The sport of modern boxing is so well established that it is difficult to imagine it ever being different – or at least, different and effective. We tend to view the sport as having reached the final evolutionary stage of fistic athleticism, being the product of many centuries of “doing it wrong” before we finally “got it right.” From the blows delivered to the guards used, we imagine that our modern boxing has the monopoly on pugilistic truth.

What this belief doesn’t take into account, however, is that boxing is a sport, and as such is the direct descendent of a more combative art form: bare-knuckle pugilism. Reaching its zenith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this martial art is different from modern boxing in several key ways. It is these differences that allow it to be equally effective as a sporting form, and much more effective as a combative form. This article will examine one major difference between bare-knuckle pugilism and modern boxing – the use of gloves.

It is probably safe to say that the single most important piece of equipment in the sport of boxing is the glove. Obviously, boxers fight gloved, but they also spar and train gloved. Gloves protect the hand and wrist, diminish external damage to the boxer when receiving a blow, and provide increased defensive capabilities. Even when striking the heavy bag or working the speed bag, if the athlete is not wearing gloves, he will, at a bare minimum, have his hands well-wrapped.

The wearing of gloves in a match is a fairly modern convention, however. Prior to 1866, when the Marquis of Queensbury Rules made the wearing of gloves mandatory, boxers fought bare-knuckled. Gloves, or “mufflers” as they were called, were used only in sparring. Even training on the bags was done without hand wraps or other sorts of protection for the hands.

One might question the wisdom of fighting bare-knuckled, for surely that would cause significant damage to the fist. Today, a common injury among young men is called the “boxer’s fracture,” in which the outer two knuckles, and sometimes the outer metacarpals of the hand are broken from the impact of an unprotected punch. Even boxing greats like Mike Tyson have broken their fists in this way when engaging in street fights.

The danger, however, is significantly reduced through the biomechanics of throwing a bare-fisted punch. This method is the first major difference between modern boxing and old style pugilism, which was built primarily on linear action, and emulated the thrust of a sword. When a blow was thrown, a vertical fist was used, rather than today’s horizontal fist.

A vertical fist is thrown with the back of the hand facing to the outside line of the body, and the fingers facing to the inside line of the body, whereas a horizontal fist is thrown with the fingers facing the ground, and the back of the hand facing the sky. This is important due to the skeletal alignment of the arm when throwing a punch.

With a vertical fist, the entire arm is extended in one line from the shoulder through to the fist. The elbow is tucked beneath the arm as opposed to jutting out, and the wrist is kept completely straight. This changes the angle at which the fist connects, and maximizes the striking surface by using the whole fist and not just the last several knuckles. Even when throwing a “rounding blow,” which is the ancestor of today’s hook and generally seen as an inferior blow, the vertical fist was used – either normally or inverted (in which the hook is thrown with the thumb facing down, elevating the elbow).

Punching with a vertical fist provides for two things – fewer places in the arm for energy to “get lost” (like a bent elbow or wrist), and more protection for the arm as a whole. The result is that that more kinetic energy is realized as force, and is distributed evenly across the fist. This protects the hand more than if the force was concentrated in one area, while still providing a powerful blow.

However, the benefits of punching with a vertical fist are neutralized when wearing gloves. The hand is already protected, and linear blows can be replaced by more circular blows like the “corkscrewjab and, of course, the hook. These blows can be thrown with more power because they have the increased energy of momentum behind them, as well as the weight of the gloves themselves. Gloves can weigh anywhere from 8 to 20 ounces, which is significant when adding power to a punch. Additionally, because boxers needn’t worry about breaking their fists, they can afford to throw with increased power.

Blow delivery, though, is not the only way gloves change the fight. The gloves, due to their size, act much like small shields around the hands, and can be used to block incoming blows very effectively. Modern boxing guards reflect this – the hands are held close to the body to easily tuck and cover.

Gloves also make getting through a modern guard with linear punches more difficult, which works to the defender’s advantage when blocking shots to the stomach or sides with the elbows, forearms, and biceps.

The older guards, or “attitudes,” were far more extended. Because the fighters couldn’t rely on the extra protection gloves provide, they needed to block many blows farther away from their bodies. This is particularly true for shots to the head, which couldn’t effectively be blocked with the modern tuck and cover. Combatants needed time to react and parry, having little protection close in. Therefore, the distance in bare-knuckle pugilism was considerably longer than in today’s boxing, being fought just outside the range where each antagonist could hit the other without moving his body or feet.

Increased distance was also significant due to another major difference between modern boxing and bare-knuckle pugilism: grappling. A staple of the earlier fighting style, grappling was important for many reasons, but is difficult to do when wearing gloves. Grappling played a major role in ending rounds. Unlike today, rounds weren’t timed, and lasted until one of the combatants hit the floor (KO’s were not common). One way to drop an opponent was to close, grapple, and throw him – hopefully doing severe damage with the throw. Standing grapevines, cross-buttocks, back-heels, and trips were just some of the techniques used to end a round. Other techniques included putting an opponent in chancery (a headlock), and landing blows until he yielded.

When the Queensbury rules made wearing the gloves mandatory, they also established timed rounds and disallowed the convention of grappling. Therefore, combatants no longer needed to worry about avoiding the throw, and could afford to close in order to deliver more powerful blows such as the hook and uppercut.

One final change that gloves brought about in boxing is they made certain disreputable techniques impossible. One such technique was gouging, or using one’s thumbs and fingers to injure the opponent’s eyes. Despite gouging being outlawed even prior to the Queensbury rules, it was still sometimes practiced. Another such move, although perfectly legal up until the Queensbury rules, was that of holding an opponent by the hair and beating him until he could no longer fight, as was the case when Gentleman John Jackson severely punished Daniel Mendoza in their 1795 prizefight. These moves obviously have no place in modern sport, but are very effective and brutal martial techniques.

Although boxing is an excellent sport in its own right, it has lost much of its former combative edge. Through the convention of making gloves mandatory, as well as several other modifications, the martial elements of the art were removed, and boxing was brought squarely into the realm of sport and entertainment. For those interested in training in a striking-oriented system, however, bare-knuckle pugilism is perfectly suited to those goals. In learning to punch and defend blows without the safety of gloves, and with the inclusion of grappling and throwing, a student of the old style can be assured of studying material that is both effective and efficient for the realities of self-defense and the modern street fight.

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