When Boxing was a Martial Art
The Sweet Science of Bare-knuckle Pugilism
by Frank Allen
Striking with the fist as an organized sport came to the British Isles in 43 C.E. with the Roman invasion. The Romans adopted the Greek Olympic sport and created even more brutal versions of their own often involving the use of studded gauntlets. The sport of boxing left the British Isles with the last of the Roman legions in 436 C.E. and did not reappear for almost 1300 years. During the Middle Ages, armed combat was the order of the day, and wrestling reigned as the combat sport of the common people appearing at fairs and festivals. There was no art or science to striking techniques which were only used in all-out brawling.
In the second decade of the 1700's, the premier fencer in England was James Figg. He was considered to be the national champion of backsword and quarterstaff which he taught at his Fighting Academy on Tottenham Court Road in London. It was at this Fighting Academy that Figg devised his method of "fencing with the fists" and in 1719, declared himself to be the Bare-Knuckle Champion of England. He defended this title against several challengers including his arch rival Ned Sutton whom he defeated with fists, staff, and sword.
With the help of his patron, the Earl of Peterborough, Figg opened the first London arena devoted to prize fighting. It was located on Oxford Road and known as Figg's Ampitheatre. His advertising card was designed by the famous artist William Hogarth. Hogarth painted a portrait of his friend the fighter dressed as a gentleman with a powdered wig, lace shirt, and fists clenched in front of him. Figg's Amphitheatre catered to the gentlemen of London's upper classes so Figg often performed at Southwark Fair to the delight of his working class fans. He would set up a booth and take on all comers.
Figg remained undefeated in these booth matches and his occasional formal title defenses until his retirement in 1734. Upon Figg's retirement, his top student George Taylor declared himself to be the new British Champion. Figg remained popular with the gentry and socialized with the Prince of Wales and other Royal Family members until his death in 1740. Years after his death, Figg became known as the "Father of Boxing."
The Art of Boxing Develops
Boxing during the Figg and Taylor decades was an all-out anything goes bare-knuckle fight with absolutely no rules. Figg and Taylor defeated their brash opponents by adapting fencing techniques to fist fighting. They fought out of a fencer's stance and threw power punches with a fencer's lunge. All this would change with boxing's first Renaissance Man, the third British Bare-Knuckle Boxing Champion, Jack Broughton.
Broughton defeated Taylor in 1738 to win the championship. The turning point of his career and the art of boxing came in 1741, when Broughton defeated George "The Coachman" Stevenson in a brutal 45 minute bout. Stevenson died as a result of the beating he took from Broughton. Broughton was so moved that he decided to affect a change in his beloved sport. He was already the first boxer to use a preconceived strategy. Broughton would size up his opponent's technique before a bout and adjust his style to take advantage of his opponent's weaknesses. The Stevenson bout led Jack to write the very first rules for the sport of Boxing.
Broughton's Rules stated that the contest would take place on a raised platform with a wooden rail around it, and a three foot square marked in the middle. A bout began with both fighters placing one of their feet on a line of the square and across from his opponent. A round lasted until a man went down, then both fighters had a half minute to "toe the line" and begin to fight again. This was thirty assisted seconds in which a boxer's handlers would work on him for the entire time. This made it difficult to knock a man out. Many fighters broke a knuckle with a punch that would end a fight by modern rules. Thirty seconds later they were facing a refreshed opponent and a broken knuckle. This led to a great deal of body punching, grappling and long fights of attrition. Any fighter who could not toe the line in the allotted time was the loser.
Broughton's Rules also said that nobody could be on the platform, but the boxers and their seconds, that two umpires would be chosen from the audience to settle disputes, and that fighters could not hit a fallen opponent nor could they touch the other fighter below the waist at any time for any reason. These rules still left ample opportunity for martial improvisation. All types of striking and grappling were allowed as long as it was above the waist and the opponent was standing. This style of fighting was not too different from the Chinese Platform Challenge Matches that were taking place on the other side of the world then.
Broughton's Rules were accepted in 1743 and were Boxing's only rules until 1838. Broughton also invented Boxing's first gloves, which he called "The Mufflers." Broughton's mufflers were used in training and exhibition matches and contributed greatly to the number of young noblemen who studied Boxing for health and fitness in Broughton's school. The Duke of Cumberland was Broughton's patron and he got Jack a position in Yeomen of the Guard, which Broughton held until his death at the age of 85.
The Duke bet heavily on Broughton when he met Figg's grandson, "The Norwich Butcher," Jack Slack. Slack was a rough and tumble fighter who billed himself as "The Knight of the Cleaver" and was known for his "Chopper" punch. The Chopper punch was the equivalent of a modern rabbit punch to the back of the neck, and mimicked the motion of work in his butcher shop. During the first ten minutes of the match Slack all but closed Broughton's eyes. The Duke of Cumberland, fearing for his wager, called out, "What are you about Broughton? You can't fight! You're beat!" To which Broughton replied, "I can't see my man, your Highness, I am blind, but not beat; only let me be placed before my antagonist, and he shall not gain the day yet!" This bravado did him no good and Slack won the bout at the 14 minute mark. The Duke of Cumberland withdrew his support and Broughton retired from Boxing. He turned his arena/school into a profitable antique shop.
Despite his illustrious heritage, Slack brought about Boxing's first of many disreputable periods. He threw fights of his own, fixed the results of other boxers matches and generally brought on the first era of the boxing scandal
The Patriarch of Irish Clever Boxers
Boxing as an art form was raised to new heights with the rise to prominence of the Spanish-English Jew, Daniel Mendoza. Being raised in London's East End, and of Spanish descent and Jewish faith, one can assume that Mendoza learned to fight early, although he was only 5 feet 7 inches tall and never weighed more than 168 pounds. Mendoza competed from the mid-1780's until 1820. Probably due to his size, Mendoza was the first boxer to popularize a style in which footwork, jabbing and defense were used to overcome brute force. It is often said that Mendoza was the first to put the "science" into the Sweet Science.
In his first match, Mendoza beat a fighter who was known as Harry the Coalheaver. Daniel was first recognized as a top rank boxer in 1787 when he defeated Sam "The Bath Butcher" Martin. However, it was his four-fight series with "The Gentleman Fighter" Richard Humphries that really brought him to the public eye. The two were very well matched and Humphries won their first match in 1787. Mendoza was ahead in their return match the following year, when he suffered a leg injury at the 29 minute mark and had to throw in the towel. In 1789, Mendoza dominated their third match and won in 52 minutes. When he beat The Gentleman in 15 minutes the following year, Humphries retired.
Mendoza became the British Boxing Champion with his win over Bill Warr in 1794. With this title he toured England, Scotland and Ireland with the Aston Circus. This tour greatly increased the popularity of Mendoza's Scientific Style of boxing and it became the rage of young boxers throughout the British Isles. While touring Ireland, he was challenged and had his skills, heritage, and faith insulted by one Squire Fitzgerald. When Mendoza met and thoroughly thrashed this upstart member of the Irish gentry, he and his boxing style became the pride of the Irish working class and their inspiration to learn to box. It was in this manner that a Spanish-English Jew became the Patriarch of Irish Clever Boxers. In April of 1795, Mendoza lost the title to "Gentleman" John Jackson, who weighed over 200 pounds and specialized in the left jab. It was Jackson's third and last fight.
Mendoza became one of Britain's most respected boxing instructors, and continued to fight on and off until 1820. At the age of 56, he lost his last fight to 52 year old Tom Owens who invented the dumbbell weight. Mendoza lived until the age of 73.
The First Afro-American Boxing Stars
The early years of the 1800's saw the rise of the first Afro-American boxing stars. Bill Richmond was born on Staten Island, New York, which housed British Military Headquarters in the American Colonies. During the Revolutionary War, Richmond worked for the household of General Earl Percy. When Percy returned to England as the Duke of Northumberland Richmond went with him. Although he was only a 5 foot-6 inch, 165 pound middleweight under the Duke's patronage, Richmond met and defeated a number of England's top heavyweights. He beat Jack Carter, Atkinson of Bandbury, Ike Wood, Tom Davis, Tom Shelton, and split a pair of fights with George Maddox. But he couldn't defeat the Champion, Tom Cribb, who knocked Richmond out in 1805. Although he fought as "The Black Terror," Richmond was known for his gentlemanly demeanor and lifestyle
Tom Molineaux was born a slave, on a plantation in Virginia. He, his father and brothers fought matches against slaves from other plantations for their owner, Algernon Molineaux. One time before a fight upon which very heavy stakes were wagered, the master offered Tom his freedom if he won. Tom won, Algernon was true to his word, and Tom was off for New York. While working on the docks in New York, Molineaux heard about the success of Bill Richmond and immediately signed on as a deck hand headed for England. Once in England, this 5 foot 8 inch-tall, 195-pound ebony warrior announced that he was "The Moor" Champion of America (a title that did not exist), and that he could beat any man including retired champion, Tom Cribb. He then found Bill Richmond and convinced him to both train him and back him.
Cribb was not pleased with any of this and talked his friend and protege, Bill "the British Unknown" Burrows into taking on the Moor. When Molineaux stopped the British Unknown with a series of short punches to the head, Cribb turned to veteran boxer Tom Blake. When Molineaux easily defeated Blake, he tried to declare himself the Champion of England. This prompted Cribb to finally accept the challenge of Molineaux the Moor.
The two fighters met in an outside ring on a cold and rainy December day in 1810. It was perhaps one of the two most outstanding matches of the Bare-Knuckle Era. Molineaux drew first blood in the second round, and was clearly the harder puncher of the two. Cribb was relentless and kept up a continual body attack. The Moor dropped the champion in the 28th round, and Cribb failed to beat the 30 second count. But Cribb's second accused the black fighter of hardening his punch with bullets in his hand. While the umpires searched for the nonexistent bullets, Cribb revived and the match continued. A couple of rounds later, Molineaux began to shiver from the cold and show signs of exhaustion. In the 33rd round he collapsed to the ground, looked up at his second, Bill Richmond, and said, "Me can fight no more! " He then fell into unconsciousness and had to be carried from the ring.
Cribb tried to retire again, but within a few months a revised Molineaux defeated Jim Rimmer and tried to claim the championship again. This brought the 5 foot 10 inches tall 200 pound champion out of retirement again. While Cribb was training arduously in Scotland, training camp being an innovation in boxing, Molineaux, now estranged from the gentlemanly Richmond, was enjoying his very first stint as a party animal.
They met for the second time in December of 1811, and the Moor's power almost won the day early when he completely closed one of Cribb's eyes. The Champion couldn't see until one of his seconds lanced the bruised area around the eye. From that point on, Cribb's stamina began to win the day. He dropped Molineaux with a body punch in the sixth round and finally caught the Moor flush in the 11th, breaking his jaw and stopping him. Molineaux traveled Britain with a Boxing and Wrestling Show, but continued his dissipated lifestyle and died in Ireland at the age of 34. Cribb finally retired in 1822 opening a successful tavern called The Union Arms. He lived until the age of 68. British fight fans always loved Cribb for exemplifying their favorite qualities in a boxer: "Pluck and Bottom." Pluck meaning courage and Bottom meaning stamina.
Boxing Comes to America
The first official boxing match in America took place in New York City in 1816. Dutchman Jacob Hyer defeated Tom Beasley in the only match that either of them fought. Thirty-three years later, Jacob's son, Tom Hyer, won the first American Championship when he defeated small-time criminal, James Ambrose, who fought as "Yankee Sullivan."
In 1838, Broughton's Rules for prize fighting were superseded by the London Prize Ring Rules. The structure of the match remained essentially the same, but the fighting area was to be surrounded with rope instead of a wooden rail, and, preferably, the bout would be contended outside on turf. There was also an adjunct rule about not using the ropes to your advantage. The biggest change brought about by the adaptation of the London Prize Ring Rules was the prohibition of what had formerly been common techniques. Head butting, hair pulling, eye gouging, and neck throttling, which included choking, head locking and neck cranking, were expressly forbidden. The earlier prohibition against leg contact was extended to knee strikes. Until then, the knee strike to the body had been a common technique known as gut-kneeing. The London Prize Ring Rules also forbade throwing yourself to the ground in order to end the round and get yourself half minute of rest. It was a rule that some of the better technical boxers learned to circumvent.
Bare-knuckle pugilism may have reached its height as an art form under the London Prize Ring Rules. Due to the limitation of brawling techniques, more boxers began to learn the Scientific Style that was developed by Daniel Mendoza. Many fighters began to add the art of Cornish Wrestling to the Mendoza Scientific Style. This style of wrestling perfectly adapted to the new rules of boxing. It developed through centuries of competition with its rival of English Westlands Wrestling, the Devonshire Style.
Traditionally the Devon men were known as the "kickers and trippers," while the Cornish men were known for their "hugging and heaving." Techniques of Cornish Wrestling consisted mostly of upper body throwing techniques, because it was a standing style in which a throw constituted a win. All the old Celtic styles of wrestling ended in this fashion, because the Celts considered ground grappling to be unmanly. Bare-knuckle Boxers favored a type of spring hip throw, in which they followed their opponent down, landing their full weight on his abdomen. This technique was called a "Cross Buttock." Another favorite technique under the London Prize Ring Rules was to "Seize and Fib," grabbing and pulling in your opponent with one hand while delivering short punches with the other hand.
The spinning backfist was also a common technique and was called the "Pivot Punch." When a bare-knuckle fighter added the sweeps and low kicks of Devonshire Wrestling to his arsenal he was in command of a practical fighting system. This mixture of striking and grappling brought boxing to its highest level as a complete martial art.
The Famous Fight of 1860
The most outstanding fight ever to be contested under the London Prize Ring Rules took place in 1860. It was the First World Boxing Championship and was between the English Champion, Tom Sayers, and the American Champion, John Carmel Heenan. This fight and the events surrounding it were a drama worthy of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and an Academy Award winning motion picture. It was a story of courageous warriors, loyal managers, treacherous wives, adoring fans, and outraged police.
Tom Sayers was a 5 foot 8 inch tall bricklayer from Brighton, England who fought the early part of his career as a 140 pound middleweight. As a 19-year-old novice prize fighter he fell in love with an attractive 21 year old divorcee, named Sarah Powell. She would be the love and the bane of the rest of his life. In their second year together, she had their first child, Young Sarah. Young Tom was born 3 years later. Tommy loved his "little nippers" more than life itself and would do anything for the kids.
In 1853, Tommy got his shot at the British Middleweight Title, which was held by Nat Langham. Langham was a lanky 37-year-old veteran, known as "Old Clever Nat." He was a master of the left jab to the eyes and then slipping under his opponent, and looking like he had been thrown whenever he needed a rest. He was at his best when the grass was wet, as it was when he met Sayers. The 25-year-old Sayers was the stronger of the two and won all the early and middle rounds, but Langham was slowly working on the younger man's eyes. In the 48th round Tom's eyes were so swollen that his handlers had to cut the bruise areas to allow him to see. Langham was almost completely exhausted, but continued throwing every punch at Tommy's eyes. When Tom rushed Old Nat at the beginning of the 60th round, he was met by a left jab to each eye and a wild hook to the ear, which Langham threw with such force, that both men went down.
Tom waved off the 30 second rest and charged right back at Langllam, who caught him coming in with a left-right combination to Tommy's battered eyes. Sayers spun and groped blindly towards his corner ending the match. It had lasted 61 rounds, averaging 90 seconds each. Sayers learned a lot about boxing techniques in that match, but he couldn't ever get Langham into a rematch. Old Nat retired and opened a bar. Seven years later, he would sell tickets to the Sayers versus Heenan match at his bar. The following year found Tom so broke that he had to tour the countryside in search of matches.
While Torn was out of town, Sarah took up with Alfred Aldridge, a young handsome gambler, who was a member of Tommy's entourage. When Tom returned from a rather unsuccessful tour, Sarah announced to him that she was seeing Aldridge and would continue to do so. If Tommy gave her any trouble about it then she would explain to the kids that they were born illegitimately because Tom married Sarah after their birth. Tom had married her as soon as her first husband died, but he didn't want his children stigmatized in Victorian England so he agreed to Sarah's demands. He moved in with his sister and continued to spend time with Sarah and the children whenever it struck Sarah's fancy. Matters were really complicated when Sarah had three children by Aldridge while married to Tom, making them Tom's only legal heirs.
In 1855 Sayers was completely broke, so he accepted a match with heavyweight contender Harry Poulson, who weighed over 200 pounds. Tom went up to 152 pounds for the bout. Sayers first slowly, but methodically closed the big man's eyes, then knocked him so unconscious that Poulson couldn't be revived within the mandatory 30 seconds. This fight brought Tom to the attention of his new manager and soon to be close friend, John Gideon. It also started his lucrative heavyweight career and Sarah was right there to spend the money
Two years later, Tom Sayers won the British Heavyweight Title from William "The Tipton Slasher" Perry, in a bout which the champ's corner tossed in the sponge, at the one hour and 45 minute mark. By this time, Gideon was regularly advising Tom to divorce Sarah. but Tom steadfastly refused. He claimed that it was for his nippers' sake, but he obviously still had strong feelings for Sarah.
Meanwhile, Back in the States...
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, John C. Heenan had become Heavyweight Champion of the Americas by default and without winning a major match. This 6 foot 1 inch, 200 pound, muscular, handsome young Irishman, was born in upstate New York. but gained his reputation as a fighter while working for a steamship building company in Benicia, California. A number of successful street fights led to Heenan's best friend, Jim Cusick, settling up a number of pick up bouts for Heenan. Cusick was a nervous little man who talked incessantly and always wore a bow tie. He was also a genius manager and totally dedicated to Heenan. Cusick parleyed mere pick up fights into a chance for John to fight for the American Heavyweight Title, against title claimant, "Old Smoke." John Morrissey.
The 23-year-old Heenan met the 26-year-old Morrissey on October 19, 1857 in Canada just across the border from Buffalo, NY. The steamboat carrying the fighters and crowd left Buffalo at 8:00 AM, but spent all day avoiding police boats and the fighters didn't come to scratch until almost midnight. Heenan overpowered the 5 foot 10 inch tall, 180 pound Morrissey in the first round and may have knocked him out, except for a missed punch that hit a rig post, hurting Heenan's hand. Heenan still won all the early rounds, but when an old leg abscess reopened and began to weaken the Benicia Boy, Old Smoke got a second wind and began to pummel the weakening youngster. In the 11th round, both men had to be led to the scratch line, where Heenan swung wildly, missed, fell down and passed out, giving Morrissey the match.
Morrisey promptly retired from boxing and went on to become a successful gambler and New York politician. When he refused to give Heenan a rematch, the Benicia Boy was declared the American Champion. This was a title which Cusick would use to set up the match with Tom Sayers.
It took a year and a half to get the trans-Atlantic match set up during which Jim and John stayed in New York. While visiting a newspaper office, Heenan met a very cute, short, curvaceous little actress from New Orleans, named Adah Isaacs Menken and he promptly fell in love. Adah had that effect on men. She was sort of a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop and men seemed to do what she wanted. Adah and the "Boy" were seen everywhere together right until he left for training in England. Just before he left, they announced that they had secretly married. When John was gone, Adah billed herself as Mrs. John C. Heenan, making a big name for herself on the New York Stage. In her most famous and oft repeated role, she donned flesh colored silk tights and played a naked, captured princess. Her fame spread far and wide as "The Great Naked Lady of the Stage." It finally spread too far and Mr. Menken appeared and explained to the press that Adah had somehow forgotten to divorce him.
When John Morrisey departed for England to help Tom Sayers train for a match against Morrisey's old nemesis, he was only too happy to bring the news of Adah's bigamy. Heenan did not however come apart at the news. He simply announced that he and Adah had never really, legally married and began to train harder than ever. Jim Cusick, who hated Adah and was detested by her in turn, was very happy at this outcome.
Heenan finally met Tom Sayers on the morning of April 17, 1860. Sayers threw his hat into the ring at 7:20 AM and Heenan quickly followed him into the ring. It was a fine morning, in that field in Farnborough, and Tom remarked to the boy, "How are you M'boy? Fine morning, this." John replied, "Yes, we've got a beautiful morning for it." To which Tom answered, "Yes, if a man can't fight on such a day as this, he can't fight at all!"
When the boys toed the scratch at 7:29, it was noted that Tom's face was stained walnut brown by the pickling solution that he used to toughen his skin. Heenan was fair skinned but much larger. The first five minutes was a warm up dance, with lots of movement and no punches actually landed. Just as they worked their way into Heenan's corner, they started to exchange punches. When they backed out of the corner, Heenan's nose was bleeding, causing money to exchange hands on the "first blood" bets. When the Boy noticed the blood, he charged forward and effortlessly tossed the smaller man to the turf, ending the first round.
Sayers began the second round by slipping, sliding, jabbing, and generally confusing the big youngster, until a big, wide Heenan left hook dazed him, allowing the Boy to wrestle him down and land his full weight on Tommy's ribs. For the next four rounds, Tommy took a beating, being countered and knocked down in each of them. He was even knocked senseless in the fourth, but was revived by his seconds. Sayers knew that Heenan's hands were taking damage from the heavy head punching.
The seventh and eighth rounds were legendary, lasting thirteen and twenty minutes, respectively. They are even more amazing in retrospect, knowing that Tom's right arm began to swell at the end of the sixth round, heralding an injury that would later prove to be a broken arm.
Tom Sayers got his second wind and began to time the Boy with lighting left hand counter punches, that cut Heenan's right cheek and closed his right eye in the seventh. The round still ended with Heenan knocking Sayers off balance and down, but Sayers had scored the damage. Both men's mouths were bloodied in the eighth, with the right side of Heenan's face getting worse and Sayers' right arm swelling and stiffening. The round ended with Sayers still going down.
Local police arrive during the ninth round, but there weren't enough of them to do anything, so they just watched. Round after round Sayers punched Heenan's face with his lightning left and was then thrown or knocked down. His right arm is a mess, but Heenan's face looked worse. Round 21 began at 8:38 AM, the beginning of the 2nd hour of unarmed combat. In the 26th round, Sayers left jab finally found the mark, of Heenan's left eye. The round still ended with Sayers going down from a Heenan wild hook. As the fight progressed it became a continual sequence of damage to Heenan's face followed by Sayers being knocked or thrown to the turf.
The police reinforcements finally arrived and tried to stop the fight. The fighters finished several more rounds, while the police fought their way through the crowd and past the "Ring Bullies," which was the current term for boxing match security guards. In the 36th round the police finally reached the ring and distracted the referee, just as an almost blind Heenan tried to strangle Sayers with a ring rope. One of Sayers' seconds cut the rope and the ring came apart in the ensuing riot. However, a group of 30 or so hard core betters threw their arms around each other, and made a shoulder to shoulder ring, allowing the riot to swirl around them.
The boys fought six more rounds, before referee Dowling broke into the ring of betters and declared the fight over. At which point everyone broke and ran for the train. Both of the combatants had to be assisted to the train. The bout had lasted for 2 hours and 20 minutes, dissected into 42 rounds.
Later the match was declared a draw and each fighter was presented with a silver belt. After a lengthy healing period, Sayers and Heenan toured Britain together reenacting their famous bout. During this trip they became fast friends. Tom's health began to fade and he never fought again. John returned to the States to make up with Adah, but when she spurned him, he returned to England to wait out the Civil War. When he lost to the new English Champion, Tom King, Tom Sayers was a second for Heenan. Sayers was obviously sick at the time. Two years later, in 1865, Tom quietly died of diabetes at his sister's house. Sarah got all of his money and Gideon set up trust funds for Young Tom and Young Sarah.
John Heenan returned to America and became successful in Tammany Hall politics, in New York City. Unfortunately, he was connected to Boss Tweed and when the Boss went down in 1871 John lost everything. By 1873, he was in bad health and was trying to make a living as a sparring partner. His ever present friend and manager suggested that they return to their roots. SO, they boarded a train for the sunny skies of California. However, at the station in Green River, Wyoming, Heenan died in the arms of his friend, Jim Cusick. Heenan was 38 years old, a year younger than Tom Sayers was at his passing, 8 years earlier.
New Rules for Boxing, John L. Sullivan
In 1867, famous English amateur sportsman and athletics organizer, John Graham Chambers wrote a new set of rules to govern gloved, amateur boxing contests and exhibitions. Chambers had been a much heralded oarsman for Cambridge, and was the organizer of the Amateur Athletic Club, and a key figure in the beginnings of England's first Amateur Athletic Association. Besides mandating the use of gloves, his rules created the first three minute timed round, forbade all types of grappling, and invented the 10 second long unassisted knockout. The limited number of timed rounds created the first need for judges' decisions.
When Chambers got his old college buddy, John Sholto Douglas, the Eighth Marquess of Queensberry, to sponsor his rules, they became known as the Queensberry Rules. It would be almost two decades before these rules would begin to influence the ranks of the professional prize ring
The late years of the 1870's saw the rise of the last of the great bareknuckle fighters, "The Boston Strong Boy," John L. Sullivan, himself. His reputation began in his teens, when he would walk into various Boston taverns, thump loudly on the bar and announce, "I'm John L. Sullivan, himself, and I can lick any man in the house!" It was a boast that he never failed to back up. At 5 feet 10 inches tall and 190 pounds, the young Irishman was a natural power puncher. From the beginning of his career, he would fight by either the London or Queensberry rules. He always favored the gloves, which protected his hands while throwing multiple power punches at the large bones of an opponent's jaw and temples.
Sullivan's first big match took place on a barge in the Hudson River in New York, in 1881. It was a bare-knuckle affair, and when the Boston Strong Boy knocked "the Bulls Head Terror," John Flood, down eight times and stopped him in the ninth round, he set up a match with Paddy Ryan, the American Champion. They met in Mississippi City on Feb.7th of thc following year. It was a one-sided match, with Sullivan knocking Ryan senseless, with a right to the jaw in the ninth. This fight made Sullivan the Bare-Knuckle Champion of American and a national hero who most people considered to be unbeatable. In January of 1885, Sullivan stopped Ryan in the first round of their rematch and in August of the same year he stopped Dominick McCaffery, in the sixth round, with gloves on, to win the new Queensberry Rules World Heavyweight Boxing Championship.
The following year, Sullivan fought a third bareknuckle match with Ryan and stopped him in the third round. In 1889. Sullivan met Jake Kilrain for the Bare-Knuckle Championship of the World. Kilrain had recently defeated the current English Champion and was already called the World Champion by a handful of publications. When Sullivan won a grueling 75 round contest, he became the undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
The Sullivan-Kilrain fight became the last of the Bare-Knuckle Championship Matches and John L. Sullivan the last of the Bare-Knuckle Champions. When the Great John L. decided to defend his overall title by the Queensbury Rules in 1892 it was the end of bare-knuckle boxing. When he was stopped in the 21st round of that match by Gentleman Jim Corbett there was no turning back. The San Francisco bank clerk was strictly a gloved fighter and after him the sport never looked back.
The Queensbury Rules were always presented as safer than bareknuckle boxing, but, in reality, they became the standard of the sport because they created a faster paced and more exciting sport for the new industrial age. The timed round with a mandatory minute rest kept the fighters going at a quicker pace as well as the ten second, unassisted knock-out which presented the possibility of an abrupt and exciting stoppage at any moment! The absence of grappling stopped a lot of bone injuries, and the padded gloves produced less facial blood, however, the same protection for the hands allowed for more power head punches with less damage to the hands leading to increased brain trauma. In the long run, the sport was probably not more or less safe, but, rather, faster, more exciting, and more saleable to the pubic. This exciting new sport was also much less of a complete martial art than it had been in the days of the London Prize Ring and the warriors of the Sweet Science of Bare-Knuckle Pugilism.
About Frank Allen:
Frank Allen is the Chief Instructor and Director of the Wu-Tang Physical Culture Association which he founded in 1979. He has been the student of Taoist Master B.K. Frantzis since 1976. Allen was the student of former amateur boxing champion, Verne "Bull Dog" Williams from 1984-2000, and was a writer/reseacher for the "Bull Dog Williams Boxing Interview Series." He is a freelance writer who lives in New York City and can be reached by e-mail at : email@example.com.