Bare-knuckle boxing

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Bare-knuckle boxing
John L Sullivan.jpg
Irish-American bare-knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan
Also known asFisticuffs, Prizefighting, Classical Pugilism, Illegal Boxing
Focus Striking
Country of origin Flag of England.svg England [1]
Parenthood Ancient Greek boxing, Street fighting

Bare-knuckle boxing (also known as bare-knuckle, prizefighting, fist fight or fisticuffs) is the original form of boxing, closely related to ancient combat sports. It involves two individuals fighting without boxing gloves or other padding on their hands.


The difference between street fighting and a bare-knuckle boxing match is that the latter has an accepted set of rules, such as not striking a downed opponent. The rules that provided the foundation for bare-knuckle boxing for much of the 18th and 19th centuries were the London Prize Ring Rules.

Bare-knuckle boxing has seen a resurgence in the 21st century with the English promotion BKB™️ (Bare Knuckle Boxing) which was the first sanctioned Bare Knuckle promotion in the world & American promotion Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC).

Early history

According to the boxing chronicle Pugilistica, the first newspaper report of a boxing match in England dates from 1681, when the Protestant Mercury stated: "Yesterday a match of boxing was performed before his Grace the Duke of Albemarle, between the Duke's footman and a butcher. The latter won the prize, as he hath done many before, being accounted, though but a little man, the best at that exercise in England." [2]

The first bare-knuckle champion of England was James Figg, who claimed the title in 1719 and held it until his retirement in 1730. Before Jack Broughton, the first idea of current boxing originated from James Figg, who is viewed as the organizer of cutting edge boxing. In 1719, he set up a 'pugilistic foundation' and charged himself as 'a professional in the Noble Science of Defense' to instruct boxers on the utilization of clench hands, sword, and quarterstaff. Noted champions were Jack Broughton, Elizabeth Wilkinson, Daniel Mendoza, Jem Belcher, Hen Pearce, John Gully, Tom Cribb, Tom Spring, Jem Ward, James Burke, William "Bendigo" Thompson, Ben Caunt, William Perry, Tom Sayers and Jem Mace. [3]

The record for the longest bare-knuckle fight is listed as 6 hours and 15 minutes for a match between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith, fought near Fiery Creek, Victoria, Australia, on December 3, 1855, when Smith gave in after 17 rounds. [4]

The bare-knuckle fighter Jem Mace is listed as having the longest professional career of any fighter in history. [5] He fought for more than 35 years into his 60s, [6] and recorded his last exhibition bout in 1909 at the age of 78.

Professional bare-knuckle boxing was never legal under any federal or state laws in the United States until Wyoming became the first to legalize on March 20, 2018. Prior to that date, the chief sanctioning organization for bare-knuckle boxing was the magazine National Police Gazette , which set up matches and issued championship belts throughout the 1880s. The Police Gazette sanctioned what is considered the last major bare-knuckle heavyweight world championship, between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain on July 8, 1889, with Sullivan emerging as the victor. [7] [8]

Since then, other claimants to being sanctioned bare-knuckle championship bouts include the August 5, 2011, match at Fort McDowell Casino on the Yavapai Nation reservation in Arizona. The Native American tribe sanctioned the bout between Rich Stewart of New Castle, Delaware and Bobby Gunn, with Gunn emerging as the victor. [9] Other noted champions were Tom Hyer, Yankee Sullivan, Nonpareil Dempsey, Tom Sharkey, Bob Fitzsimmons and John Morrissey.

With the emergence of contemporary bare-knuckle promotions like the BKFC and BKB, a number of sanctioned and officially recognized bare-knuckle boxing champions have been crowned. This includes former mixed martial artist Joey Beltran, who holds the BKFC Heavyweight Championship and the National Police Gazette American Heavyweight Championship. [10] In Italian Bare Knuckle Fight on street, before the federation, the rules are similar at MMA rules. One of the first Italian street fighters to transport this new style of bare knuckle fight in Internet is Christopher D'Addesa, nickname "Krisman", with a record of 31 wins and 1 loss (from tap out before the fight).[ citation needed ]


Early fighting had no written rules. There were no weight divisions or round limits and no referee resulting in very chaotic fights. An early article on boxing was published in Nottingham, 1713, by Sir Thomas Parkyns, a successful Wrestler from Bunny, Nottinghamshire, who had practised the techniques he described. The article, a single page in his manual of wrestling and fencing, Progymnasmata: The inn-play, or Cornish-hugg wrestler, described a system of headbutting, punching, eye-gouging, chokes, and hard throws, not recognized in boxing today. [11] Consequently, there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared loser and the fight would be brought to a halt. Fights could also end if broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery, or if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw. While fights could have enormous numbers of rounds, the rounds in practice could be quite short with fighters pretending to go down from minor blows to take advantage of the 30-second rest period.

Even though Broughton's era brought rules to make boxing more civilized, there were still many moves in this era that are illegal in today's gloved boxing. That being said, there were also new revolutionary techniques that were formulated during this time. Grappling was allowed during this time and many favored the use of cross-buttocks throw and suplexes, although grabs below the waist were illegal. [12] [13] Clinching, known as chancery, were also legal and in-use. Fibbing, where a boxer grabs hold of an opponent by the neck or hair and pummel him multiple times, were allowed. [14] The traditional bare-knuckle boxing stance was actually designed to combat against the use of grappling as well as block punching. [15] Kicking was also allowed in boxing at that time, with Wiliam "Bendigo" Thompson being an expert in kicks during his fight with Ben Caunt, [16] and the Lancanshire Navigator using purring kicks in his battle with Tom Cribb. [17]

It was during classical pugilism where many famous boxing techniques were invented. Samuel Elias was the first to invent a punch that would later become known as the uppercut. [18] Tom Spring popularized the use of the left hook and created a technique called the "Harlequin Step" where he would put himself just within reach of his opponent, then avoiding the instinctive punch while simultaneously delivering one himself, basically inventing the boxing feint. [19] Daniel Mendoza would become the inventor of the outboxer-style of boxing. [20] [21]

Irish stand down

"Irish stand down" is a type of traditional bare knuckle fighting where the aspect of maneuvering around the ring is removed, leaving only the less nuanced aspects of punching and "taking" punches. This form of combat was popular in Irish American ghettos in the United States in the late 19th century but was eclipsed in the Irish American community first by bare knuckle boxing and then later by regulation boxing. The Irish stand down is also known as strap fighting or toe to toe.

Modern bare-knuckle boxing

Modern bare-knuckle boxing, a contemporary form of bare-knuckle boxing, exists on a small scale worldwide. Promotions include the UK's Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing and Bare Knuckle Boxing (BKB™), the American promotion Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), and the Russian promotion Top Dog Fighting Championship (Top Dog FC).

Modern bouts have several changes from traditional gloved boxing rules. Notably, there is an 18-second count on any knockdown. The 18-count is used in BKB™ while the BKFC uses the traditional 10-count. Fights consist of 3x2 rounds (5x2/7x2 for title fights).

Current titleholders

Bare Knuckle Boxing (BKB)

Weight classHolder
Light Heavyweightvacant
Super Middleweightvacant
Super WelterweightRob Boardman
LightweightConor Tierney
FeatherweightRicardo Franco
BantamweightDan Chapman
FlyweightDan Chapman
HeavyweightCharlie Milner
Light HeavyweightAnthony Holmes
Super MiddleweightAnthony Holmes
Super WelterweightDaniel Lerwell
LightweightBarrie Jones
FeatherweightBarrie Jones
BantamweightScott McHugh

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC)

Weight classHolder
Heavyweight Joey Beltran
Super Welterweight Luis Palomino
Lightweight Dat Nguyen
Police Gazette
World Heavyweight Bobby Gunn
American Heavyweight Chase Sherman
American Lightweight Johnny Bedford
World Women's Featherweight Bec Rawlings
American Women's FeatherweightHelen Peralta

List of English Heavyweight Bare-Knuckle Boxing Champions

List of United States Heavyweight Bare-knuckle Boxing Champions

See also

Related Research Articles

Bob Fitzsimmons British boxer

Robert James "Bob" Fitzsimmons was a British professional boxer who was the sport's first three-division world champion. He also achieved fame for beating Gentleman Jim Corbett, and he is in The Guinness Book of World Records as the lightest heavyweight champion, weighing just 165 pounds when he won the title. Nicknamed Ruby Robert and The Freckled Wonder, he took pride in his lack of scars and appeared in the ring wearing heavy woollen underwear to conceal the disparity between his trunk and leg-development.

Tom Cribb

Tom Cribb was a world champion English bare-knuckle boxer of the 19th century.

Tom Molineaux Moor boxer

Thomas Molineaux, sometimes spelled Molyneaux, was an African bare-knuckle boxer and possibly a former slave. He spent much of his career in Great Britain and Ireland, where he had some notable successes. He arrived in England in 1809 and started his fighting career there in 1810. It was his two fights against Tom Cribb, widely viewed as the Champion of England, that brought fame to Molineaux, although he lost both contests. The result of the first encounter was hotly contested, with accusations of a fix. The second, losing contest with Cribb, however, was undisputed. His prizefighting career ended in 1815. After a tour that took him to Scotland and Ireland, he died in Galway, Ireland in 1818, aged 34.

Jem Mace

James "Jem" Mace was an English boxing champion, primarily during the bare-knuckle era. He was born at Beeston, Norfolk. Although nicknamed "The Gypsy", he denied Romani ethnicity in his autobiography. Fighting in England, at the height of his career between 1860 and 1866, he won the English Welterweight, Heavyweight, and Middleweight Championships and was considered one of the most scientific boxers of the era. Most impressively, he held the World Heavyweight Championship from 1870 to 1871 while fighting in the United States.

Jack Broughton

John "Jack" Broughton was an English bare-knuckle boxer. He was the first person to codify a set of rules to be used in such contests; prior to this the "rules" that existed were very loosely defined and tended to vary from contest to contest. His seven rules of how boxing would be conducted at his amphitheatre evolved later into the London Prize Ring rules which are widely regarded as the foundation stone of the sport that would become boxing, prior to the development of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in the 1860s.

Nat Langham English boxer

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Jem Ward English bare knuckle boxer and artist

Jem Ward was an English bare-knuckle boxer. "A fine fighter and powerfully built man", he was the English heavyweight champion from 1825 until 1831. He became known for being one of the first boxers to be officially sanctioned for deliberately losing a fight. During his fighting career he was nicknamed "The Black Diamond". In his retirement he became a successful artist.

Nicholas Ward often known as Nick Ward was an English bare-knuckle fighter. Nick Ward was the heavyweight champion of England for four months in 1841. His first recorded fight was in 1835 against Harry John Lockyer. In 1840 he fought his brother's old enemy James Burke; Burke was a feared and dangerous fighter, who had killed one opponent, the champion Simon Byrne. Following the match Jem Ward had refused to fight Burke, would not hand over the championship belt or acknowledge Burke as the heavyweight champion, even after he was acquitted of murder. Nick Ward won the bout against Burke when his gang of supporters forced the referee to disqualify Burke for an alleged foul. This winning pattern was repeated when in February 1841 Ward became heavyweight champion. He beat Ben Caunt, the reigning champion, when Caunt was disqualified, after the referee succumbed to pressure from the crowd claiming Caunt hit Ward while he was down. In May of the same year Caunt legitimately beat Ward and regained his title. At this time boxing was governed by the less than arduous London Prize Ring rules. The more strict and fair Queensbury rules were not implemented until much later in the century.

Tom Spring English bare-knuckle fighter

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Further reading

David Snowdon, Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan's Boxiana World (2013)