Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting

Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting

by Bob Mee

In its heyday, which spanned the mid-18th to the late-19th centuries, the bare-knuckle prize-fight was a wildly popular sport. With contests lasting hours and going into over 100 thrilling, punishing rounds, the sport drew crowds both common and elite-from royals and politicians to writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope to Dickens and Thackaray, to the middle-…  See more details below


In its heyday, which spanned the mid-18th to the late-19th centuries, the bare-knuckle prize-fight was a wildly popular sport. With contests lasting hours and going into over 100 thrilling, punishing rounds, the sport drew crowds both common and elite-from royals and politicians to writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope to Dickens and Thackaray, to the middle- and working-classes-all drawn together by the brutal excitement and the spirited wagering the sport generated.
In Bare Fists, Bob Mee shows the fascinating evolution of bare-knuckle boxing, from the earliest days when there were no rules, to what was, for bare-knuckle fighting, the beginning of the end-the Marquess of Queensbury Rules, with their call for gloves and timed rounds. Rich in rare and exhilarating anecdote, Bare Fists recreates with thrilling immediacy all of the big bouts of the sport, including those of the legendary American champion of the 1880s, John L. Sullivan.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Post
A terrific historical and anecdotal look at pugilistic practice.
San Francisco Chronicle
Mee vividly chronicles the evolution of the sport in its pre-glove days...oddly fascinating.
Boston Sunday Herald
Sports history buffs will revel in this anecdote-rich overview of a sport that was hugely popular from the mid-18th to the 19th century.
Columbus Dispatch
An engaging and thorough account of gloveless fighting...[Bob Mee] achieves a literate,fact-packed social history rich in color and detail.
Kirkus Reviews
Although boxing historian Mee (Boxing, not reviewed) is evidently captivated by the brutal sport of bare-knuckled fighting, his 300-year history is too lackluster (and his laundry lists of contestants too benumbing) to make any converts with this effort. Starting at the turn of the 18th century, the author charts the course of bare-fisted boxing from the earliest recorded brawls to the underground gloveless venues of today. He concentrates his research on English boxers (American bare-fisters are considered much later in the book), providing vest-pocket biographies of such boxers as James Figg, Tom Cribb, John Gully, William Perry, and Elizabeth Wilkinson (the "European Championess"), along with reformers like Gentleman John Jackson. Mee has a tendency to be wildly inclusive, especially in the early years, and he squeezes every last bit of recorded information into meaningless paragraphs composed almost entirely of names and dates. But what wafts off his pages is primarily the god-awful battering the contestants inflict on one another—all the vomiting of blood, the blue and lumpy foreheads, and the interminable battles (like the 140-minute fight between John Camel Heenan and Tom Sayers). The author's prose, it must be said, does not elevate pugilism to art (although a report excerpted here from the magazine Bell's Life on the Heenan vs. Sayers fight displays how exciting top-notch writing on the sweet science can be), and it comes with a great sigh of relief when Mee concludes that "pugilism is dead—and the signs are that we will not see its like again." Too often this reads like a telephone directory—but even as a reference it lacks an orderly design. (50 b&willustrations)

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Overlook Press, The
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1 ED
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6.36(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.09(d)

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Chapter One


We can never know the absolute truth about history. All we can do is recount or investigate what is known and interpret it to the best of our limited abilities. So be it.

    As far as anyone can tell by peering into the fog of time, boxing first existed as a sport in Ancient Greece alongside wrestling and running. Homer, who is believed to have lived around 750 B.C., certainly knew enough about boxing to use it in The Iliad, when describing incidents in the Trojan Wars. The Greeks considered The Iliad a history book, not a work of fiction, and it's almost certainly a gathering of stories passed down by orators over several centuries, which indicates that boxing could indeed have been popular more than 3,000 years ago.

    Hercules, Eryx, Amycus, Pollux and Antaeus, all of whom used the caestus, or gloved fist, are all mentioned in connection with boxing, but it is The Iliad that provides the first solid reference to a proper contest. Homer dramatised a showdown between Epeius, king of a tribe who lived on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, and Euryalus, an experienced fighter who was a son of King Mecisteus. They fought, sometime around the Fall of Troy, for a prize mule. Epeius boasted: `The mule is mine ... I'm going to tear the fellow's flesh to ribbons and smash his bones. I recommend him to have all his mourners standing by to take him off when I've done with him.'

    Homer, traditionally believed to have been blind, and some say not born until 300 years after Troy fell, creates a vividpicture of the fight, which indicates that, even if this particular account were pure fiction, such scenes were a common occurrence no matter when The Iliad was written. The fight followed the chariot race and preceded the wrestling bout and foot race in the festival that accompanied the funeral of Patroclus. The fighters put on shorts and gloves — `well-cut ox-hide thongs on their hands' — and began.

`Fist met fist; there was a terrible grinding of jaws; and the sweat began to pour from all their limbs ...

There's no need for a blow-by-blow account, but eventually Euryalus made a careless mistake and was knocked out.

`The legs were cut from under him and he was lifted by the blow like a fish leaping up from the weed-covered sands and falling back into the dark water ...'

Etc., etc. You get the picture. Epeius helped Euryalus to his feet and the unfortunate loser was dragged by his supporters, who had presumably lost gold and silver on the outcome and were therefore acting out of commendable charity, `across the ring on trailing feet, spitting clots of blood, with his head lolling on one side. He was still senseless when they put him down in his corner'.

    `Epeius w ko 1 Euryalus, Troy, 1184 B.C.' has never made the record books, but it established Homer as the father of all boxing writers and therefore provided the basis, or excuse, for the rather dubious literary tradition which has accompanied the progress of the sport.

    At the site of Akrotiri, an Ancient Greek fresco of two boxers was also excavated. It shows two fairly stylish, stand-up gentlemen, with what appear to be dreadlock hairstyles, exchanging straight-armed punches. Boxing was also mentioned in an early Hindu poem, Mahabaratta.

    Boxing played its part in Roman civilisation, too, as illustrated by Virgil's account of the meeting between Entellus, an old fighter making a comeback, and a young gentleman gladiator called Dares. The prize reflected the rise in inflation since the Fall of Troy — a bull with golden horns had replaced the mule. Boxing is traditionally a young man's game and comebacks usually end in disappointment, even humiliation, but Entellus obviously hadn't heard of that sort of thing. He knocked out Dares with a body punch and then sacrificed the poor beast with a single blow between its horns. `The beast's brains are dashed out and splutter over the bystanders.'

    And with that act of supreme bad taste, Entellus quit the fight arena for good. No doubt those accustomed to taking a ringside seat at his fights were delighted at the reduction in their cleaning bills.

    There were other morbid accounts, but they have little bearing on our story. The function of including these two is to illustrate the existence of the boxing ritual all those years ago. We can skip other boring details like the use of cloth and leather gloves and the caestus, a glove with metal spikes on the surface or alternatively loaded with stone. And we can tread lightly over muki-boxing and vajra-musti in India, shaolin boxing in China, muay-thai in Thailand and bama letwhay in Burma. Each has its own history and should be recounted elsewhere.

    Boxing did form part of a Gaelic festival at the site of an ancient Irish queen, Tailte, which ran for around 500 years, until the 12th century. But as far as anyone has been able to tell, it petered out. We can move swiftly down the centuries to the England of the Restoration, in 1681 to be precise, when the country was paying dearly for the last days of King Charles II and when the execution of opponents of the court, most recently the elderly, infirm and entirely innocent Lord Stafford, was commonplace. Old men could remember the beheading of Charles I and the subsequent rule of Oliver Cromwell's bloody Commonwealth. Young men could just about recall the Great Plague, the Fire of London, which was still popularly believed to have been started by Papists, and the frightening attacks on the Thames estuary and the Kent coast by the Dutch fleet. Christopher Wren was busy revolutionising the London skyline by building St Paul's Cathedral, although it wouldn't be finished for nearly 30 years.

    Charles II's debaucheries led to, or were accompanied by, a relaxing of morals from the rigid days of Cromwell's Interregnum. And from somewhere among the pile of entertainments on offer — one celebrated activity was public farting — boxing began to emerge as a popular pastime. Samuel Pepys' diary for August 1660 refers to a Sunday morning set-to at Westminster Stairs between a Dutchman and a waterman, and in the January 1681 issue of the Protestant Mercury, it was recorded: `Yesterday a match of boxing was performed before His Grace, the Duke of Albermarle, between the Duke's footman and a butcher. The latter won the prize, as he hath done many times before, being accounted, though a little man, the best at that exercise in England.'

    (The first Duke of Albemarle was George Monk, a Royalist general in the Civil War who switched sides after being imprisoned in the Tower of London. He fought in Cromwell's army in Ireland and Scotland, but then upon Cromwell's death he helped arrange the return of Charles II. As a reward he was given the dukedom of Albemarle, the Order of the Garter and a £7,000 annual pension. He died in 1670. The Duke referred to here is presumably his son.)

James Figg

So much for the anonymous butcher. It's not such a long journey then to the belligerent, happy-go-lucky, shrewd and illiterate James Figg, born in the village of Thame in Oxfordshire, and the toast of Georgian society in the 1720s. Figg was spotted by the Earl of Peterborough, an old soldier and sporting patron, while displaying his ability in the arts of boxing, fencing and use of the quarter-staff on the village green. The Earl took him to London, which was a stinking, choking city then as now, but mercifully small by comparison.

    Fume-clogged Tottenham Court Road was then a balmy, tree-lined country lane well to the north of the great city and among its meadows nestled the Adam and Eve, the first of boxing's major cathedrals: forefather of Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace. The old building had been standing for more than a century even then and was talked of by the fat and rich for its syllabubs, cakes and strawberries and cream. (And, more discreetly no doubt, for its good English ale, wild women and slugging matches — which certainly occurred in London well before Figg appeared.) This was a chaotic, unpredictable time, before men had been trained to respond to the factory bell or alarm clock. They worked in single-minded rushes that might last two, three or even five days. Then they would spend the next half-week in the tavern with, presumably a quick check home, if home there was to speak of, fitted in as and when the demands of finance or fear of domestic reprisal grew too great. (Not dissimilar to the way my friends at Boxing News worked before the dreadful advent of computer technology!) Mondays were generally accepted as holidays.

    Violence was a way of life. Public executions were held regularly at Tyburn, which is now Marble Arch, but which then was some half-mile beyond the last of the suburbs of the city. In the 1720s a kind of amphitheatre was erected for spectators near the gibbet.

    Proof that boxing was relatively widespread comes from an unexpected source — the USA. In a 1938 book Cities In The Wilderness, Carl Bridenbaugh says a reference to prize-fighting was made as early as 1709 when attempts were made by British settlers and the rising, `nouveau riche' of New York society to recreate the atmosphere of British entertainments. This included plays, horse races and prize fights.

    By 1723 boxing was so popular that on the orders of George I a ring, a circular piece of ground encircled by railings, was erected in Hyde Park about 300 yards from Grosvenor Gate for the use of the public. It was broken up by a bunch of apparently humourless religious zealots in 1820.

    Stories conflict. One newspaper account placed Figg in London working under one Timothy Buck of Clare Market in 1714. This is solid evidence but at some time after this, tradition says the Earl of Peterborough set up Figg in premises on the Oxford Road, Tottenham Court Road area, and the fighter was so successful at drawing clients, he soon had to move the expanding business a few hundred yards away into the Adam and Eve.

    Travel along Oxford Street today from Tottenham Court Road and on the right hand side you will find an alleyway known as Adam and Eve Court, which we imagine marks the spot. It was there that Figg taught and fought anyone and everyone who shelled out the appropriate fee. This became known as Figg's Academy. It held about 1,000 people on the ground floor with up to 300 elite paying for the privilege of a seat in the gallery. In the centre of the hall was a 40-foot stage, where Figg and his underlings exhibited their skills. A famous sporting gentleman and chronicler of the day, Captain Godfrey, recorded that he had learned all he knew of `self defence' from Figg.

`I have purchased my knowledge with many a broken head, and bruises in every part of me. I chose mostly to go to Fig (sic) and exercise with him, partly as I knew him to be the ablest master, and partly as he was of a rugged temper, and would spare no man, high or low, who took up a stick against him. I bore his treatment with determined patience, and followed him so long that Fig, at last, finding he could not have the beating of me at so cheap a rate as usual, did not show such fondness for my company.'

Figg was also mentioned in the Tatler, and other publications. For example, a writer named Bramstone referred to him in a poem called `Man of Taste': `... In Fig, the prize-fighter, by day delight, And sup with Colley Cibber every night.'

    (Cibber was the Poet Laureate of the day. More dramatist than poet, his appointment allegedly owed more to his quality as an agreeable eating and drinking companion than to his literary abilities, but he enjoyed his role immensely and didn't appear to give a damn about the angry reaction of the serious poets of the day.)

    Figg also staged entertainments each September at Southwark Bowling Green Fair, where the master would close the ten-hour show with a demonstration of foil, back-sword, cudgel and fist. One of his prize-fighting staff around this time was the expert swordsman `Mr Andrew Johnson', who also ran a booth at Smithfield, and whose nephew found longer lasting fame — Dr Samuel Johnson. A ring at Moorfields in London was run by an eccentric known as Old Vinegar, and a booth just a short distance away at the Death's Head and Cross Bones pub was owned by one `Long Charles' Rimmington.

The fairer sex

Women's boxing became increasingly popular during the 1990s, with stars like Christy Martin, a coalminer's daughter and schoolteacher from America, and Regina Halmich, a German flyweight, commanding regular television exposure. Because it had lain dormant for the best part of a century, there has been a tendency to treat it as a fashionable, ephemeral icon to political correctness. In fact, history indicates this is not so.

    The first reference was in the London Journal of June 1722, when, after a description of two women fighting `with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators', the following advertisement appeared: `I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas; each woman holding half-a-crown in her hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle.'

    Shortly after came the reply: `I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words — desiring home blows, and from her, no favour: she may expect a good thumping!'

    No doubt there were hordes who would have loved to have witnessed Elizabeth and Hannah belting seven bells out of each other, but the women were threatened with jail if they persisted in a public prize fight. Could this be the first time boxing was driven underground? For an advertisement of the following year suggests that Wilkinson won. She refers to having beaten the Newgate Market basketwoman. Martha Jones, a Billingsgate fishwoman, challenged Wilkinson the following year, and Wilkinson declared herself the `City Championess'. The bout took place `at the Boarded House in Marybone Fields', and again Wilkinson won.

    By 1728, Elizabeth Wilkinson had married a booth owner named Stokes and was calling herself `European Championess'. She was challenged by an ass driver from Stoke Newington, Ann Field, at her husband's booth in Islington Road on 7 October 1728. Again, the formidable Elizabeth succeeded, but after that the presence of women in the ring is hardly referred to until the closing years of the century.

    The early journalist, William Hickey, depicted what was probably an informal, impromptu fight between women early in the 19th century: `The whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their backs. For several minutes, not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mishap they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury.'

    This brawl had no bearing on the organised sport of pugilism, but remains evidence that boxing, or at least the settling of a dispute with the bare hands, was accepted as perfectly reasonable, both in itself and as a source of entertainment, in the early 19th as well as 18th centuries.

The Fancy

Meanwhile, Figg's supremacy was rarely challenged. One of the few occasions was on Wednesday, 6 June, 1727, when he took on Ned Sutton, a pipemaker from the isolated seaport of Gravesend, at the Adam and Eve. Some say Sutton first fought Figg in 1720. Some even say he beat him once. Their rivalry would seem to have been sustained and may have constituted the first great "series" of professional fights. Certainly, if the date of a poem by John Byrom — 1725 — is correct, then the 1727 battle was a rematch at least.

    Byrom celebrates the heroism of the battle between Figg and Sutton, ending by proclaiming the victorious Figg `lord of the field'. To be perfectly honest, nobody really knows what the details are. But they did fight in 1727. By this time the champion's business card, designed by a struggling young artist named William Hogarth, declared him to be the Master of the Noble Science of Defence. He was, we are told, less of a boxer than he was a swordsman and wielder of the cudgel and quarter-staff. Sutton, who when they first met had apparently never seen London before, was probably more of a boxer.

    As was his wont, the dour King George I took himself and his court off to Hanover for the summer season, which meant Figg's business would be slow. He must have been delighted when Sutton agreed to meet him only three days after the departure of the King, who incidentally would never be seen again by the subjects he left behind. On 10 June, 1727, the German-speaking monarch suffered a terrible attack of diarrhoea, followed by a brain haemorrhage, and died in the early hours of the following day.

    No matter. Among the crowds which pushed and jostled their way through the Academy gates that morning on 6 June were politicians, actors and writers: the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sat down with several other Members of Parliament, Colley Cibber and the far greater writers Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Swift, for whom prize fighting must have reflected his own love and disgust for life, was in London to oversee the publication of Gulliver's Travels. Pope, cynical and under-sized, and corsetted because of a weak back, had just celebrated his 33rd birthday. Anyone who was anyone, who was in London, walked, rode, was driven or carried out of the city along the north road.

    Figg's pupils opened the show, and received the usual undercard treatment — barely anyone noticed them. Then the atmosphere changed, and the buzz of anticipation gave way to loud cheering as in came Sutton, taller but less muscular, and the shaven-headed Figg, who at 6ft and 13st had an enormous bull neck, broad shoulders and thick legs. In the first contest, the broadsword, nothing of note happened for half an hour. Then Sutton forced Figg back and the Master was gashed on his arm by his own sword. This apparently did not count. In the sixth round Sutton was scratched on the shoulder, which was enough to give Figg the first victory.

    In the half-hour interval, great flagons of ale were passed among the masses, along with cakes and bread, until the fist-fighting began. For eight minutes they sparred, and then Sutton threw Figg at the umpire's feet. The crowd roared its approval, but Figg threw Sutton heavily on to his back and the challenger was given time to recover. A punch to the chest hurt Figg badly and he fell off the stage, but two or three members of the audience pushed him back. They took a 15-minute rest for some reason, during which time the new-fangled `port-wine' was handed down from the gallery to the mob and the fighters. No doubt one or two drank it like beer. When the contest resumed, Figg gradually got on top and then knocked Sutton down with a punch to the chest. Figg jumped on him and pinned him down until he submitted. We are told he said: `Enough indeed. You are a brave fellow and my master.'

    In the third and final contest, Figg completed his day's work by breaking Sutton's knee with the cudgel.

    Sutton may or may not have gone home afterwards. Certainly, he joined Figg's entourage at some time, and it's possible that was linked to the effects of a massive fire that destroyed a large part of Gravesend only a couple of months later. As we are uncertain on this point, it is possible that the Figg-Sutton contest was a staged affair, in that to drum up business the champion decided to fight the man he considered the best of his pupils. Others in the booth at the time are named: Timothy Buck, Thomas Stokes and Bill Flanders, who is sometimes written Flinders and who fought Chris Clarkson, `The Old Soldier', at the booth in 1723.

    Figg did not even bother to accept personally the other major challenge to his supremacy in 1733. When William Pulteney, the leader of the opposition to Walpole's Government and later the Earl of Bath, saw a giant gondolier, Tito Alberto di Carini, beat three men on one night in Venice, he brought him to England to fight Figg. But the great champion, now 38 years old, selected one of his pupils, the experienced Bob Whittaker of Whitby, to defend England's honour and, when the match was made at Slaughter's Coffee House, put up a side bet of 50 guineas for Bob to win inside half an hour. Pulteney appears to have given him 2-1 ... and lost.

    They fought at Figg's Academy in the presence of King George II (on a specially built throne) on 6 May 1733. Victorian ring historians were unkind to the King, who was described as `a coarse, vulgar-looking German, with bloated cheeks and belly, a blotched nose and as beastly a voluptuous eye as his rascal of a Grandson, George IV, ever had.' This may or may not be an uncharitable representation, but he was certainly in his early 50s, a small man with blue eyes, whose relationship with his father had been at best tetchy and at worse volatile. George II's sons, the Prince of Wales, a hedonistic wastrel named Frederick, and the Duke of Cumberland, later to find infamy as the Butcher of Culloden, were also there. Tickets for the fight were priced upwards from one guinea — exceptionally high for the day — and still Figg was nailing up the "House Full" signs before the show began.

    Di Carini did manage to knock Whittaker off the stage, but Whittaker clambered back and belted the Italian with a terrific blow to the belly, which knocked him down. A few minutes later the poor man quit. Another part of the great day was an exhibition between Figg and a star pupil, Jack Broughton, who made a big impression in front of the Royal gathering. A week later as Figg capitalised on the success of the Whittaker-Di Carini venture, Whittaker was beaten in the booth inside 10 minutes by another experienced fighter named Nathaniel Peartree, whose own career was to decline after he lost a finger. Figg had predicted Whittaker would lose.

    Figg, still illiterate but famous enough to have been painted by Hogarth and Sir James Thornhill, who had worked on the Dome of St Paul's and on Hampton Court, did not have long to live. He died on 8 December 1734, at around 40 years of age, leaving a widow and several children. Even this is open to dispute. Some would have it that Figg lived on until 1740, a claim which would appear to be fairly eccentric, as his death was recorded in the Gentleman's Magazine of January 1735.

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Meet the Author

Bob Mee is currently boxing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. He has also written for the Independent on Sunday and was assistant editor of the trade paper Boxing News. Bare Fists is his fourth boxing book.

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