Characteristics of Bare-knuckling Prizefighting

The pilgrims would start their journeys days, even weeks, ahead of time. And often, as they hit the road, the ultimate destination still remained a mystery. Despite being patronized by some of the elite members of English society, even the Royal Family at times, prizefighting’s legal status was always vague at best. At times, it was forced completely underground. So for the most dedicated members of the Fancy, just a rumor heard in a pub could be enough to motivate them to set out. When two top men prepared to face off, a true fight fan would not want to risk missing out. This tradition of heading out to a mysterious location would endure up to the very end of the bare-knuckle era. On the morning that the final bare-knuckle champion, John L. Sullivan, won his title from Paddy Ryan, fans piled onto a chartered train in New Orleans, at five a.m., to travel across country to an unknown location in Mississippi.

In a nation where democracy was slowly starting to emerge, a passion for fighting spread across social castes. The Fancy was an economically heterogeneous tribe. In the days before a big fight in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the sporting gentlemen of the aristocracy traveled, as always, in style. They rode in in their private carriages and stayed in the most comfortable lodgings available along the way. During the days of riding and in the evenings spent at roadside taverns, they would speculate on every aspect of the coming battle, their bets doubling and tripling all the way.

Those who could afford the fare rode on stage coach. For the lowest ranks, who made their way to the site on foot, as “toddlers,” the journey was longer, but not a bit less full of anticipation. The numbers in their roving bands would swell with each passing day, with every village and farm that they passed, carrying word of the big clash.

The world of Georgian England was radically different than our own. In most ways, it was closer to the Middle Ages than to our own space age. But it was the era in which our own modern world began to take shape. The Industrial Revolution was under way. Advances in agriculture were forcing population shifts to the urban centers. An expanding system of roads and transportation made cross country travel more accessible than it had ever been before.

Circumstances were ideal for the rise of modern prizefighting. Life remained violent, unpredictable and short. Public executions were a routine and popular form of public entertainment. The crown’s military was almost always on the move during this era, expanding across multiple continents and forging that Empire on which the sun would never set. The British Isles, forever on the outer edge of the civilized world, were now brawling their way to the top of it. It should hardly be surprising that fighting as a sport was developing into a national obsession. And like so many other pastimes entering the modern world, it began to become codified into standard rules, while taking on an institutional structure.

From the historical perspective, few developments in prizefighting are more noteworthy than the introduction of “Broughton’s Rules” in 1741. These would eventually evolve into the London Prize Rules, which would hold sway in the sport until the gradual adoption of the Marques of Queensberry rules in the late 19th century. Jack Broughton was boxing’s first true superstar, a bodyguard to King George II and backed as a prizefighter by the King’s younger son, William. The popular story is that Broughton instituted his rules after the tragic death of one of his most notable opponents, George “the Coachman” Stevenson. This story is most likely apocryphal, however. Still, Broughton’s set of rules did introduce a bit more civility to combat of the era — eye gouging and “purring,” or kicking a downed opponent, were finally prohibited. Beyond that, limits on who was allowed on a fighting stage and a clearly defined time limit of 30 seconds for a fighter to recover and return to scratch after a fall gave what had previously been an amorphous brawl the shape of a true athletic contest.

When the location for the fight was reached, a space of either 20 or 24 square feet would be roped off, to define the battlefield. As a matter of custom, the challenger would often throw his hat into the ring as he approached with his seconds. The fighters would strip off their shirts, climb inside the ropes and prepare to set to.

Under the rules of bare-knuckle prizefighting, a round had no fixed length of time. The fighting continued without break until a knockdown took place, at which point the combatants had 30 seconds to recover and then an additional eight seconds to make it from their corner to the scratch line.

But “knockdown” under the bare-knuckle rules meant something different than it does under modern, gloved rules. First of all, bare-knuckle fighting resembled MMA as much as modern boxing. Grappling and punching in the clinch were an essential element of the action. Whereas holding and hitting is strictly prohibited under the Marques of Queensberry rules, it was a major tactic in the bare-fisted days. Moreover, a fall could come by way of a throw and many fighters specialized in grappling and throwing, barely using anything that resembled what a modern fan might recognize as boxing. Launching an opponent onto his head was frankly more efficient than trying to knock him out with a punch, at the risk of damaging the hands on a hard skull. It was technically a rules violation to land hard on an opponent’s body when slamming him to the ground, but in practice, it was next to impossible for the referee to determine when a fighter deliberately landed hard on his man or when he was honestly unable to break the fall in time. I’ve read many cases of fighters badly damaged by such throws but not a single case of a fight ending when such a throw was called a foul.

Rounds often ended in far less dramatic fashion than a hard punch or jolting throw. As soon as either fighter hit the ground, the action stopped. While the rules called for a fighter to be disqualified if he went down without being struck by a blow or thrown, in practice, fighters would often go down deliberately in close range, either to grab a rest or else to avoid damage. The technique was referred to as “shifting,” and while relying on it too much would earn a fighter a poor reputation with the Fancy, it was an accepted strategic technique, employed by even the greatest champions at times. In the brutal marathon that a fight could develop into, any honest attempt at survival was acceptable. At other times, rounds would sometime reach a conclusion when a fighter slipped while attempting to land a big blow, or else when one man, or both, stumbled to the turf out of pure exhaustion.

A huge amount of the interest surrounding a prizefight was based upon the amount of money bet on the fight. A fighter was likely to make much more betting on himself, or receiving gifts from his rich backers, who had cleaned up through wagers, than he could make from an actual purse. Broughton’s Rules had laid out a 2/3–1/3 split of the gate for the winner and loser of a contest, but it could be a challenge to collect admission to a bout held out in an open field in the countryside.

The moment the fighters stripped off their shirts, the odds on the fight would begin to shift, as the members of the Fancy got what might be their first real look at the physical condition of the combatants. If a formerly lean and sinewy champion showed up sporting a paunch while the challenger presented as Hercules come to life, the odds on a new round of betting might shift from 3–1 for the champ to 5–2 for the challenger. Bets would continue to change throughout the fight, with the odds shifting after each round, sometimes substantially. One of the important details included in all of the round-by-round write ups Pierce Egan includes in Boxiana is the changing of odds after each round. A fight could start with one fighter favored at 5–1, climb to 10–1 in his favor after a hard knockdown in an early round, then slowly inch back closer to even as the fight wore on, or even radically jump in favor of the other man. In some of the greatest fights of the early 18th century, such as Humpries vs. Mendoza, Gulley vs. Pearce or Johnson vs. Brain, the odds see-sawed from one side to the other for the length of the battle.

The sort of modern knucklehead “fan” who boos at a MMA bout when the fighters are grappling on the ground, or chants “boring” whenever boxers are doing anything besides standing in front of each other throwing haymakers, might have found the pace of action in an old bare-knuckle prizefight a bit slow. While periods of furious “milling” would occur throughout a battle, the realities of fighting with bare fists prevented the sort of back-and-forth exchanges that mark gloved fighting. Much of a round might be spent with the two combatants circling each other, feinting and studying for openings to put in what Egan always refers to as a “leveler,” the kind of blow that would badly hurt an opponent, possibly knocking him down and/or out. A clever fighter might retreat in an attempt to draw the other man aggressively forward, to create the potential for a powerful counter. Despite the major differences between bare-knuckle prizefighting and modern boxing, there were many important similarities. Then, as now, counter punching was at the heart of the science. In any century, blocking or evading the other man’s blow and making him pay dearly for it has always been the most efficient way to win a fight.

All fights were “to the finish,” meaning that they did not end until one man either verbally conceded victory or else was unable to make it to scratch for the start of a new round. Fights between the very best of the best could easily end up stretching over an hour and battles of three hours or longer were certainly not unheard of. For this reason, no quality of a prizefighter was more critical or celebrated than “bottom,” a combination of physical conditioning, will power and heart that would allow a fighter to grind on through agonizing pain, serious injury and extreme fatigue. There was no such thing as ringside physicians during this era — any medical doctors on hand were there merely as another bloody-thirsty member of the Fancy. Prizefighters continued to battle with broken hands and limbs, with their eyes swollen shut or their faces grotesquely misshapen, until they no longer resembled human beings.

Even the winner of a fight might end up in bed, recovering for days. When Big Ben Brain captured the title from Tom Johnson after a war that Egan describes as “dreadful in the extreme,” the newly crowned champion never lived to defend his crown. Although he walked away from the fight and seemed relatively unscathed, his health declined quickly and on his death bed, he credited the pounding he had taken during the fight for killing him.

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