Bare Knuckle Fighting

Take two greasy, sweating men who limp around the floor, hands raised, bodies poised to strike at any weakness. The crowd are screaming for blood, and blood they have in abundance. There are no rules, no limits. The brutal street-level sport of bare-knuckle fighting allows for no sissies, and never did.

Competitive as opposed to combative fighting may have begun in Africa, in the area now known as Ethiopia, and there is evidence to support it as a spectator sport around 1500BC in Crete. The prize was not financial, but the winner could bask in glory, and carry away honour and a reputation.

The sport of pugilism expanded throughout the Mediterranean, and by 686, was included in the Olympic Games (where it was known as pyx). The combatants wore leather thongs to protect themselves, and fights continued until one participant was unable to carry on. The Romans further developed the sport, with slaves battling to the death in the arena, whilst wearing studded leather straps known as the cestus.

A Theatrical Event

Public fighting declined with the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, and there is no evidence of any spectator fights, until 1681, when a bout was held in London, and regular contests were held in the Royal Theatre in London from 1698. It was at this time that the sport became known as 'prizefighting', competitors fighting without the benefit of gloves or formal rules (wrestling and hitting 'downed' opponents were permitted).

Serious injuries were frequently reported, and it was not unusual that both opponents were carried from the ring bleeding heavily. Torn ears and scarred faces and hands were ever the hallmark of the prizefighter.

Bouts usually continued until one man dropped, although sometimes there were time-limited rounds. There were small prizes for winners; betting on the scrappers was also popular, with considerable amounts of money changing hands. Such fights were still not strictly legal, despite their popularity, (although in 1719 one James Figg was proclaimed Champion of England). Possibly the best-known proponent of the sport was the Nottingham scrapper-turned-preacher Bendigo.

Jack Broughton, a pupil of Figg's, began drawing up a code of conduct, which later became formal rules in 1743, and continued to be used until the Queensbury Rules began to be drawn up in 1838. Proper boxing gloves began to be used, and the sport known as boxing began with the formalisation of the Rules in 1867.

Despite the obvious danger to life and limb, prizefighting nonetheless continued to this day, illegal bare-knuckle matches being organised throughout the United Kingdom, controlled not by a sporting body, but by organised crime.

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