Bare Knuckle Boxing


boxers, Cribb vs. Molineaux Boxing as a sport, after the demise of the Greek Olympics, survived only as contests between opponents at faires and like events. It was little more than "street" fighting, anything was fair, and the last one standing won. Betting was heavy on these events. Often the bout began with cudgels and the first round of betting was on "first blood" at which point the match changed to fisticuffs, with further betting on the final outcome.

Pugilism in Georgian England

In the reign of George I, fighting with fists had begun to take the place of the combats with sword or cudgel. It was more than a spectator sport, there was much betting, and many of the gently born as well as the commoner participated. James Figg became the first official British champion, reigning from 1719 thru 1730. James Figg opened his "School of Arms and Self Defense", which attracted numerous young men to instruction in swordplay, cudgeling, and boxing, the "manly arts of self-defense."

The Science of Boxing

It remained for Jack Broughton, the champion from 1734 to 1750, to reduce boxing to an accurate "science". He did this by formulating rules and inventing mufflers, or padded gloves to use when practicing or sparring. After delivering a fatal blow in a bout in 1743, Jack Broughton made the first set of rules to be used at bouts in his club. Not counting cock fighting, these rules were the first to apply to sporting events in modern history. Fights still ended only in knockout or resignation, but these rules made the fights both more fair and safer. These rules:

  • outlawed hitting below the belt
  • prohibited hitting an opponent that was down, on the knees, was considered down.
  • Wrestling holds were allowed only above the waist.
  • drew a 3-foot square in the center of the ring and when a fighter was knocked down, his handlers had 30 seconds to pick him up and position him on one side of the square ready to reenter the fray. If they failed, or the fighter signaled resignation, the fight was over.
  • to prevent disputes, every fighter should have a gentleman to act as umpire, and if the two cannot agree, they should choose a third as referee.
These simple rules were quickly adopted at other fight venues, and remained the standard rules until the latter 19th century when bare-knuckle boxing was discontinued in favor of gloved bouts. It is interesting to note, that this was the first set of sporting rules by fiat. All other sports had developed from common practices that some person or body finally decided to "make official." Broughton made new rules and enforced them to make the sport both safer, and more fair.

Patronage, and suppression

Boxing remained a popular sport and pastime, sometimes with high placed patrons until 1750. That year one of those patrons, the Duke of Cumberland, lost £50,000 betting for Broughton against Jack Slack. A lucky hit temporarily blinded Broughton, and the Duke suspected a foul. He had the amphitheatres shut down and for the next 30+ years fighting was suppressed. This did little to reduce the number of bouts, but it did affect their venue and quality. The champions were not top flight and since the fights were held in less reputable locations, corruption in the form of bribes and thrown matches entered the sport. The sport began to improve in 1788 when the three eldest sons of George III began to give the sport their attention and patronage.

There were strong proponents and opponents or boxing, the former claiming that the discipline demanded strength, discipline, courage, bodily perfection, and besides it was nearly unique to Britain and therefor superior. The opponents did not bother of course to refute point by point, only needing to cite the character of the crowds, and the state of the combatants at the end of the bout. The sport did gradually gain acceptance as the sport changed.

Changing fortunes of the sport

A significant change included the days the fights took place and where they were held. The usual day prior to 1805 was on Monday, and the places were less reputable locations close in to London. This allowed large crowds, 3,000 to over 10,000, much betting, and often disturbances during or after the fight. This character changed in 1805. The fights involving John Gully and Henry Pearce that year near London were held on a Tuesday which made some difference in the crowd and avoided criticism about how the week was begun in relation to the working class. In October of 1805 John Gully fought again in a bout close to Brighton. This changed the character of the crowd completely as well as the price that could be charged for admission. The gentry and classes that could take 2-4 days from daily work were the ones able to attend. From this time most of the top and prize bouts were staged farther from London.

Clubs, and Academies for the noble art of physical self defence.

Many popular champions capitalized on their fame and opened boxing clubs. Gentleman Jackson was one such boxer. He became the champion in 1795 and retired that year to open a club in London. He was not the first or even the only such club owner in London at the time but he became very popular with a certain set of the aristocratic gentlemen. He was friendly with Henry Angelo, who had an old and respected family fencing school. When Jackson set up his school next door, at Number 13 Bond street, Henry told his students that they should alternate with lessons from Gentleman Jackson guaranteeing the success of Jackson's parlor and boxing for the first two decades of the 19th century. Another popular champion was John Gully. He was a failed business man in debtors prison, and bought his way out with an exhibition fight with his friend, Henry Pearce, the current champion. He later participated in a title bout with the man, losing after an amazing total of 64 rounds. He won the championship in 1807 after Pearce retired. He fought two more title bouts, winning, but retired in 1808, using his winnings to open a racing stable that eventually produced a Derby winner.

Cultural effects

The wide participation and the conflicts and war on the continent increased the reputation of the sport. English boxing was unique, so it of course it made the British superior to the barbarous practices of those on the Continent. Boxing became an accepted manner of settling affairs of honor instead of dueling with sword or pistol. The sport was believe to promote the virtues that were required of a soldier.

Bouts: Blacks in British boxing

Race became an issue for the first time in an 1805 bout. Tom Cribb fought William Richmond on October 8 of 1805. Richmond was a black cabinet maker from America who became a recognized semi-professional boxer. The fight was widely publicized as Cribb and Richmond (The Black) and drew a large crowd. William Richmond lost his fight to Cribb, and "the crowd was pleased that a black man had been put in his place." After Cribb became the boxing champion he was again challenged by another African-American boxer, Tom Molineaux of Georgetown, Virginia on December 18th 1810. Molineaux was trained by William Richmond for the London sports arena and won a series of boxing bouts finally meeting the champion, Tom Cribb. Molineaux was able to knock down Cribb in the 28th Round but did not win the fight due to an infraction of the rules. The public opinion of this bout was less rancorous, and the pair performed follow-up matches and exhibitions. Tom Cribb had a long career for a bare-knuckle fighter, lasting 17 years, the last 12, from 1810 thru 1822, as the champion.

Check out a brief timeline of sporting "milestones".

Top of page
Georgian Index Home
Front Door

Cock fighting

Site Map

© D.W. 2000 This site last updated March 2003 by webmaster