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The Bare-knuckle Legacy of Boxing

The early years of the prize ring were filled with mayhem, skulduggery and brutal fights

On April 17,1860American Heavyweight Champion John C. Heenan met British Champion Tom Sayers ina title fight outside London. It was the first time that an international matchwas held between American and British champions. As such, it was the beginningof an era; but it was also the end of one. The Heenan-Sayers fight was stoppedby an unruly mob and the police—an anti-climactic finish to the great days ofbare-knuckle fighting.

It was notsurprising, though, that the first international championship should have beeninterfered with by a mob and the police. The history of bare-knuckle fightingwas a constant skirmish with forces on both sides of the law.

Bare-knuckleboxing, as a modern sport, began when James Figg opened an amphitheater in theTottenham Court Road, London, in 1719. Fighting—with backswords, cudgels orfists—was the entertainment at Figg's place. Figg himself was a completefighting man who engaged all comers. Boxing became the most popular activity,and he assembled professional bruisers to fight him and each other. So far asthe records show, he was never defeated; though, to be practical about it, thismay have been because he was the boss.

Figg, wittinglyor unwittingly, launched the first of boxing's golden eras. Figg was acelebrated character in London. Poets praised him; James Bramston, forinstance, in his satire The Man of Taste, included him among the pleasurablediversions of the day: "In Figg, the prize fighter, by day delight/And supwith Colley Cibber every night."

This publicfighting for money went on prosperously after Figg's death in 1734. Hissuccessor at the amphitheater was George Taylor, one of the fighting troupe,but Taylor's position as head man did not prevent another boxer named JackBroughton from giving him a whipping. Not long after, Broughton opened his ownamphitheater and took the best business away from the old shop.

Broughton welldeserves his title, Father of the English School of Pugilism. He drew up thefirst definite code of rules for the growing sport, and they were the finalauthority for almost 100 years. It was he who introduced boxing gloves, ormufflers, as they were called, in the interest of the noblemen and gentlemenwho were his patrons and pupils. The new invention caught on at once forsparring, but the serious business of fighting in the ring continued to be abareknuckle matter until the day, far in the future, of John L. Sullivan.

A bare-knuckleround according to Broughton's rules lasted until a man went down, and he couldbe thrown as well as knocked down, provided he was held above the middle. Halfa minute was allowed between rounds, which could last anywhere from a fewseconds to as much as half an hour.

Broughton'stenure as champion was a good time for boxing. In 1750, however, he made themistake of fighting a grudge fight with a younger man named Jack Slack. The menmet at Broughton's Amphitheatre, with the odds 10 to 1 on the champion. One ofBroughton's patrons was the Duke of Cumberland, who was so enthusiastic he bet£10,000 on Broughton. The fight lasted only 14 minutes. A blow between the eyesblinded Broughton, and Slack had only to continue hitting him until he wasunable to rise again.

The Duke ofCumberland was quite upset by the loss of his £10,000. At first he toldeveryone that he had been "sold," though later on he forgave Broughtonand pensioned him. But it is said that to the end of his days "he couldnever speak of this contest with any degree of temper." He went toParliament, where he was very influential, and had legislation passed thatclosed Broughton's Amphitheatre. The first big slump in boxing historyfollowed.

As for Broughton,he never again raised his fists for money, except to instruct the young andhopeful with the mufflers. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, the only boxer tobe so honored.


The ring reeledafter his defeat, and went on reeling and staggering for three decades. For atime there could be no fights in London, even illegally. In the provinces therewere magistrates who would wink a friendly eye if a match was arranged, or whocould be outwitted. Under these circumstances, Slack held the championshipduring 10 long and uneventful years. The quality of his challengers wasdeplorable, and he fought only three times. He made most of his living runninga butcher shop.

But after 10years, the Duke of Cumberland, who must have missed his favorite sport in spiteof the money it had cost him, decided to back Champion Slack against anopponent named Bill Stevens the Nailer. He put up only 100 guineas, but itshows that his heart was still in the game. Furthermore, he arranged for thebout to be held in London, with no interference by the law. Slack lost thechampionship, and the Duke lost his 100 guineas and any further interest inboxing as well.

Stripped of histitle, Jack Slack sought to recoup in a different way. He found a beginnernamed George Meggs, trained him and backed him against the Nailer for thechampionship. He also took the precaution of paying the Nailer to lose. TheNailer did just that, but not very convincingly. As he explained it later to afriend, "Why, Lord bless you, I got 50 guineas more than I'd otherwise havedone by letting Georgie beat me; and, damme, ain't I the same manstill?"

But he never gotanother chance to prove how good a man he was. He and Slack both fell intodisrepute. It was a woeful time for boxing. By 1770 there was no championshipexcept a shadowy title that passed from one fighter to another, sometimeshonestly, sometimes otherwise.

In 1771 a stageor platform was set up on Epsom Downs during the racing season. Bill Darts, aclaimant of the badly battered championship, was to defend his precious honorsagainst an Irishman named Peter Corcoran. The backer of Corcoran was CaptainDennis O'Kelly, the owner of the famous race horse Eclipse, progenitor of manyof the Thoroughbreds running on American tracks today.

The captain,wanting Corcoran to win, made sure of it by presenting 100 guineas to thechampion in advance. Bill Darts may have been a passably good fighter when hetried, but he was not a good actor. A contemporary report said: "After alittle sparring Corcoran gave Darts a blow on the side of the head which drovehim against the rail of the stage, when he immediately gave in."

There was quite ascandal, and in the old record books the so-called fight is marked with adamning "X," and the simple words "Captain O'Kelly'sMoney."

That was the wayit went until 1780, when there was a big and sudden change. New fighters of topquality appeared, and there was a new generation of noblemen and gentlemen whowere just as interested in boxing as their fathers and grandfathers had been inBroughton's reign.

Tom Johnson wasthe first champion under the new order. One of the last of the disreputabletitleholders, Harry Sellers (who had beaten Captain O'Kelly's egregious PeterCorcoran), is said to have died of grief because no patron would put up stakesfor him against Johnson. He simply didn't rate with Johnson or Ben Brain, orwith Dan Mendoza, the brilliant boxer who was the first Jewish ring champion,or with Gentleman John Jackson.

The followinghalf century gave the prize ring as palmy days as it has ever known. Thesociety and sporting men who put up the prize money were a sort of boxingcommission, watching over the welfare of the game with stern and disillusionedeyes. These Regency rakes—"Corinthians," as they were called—were looseenough in their own lives as a rule, but they wanted honest fighting for theirmoney, and for the most part they got it. And for 20 years Gentleman JohnJackson played a memorable role in establishing and maintaining this robuststate of health.

It was Jacksonwho was instrumental in the forming of the Pugilistic Club in 1814, whichwatched over the signing of articles, the choice of judges and referees, thesettling of disputes and payment of stakes. The ropes and posts owned by thePugilistic Club were the official ropes and posts of the London Prize Ring;fighters who were found unworthy of confidence were simply forbidden to appearwithin those sacred barriers.

Mr. Jackson, ashe was always called, supervised the formation of the ring at important fights.He collected money for the loser if the latter had made a good showing and hewas the final arbiter, for he spoke for the Pugilistic Club. He knew the rightpeople; it was Lord Byron who saluted him as "my friend and corporealpastor and master, John Jackson, Esq., who I trust still retains the strengthand symmetry of his model of a form, together with his good humor, and athleticas well as mental accomplishments."

The Belcherbrothers, Jem and Tom, were among the eminent boxers whose careers spanned theascendancy of Mr. Jackson and the Pugilistic Club. Others on the list were HenPearce, the heroic Game Chicken; John Gully, who became a member of Parliamentand an owner of race horses and coal mines; Tom Cribb, who was perhaps the mostfamous of all English champions; Tom Spring, Tom Hickman the Gas Man and BillNeat, who was immortalized by William Hazlitt in his essay The Fight.

The palmy daysshowed the first sign of wilting in 1822, when there was a quarrel over stakesthat had been put up for a fight and Mr. Jackson declared that he would neveragain be a stakeholder. When be bowed out, the influence of the Pugilistic Clubalso declined, and unpleasant incidents became common.

In the year ofJackson's death at 77 (1845), a riot occurred at a fight between ChampionWilliam (Bendigo) Thompson and Challenger Ben Caunt. Hoodlums broke through theropes, some of them carrying bludgeons. The referee, Squire George Osbaldeston,barely got away with his life. He swore never to referee a fight again, andothers followed suit.


The old LondonPrize Ring had its last great day when Heenan challenged Sayers for the worldtitle in 1860. The American ring never had a Broughton or Jackson to guide anddiscipline its early years, and its early champions—Tom Hyer, Yankee Sullivan,John Morrissey—won their glory on a social level that made the game in Englandlook pristine. American fights were hole-and-corner gatherings where pistoltoting prevailed and rules were broken cheerfully if the mob on one side wasable to out-bluff or intimidate the mob on the other. From thisrough-and-tumble New World development of the old sport, Heenan crossed theAtlantic to repeat the victories of the Revolution and 1812, if he could.

The fight was agood one, for a little more than two hours. Then it collapsed in violence anddisorder. A mob invaded the ring, closely followed by the police, and thereferee, unable to see what was going on, called a halt. The greatinternational match was over. Nobody will ever know who would have won if thefight had been fought to a finish.

Thackeray wrote aparody of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome about the fight, calling it TheCombat of Sayerius and Heenanus, which was published in Punch (his reference to"Blues" is to the intruding police).

Fain would Ishroud the tale in night—
The meddling Blues that thrust in sight—
The ring-keepers o'erthrown;
The broken ropes—th' encumbered fight—
Heenanus' sudden blinded flight,
Sayerius pausing, as he might,
Just when ten minutes, used aright,
Had made the day his own!

After theHeenan-Sayers scrimmage the English bare-knuckle ring began its final slump.Complete demoralization seems to have set in. Fake followed fake. Only onereally great fighter appeared: the well-remembered Jem Mace, whose bafflingcareer ran the gamut from the most brilliant boxing of his time to the mostbare-faced barneys. He brought the shreds of the championship to America in1870, fought Tom Allen (another Englishman), and beat him.

The ring, by now,was becoming a worldwide affair. Its center had moved to the U.S., where it hasremained ever since. But not until Paddy Ryan was beaten by John L. Sullivan in1882 did the general American public begin to think of prizefighting asanything but a degraded phase of ruffianism. By then, however, bare-knucklefighting had only a few more years of life.

The 173-yearhistory of the bareknuckle ring ended when the first heavyweight championshipwith gloves was held in 1892. Jim Corbett defeated John L. Sullivan and becamethe first world heavyweight champion under the new Marquess of Queensberryrules. Sullivan remained the bare-knuckle titleholder, but it was a hollowchampionship. There was never to be another bare-knuckle fight.