definitely not the last, as Sonny Liston or Joseph ‘Jack’ Doyle would attest, a boxing great fell from grace. Depression, alcoholism, and debt plagued his post-prizefighting days, and he died penniless in Galway in 1818, at the age of thirty-four.
If Woroner’s algorithm had included a boxer’s personality traits, or their personal history, their familial journey, or prevailing prejudice, maybe it might have predicted those outcomes too, and saved a life or two.