Bringing Back Bloody Knuckles

Few competition sports are as violently raw and visceral as bare knuckle boxing. Our goal today is to take you into the fascinating and bloody history of the ancient combat sport.

Here, we'll take a look at how it came to be, who made it popular, and its long-lasting impact. At its core, bare knuckle boxing refers to a form of boxing where the fighters do not use padded gloves.

Instead, hands are either completely bare or wrapped for minimal support. This lack of protection results in a more brutal display of fighting, where the damage caused and absorbed can be more physically devastating compared to boxing with padded gloves.

The origins of this martial art can be traced back to ancient civilizations. It was found in Greece, where it featured in the ancient Olympic Games as early as 688 BC.

Statue of a Pygmachia fighter from Ancient Greece.
Statue of a Pygmachia fighter from Ancient Greece. Image by Kaeru is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

At the time, it was called "Pygmachia", which loosely translates to "fist fighting". Pygmachia fighters wrapped their hands with leather straps, offering a small amount of protection during competition.

However, the modern development of the sport began in England in the 18th century, with Jack Broughton. Broughton is acknowledged as the father of modern bare knuckle boxing, since he is the one credited with establishing a set of rules for competition.

The significance of bare knuckle boxing in the overall history of combat sports is undeniable. It laid the foundation for modern boxing and paved the way for the future development of regulation in professional fighting.

Although still not as popular or mainstream as boxing or MMA, the essence and the spirit of the early pugilists have seen a resurgence over the past few years.

Early Origins of Bare Knuckle Boxing

Fighting has been around as long as we have existed as a human species. Ancient Greek Pygmachia combatants fought with their hands bound in leather, delivering a combination of punches and grappling techniques to win matches.

The Romans tried a similar style, but eventually shifted towards a more barbaric form, arming their fighters a pair of cestus gloves, leading to even bloodier and more vicious outcomes. (Cestus gloves are a fascinating subject on their own, and we won't go into too much detail here.)

As early European societies adopted various forms of pugilism, bare knuckle fighting became an integral part of their sports culture. It rose to prominence in the United Kingdom during the 18th century, with noteworthy bouts taking place at makeshift arenas known as "prize rings".

These unregulated and often secretive events attracted large crowds, with people from different walks of life and social classes brought together by their fascination for the brutal confrontations.

The Necessary Evolution of Technique and Rules

The evolution of bare knuckle techniques and rules was crucial in shaping the sport. The London Prize Ring Rules, established in 1743 by Jack Broughton, marked a significant turning point in the sport's history.

These rules introduced boundaries like the standard 30-second break between rounds, bans on gouging and grappling, and the first (recorded) implementation of a "downed opponent" rule (which outlawed hitting an opponent who's on the ground). Establishing rules and fundamental principles for competition initiated a more systematic approach to the sport.

Rules Rising in 18th Century England

The 18th century marked an era of significant growth in the popularity of bare knuckle in England. Earlier matches were often impromptu events, but this period saw the advent of organized contests with planned venues and spectators.

Bouts were typically held in circular rings called "prize rings". Hierarchies of championship titles were formed during this period, providing an increased level of structure and anticipation surrounding the sport.

Bare knuckle took on enhanced social importance in this period, especially amongst the working class. Escaping their daily hardships, people engaged in it not just for betting and entertainment, but also as a means of settling personal, often work-related disputes. (Imagine if that was socially-acceptable today.)

The sport was also seen as a rare democratic space in a hierarchical society, since someone's social class essentially means nothing in the middle of a fight. This helped create a sense of sameness between people with means and people without.

Moving Across the Atlantic Into the 19th Century

In the 19th century, the phenomenon of bare knuckle boxing began to travel across the Atlantic, taking root in the United States. Numerous immigrant communities brought the sport with them, leading to its swift spread throughout the new land.

The American frontier, defined in many ways by conflict resolution through force, became an ideal environment for the martial art to flourish. Bare knuckle quickly evolved into an important component of the American sports culture, similar to its status in England, reflecting the hard-fought struggles and aspirations of an emerging nation.

In 1853, the Revised London Prize Ring Rules were put in place, refining many aspects of the sport, such as the use of rope-enclosed rings. Over time, these rules developed further and ultimately influenced the creation of the widely-used Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which ultimately solidified the transition from bare knuckle boxing to the modern, gloved era.

Iconic 19th Century Matches

Some of the most epic clashes in the history of bare knuckle happened during the 19th century. James Burke and Simon Byrne's 1833 championship fight lasted over three hours, capturing public attention with its dramatic ending.

When Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan fought in 1849, their bout went down in history for being the first international bare knuckle match in America. Still, it was the 75-round epic between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in 1889 that truly defined the era.

Many considered the 75-round match to be the last great bare knuckle bout under the London Prize Ring Rules. It also marked the torch-passing point from bare knuckle to gloved boxing.

Who was the first Bare Knuckle Boxing Champion?

Over time, as the sport continued to evolve, several key figures helped pave the way. James Figg is often referred to as the first recognized English champion.

Additionally, the legendary fighter Daniel Mendoza, known for his technical fighting style, became a symbol of how skill and strategy could overcome raw strength, which altered the face of boxing forever.

American pugilist and boxer, John L. Sullivan.
American pugilist and boxer, John L. Sullivan. Image by Allen & Ginter is marked with CC0 1.0.

John L. Sullivan was an American pugilist (professional prize fighter) and is known as the last Bare Knuckle Heavyweight Champion under the London Prize Ring ruleset. Sullivan also became the first gloved boxing Heavyweight champion, holding the title for a decade before being beaten.

Decline and Resurgence

Bare knuckle boxing faced a period of decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to a combination of factors. The Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which made the use of gloves mandatory and prohibited wrestling moves, became more widely accepted.

On top of that, there was growing public discomfort with the extreme violence and dangerous, occasionally fatal, outcomes of bare knuckle contests. Legislation against the sport also played a part in boxing transitioning to a gloved format.

The transition to gloved boxing brought significant changes to the sport (aside from the obvious addition of gloves to competition). Although it initially faced resistance as opponents saw it as a departure from the raw, unmitigated physicality, over time, it was accepted and appreciated for the relative safety it gave to fighters.

Wearing boxing gloves did not eliminate risk, but substantially reduced it. The new format also prompted changes in fighting styles and techniques, with more emphasis on speed, precision, and strategy, further developing the sport into what we recognize as boxing in the modern world.

Despite the shift to gloved boxing, there has been a contemporary resurgence of interest in bare knuckle boxing. This revival seems powered by an appreciation for the raw and primitive essence of the sport.

Dan Miragliotta officiates a Bare Knuckle Championship boxing match featuring Bec Rawlings and Britain Hart at BKFC 26.
Dan Miragliotta officiates a Bare Knuckle Championship boxing match featuring Bec Rawlings and Britain Hart at BKFC 26. Image is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Organizations like Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) and Jorge Masvidal's Gamebred Fighting Championship are at the forefront of this resurgence, organizing officially sanctioned events that are a modern take on the original, brutal sport while doing their best to ensure fighter safety through modern medical practices.

Bare knuckle Lethwei fights (think Muay Thai without gloves, plus headbutts) are also held around the world but has not gained widespread recognition as a sport for the average casual fight fan.

In the United States, Wyoming was the first state to legally sanction bare knuckle boxing in 2018. The modern surge in popularity proves that the spirit of bare knuckle boxing continues to captivate generations of fight enthusiasts.

Overcoming Controversies and Challenges

Bare knuckle boxing has always been surrounded by legal and ethical controversies given its bloody and brutal nature. Though it is legal in some countries, many sanctioning bodies worldwide often err on the side of caution, qualifying the safety risks as unacceptably high.

Aside from legal concerns, there are plenty of ethical issues to consider as well. Critics argue that a sport which can cause such intense harm to its participants for entertainment purposes strays into the realm of morally troubling and exploitative territory.

There are also significant health concerns inherently tied to participation in the sport. The absence of padded gloves increases the risk of cuts and hand injuries. Surprisingly enough, concussions are less common in bare knuckle than gloved boxing.

Despite these statistics, there is an ongoing debate about the sport's safety standards and concerns.

Even within the combat sports community, bare knuckle competition sits at the center of heated debate. Its gritty, primal nature appeals to some, while others criticize it as needless, barbaric violence.

Some believe that the sport should be allowed to thrive, while others are more swayed by ethical concerns surrounding the safety and wellbeing of the fighters. This philosophical split in public perception continues to fuel passionate debates on the future and moral acceptability of the sport in modern society.

The Bloody Heart of an Ancient Sport

Bare knuckle boxing's history is as captivating as it is controversial. Beginning in the competitions of the ancient world and solidifying its place in the taverns and makeshift arenas of the 18th-century United Kingdom, the sport migrated across the Atlantic, embedding itself into the frontier spirit of the United States.

After declining in popularity with the arrival of gloved boxing in the later 19th century, bare knuckle boxing is currently experiencing a revival of interest, which casts an intriguing light of resurrection on its blood-stained past.

Despite the decline and critique, there can be no denying the enduring legacy of bare knuckle boxing in shaping the world of combat sports. From the creation of pioneering fighting techniques to the introduction of regulations that would form the backbone of modern boxing rules, the sport's raw heritage continues to influence not just boxing but also mixed martial arts and other combat sports.

The future of bare knuckle boxing is as unpredictable as the sport itself. Today, it's caught in the crosshairs of ethical and safety debates, but at the same time, fueled by a resurgence of interest.

This controversial sport is demonstrating its resilience once again. It's hard to know whether it will reclaim its former glory or continue to mutate into a new form altogether.

The future of bare knuckle boxing is a story that's still writing itself. But one thing is for sure: against all odds - the bare, bloody heart of this ancient sport continues to beat.