The History of Bare-Knuckle Fighting

Modern Bare Knuckle Fighting

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So What Is Bare Knuckle Fighting?

bare knuckle fighting

Ever heard of the term ‘fisticuffs?’ Well, what if I told you that it was once a combat sport that originated in England, formally known as ‘bare-knuckle fighting.’ This involved two individuals, usually men, fighting with their fists without protective padding or gear. Unlike street fighting, there are now a strict set of rules including no striking a downed opponent; no elbows, knees or kicks; and clinching (grabbing behind the neck) is allowed. So, you know that bellend that always goes for a cheeky headbutt during a drunken pub scrap? Yeah, none of that nonsense.

The earliest recorded bare-knuckle fight was made by the Pugilistica newspaper in 1681, which promoted a tussle between the Duke of Albermarle’s footman and a butcher. Despite being a small man, the butcher won as he was a trained fighter. In these early days, there were no weight divisions, no referees and the rules were loosely defined and varied from contest to contest. Several fights even broke out into brawls between spectators. A bit like the West Ham and Millwall derby.

There were no weight divisions. This meant that Klitschko vs. Mayweather Jr. could’ve been a thing. This also meant that there could only be one champion: the first being widely recognised as James Figg. Dubbed the ‘Father of British Boxing,’ he was the youngest of seven children and grew up a pretty tough cookie. If he wasn’t travelling the country from fair to fair looking for fights, he was building an amphitheatre in London where he trained others in the “Noble Science of Defence.” There he set the foundations for bare-knuckle figureheads such as Jem Mace, Daniel Mendoza and Jack Broughton to name a few.

Jack Broughton's Vision

Jack Broughton

Bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in the United Kingdom since it was associated with fracas, gambling and unsavoury amounts of drinking – I know, right? What’s wrong with all that? Still, Jack Broughton made leaps and bounds towards its mainstream acceptance. The former heavyweight champion created a new set of rules and regulations. Unfortunately, these rules were only introduced when an opponent had died from injuries sustained from fighting. Broughton’s rules meant that wrestling was still allowed but they would no longer be able to grab below the waist. Rounds also continued until a man went down; however, after thirty seconds, he had to face his opponent while standing a metre away, otherwise be declared beaten.

Broughton’s rules introduced an era where bare-knuckle fighting became a spectacle; capturing the public’s imagination through acts of manliness and honour. So popular that they attracted huge audiences, where a spectator was even crushed to death! Unfortunately, when Broughton was bested by Jack Slack in a 1750 championship bout, the sport experienced a sharp decline following a surge in fixed fights. Order and respectability were soon maintained through the introduction of skilled fighters such as Gentleman John Jackson and Daniel Mendoza, who attracted interest from lofty aristocrats. 

London Prize Rules 

In 1838, the introduction of the London Prize Rules facilitated the evolution of the sport. The ring square became bound by ropes and rounds ended whenever a fighter went down. The fighter would then be helped to his feet and back into his corner. The round started thirty seconds later, where the fighter would have to reach a mark, otherwise be declared the loser. Furthermore, low blows such as kicking, biting and eye-gouging were officially recognised as fouls. Yeah, that made me squirm too. While this improved the quality of the sport, it did nothing to stop the brawling and brutality, which alienated the upper classes. A new set of rules had to be put in place.

The Queensbury Rules

Queensbury rules

This came to fruition in 1867 when the Queensbury rules were developed by John Graham Chambres. Named after the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, John Sholto Douglas, who acted as patronage, these rules highlighted skill and technique rather than brute strength. They included the introduction of padded gloves or “mufflers,” which were originally introduced by Jack Broughton during training sessions at his amphitheatre. In addition to this, each round lasted three minutes and allowed for a minute rest; weight divisions were distinguished; wrestling officially became illegal; and any fighter who was knocked down was permitted ten seconds to get back up, unaided or be declared knocked out.

The Queensbury rules moved to change the face of bare-knuckle fighting forever. Despite these new proposals, championship bouts were still being held under the London Prize Ring rules as many considered these changes to be unmanly. Yeah, right. Tell that to Iron Mike. Regardless, many prominent pugilist figures, including Jem Mace, who won the heavyweight title in 1861, pushed to popularise the Queensbury rules. Mace was a short, stocky man, who would be classed as a middleweight today, but managed to outbox those in heavier divisions due to his skilful dancing and defensive style. In the wake of his fighting-related arrest in 1867, the athlete relocated to the USA where the bare-knuckle sport was flourishing. Less than ten years later, Mace began a distinguished career as a gloved boxer, touring Australia and New Zealand where he paved the way for its worldwide acceptance.

The Modern Era

Modern Bare Knuckle Fighting

These changes became the cataclysmic shift in moving British ring dominance across the pond. Fighters such as Bill Richmond, Tom Molineaux and John L. Sullivan made waves in the sport. The latter was even the first American champion to be recognised as the world champion. Bare-knuckle fighting’s demise came soon after; the sport was outlawed in the UK and several American states. The sheer brutality was unsustainable. Despite this, the spirit still lives on today in many idioms including not up to the mark or come up to scratch. In reference to the dirt line scratched into the ring, the fighters were required to touch the line using their toes to prove their fitness. If not, they couldn’t come up to scratch or the mark. Who would’ve thought, eh?

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