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The Prizefighting or Bare-Knuckle Boxing fad of the 1850’s

The Champion Fight between Heenan and Sayers on the 17th April, 1860

Prize fighting, or pugilism or bare-knuckle boxing

 John Lawrence Sullivan Boston Strong Boy 1882
John Lawrence Sullivan

Prize fighting, or pugilism or bare-knuckle boxing as it is also known as, is one of the oldest known sports. Two-thousand-year-old paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs depict ancient Sumerians competing in boxing matches. Boxing was an Olympic sport in 688 B.C. In ancient Greece, two men would sit face-to-face with fists wrapped in strips of leather and strike each other repeatedly until one fell unconscious or was killed. Roman fighters wore leather straps plated with metal (called cestuses) to keep the lengths of prizefighting matches short (shortly before the birth of Christ, the sport was banned in Rome because it had become so brutal). The first modern day written account of a prizefighting match occurred in 1681 in London.

The sport of prizefighting was refined in 1743 when Jack Broughton created the first draft of organized boxing rules. Before Broughton’s rules, bouts kept going until one of the fighters could no longer continue. Fights lasting for hours were not uncommon. With the introduction of Broughton’s rules, the bout ended when one fighter was knocked down and could not return to the fight within 30 seconds. The formation of these rules led to a resurgence in popularity. By the 1820’s, prizefighting was the most popular sport in England and its popularity began making its way across the ocean to the United States.

Prizefighting popularity grows in the United States

The battle between Crib [Cribb] and Molineaux 1811

Prizefighting reached its zenith in the 1850’s. At that time, matches were bare knuckle with rudimentary rules. There were no weight divisions, round limits, nor referees. It was a sideshow type sport that was illegal in many areas of the country.

The popularity of boxing began its rise when British boxers toured the United States to get the public interested in boxing. In addition, immigrants, particularly Irish immigrants, saw the sport as a reflection of their working-class culture, requiring courage, strength, and honor. The sport set the stage for the soon-to-be pre-industrial culture but would soon be superseded by commercialism and other, more civil sports activities.

In the United States during the 1850’s, prizefighting was publicly touted by many as the national sport of the United States. Fights, attended mostly by males and their male offspring, were held in rings that were “struck” in remote locations to avoid intervention by police. Fight organizers tried to keep the fight location close to roads, harbors, or rivers (where the water also served as a barrier to the police). Boxing clubs were formed throughout the country to help the Nation’s youth learn the ins and outs of the sport. One prizefight attendee described the excitement experienced at an organized prizefight:

“All over the place, men stood on their chairs, coats off, swinging them in the air. You could have heard the yells clear to the Mississippi River!”

Fighters as public heroes

Tom Sayers, champion of England 1860
Tom Sayers

Fighters in the United States were revered as heroes by the public.  Tom Sayers was an English bare-knuckle prize fighter. There were no formal weight divisions at the time, and although Sayers was only five feet eight inches tall and never weighed much more than 150 pounds, he frequently fought much bigger men. In a career which lasted from 1849 until 1860, he lost only one of sixteen bouts.

Following in the footsteps of the first English bare-knuckle champion, Tom Sayers, the United States latched onto a new boxing hero who for several years, seemed to be unbeatable. John Lawrence Sullivan became the United States’ first champion and Heavyweight Champion of the World. Regarded as America’s first American sports star, Sullivan wowed audiences throughout the country as he toured the lands demonstrating his boxing prowess. In the late 1800’s when police began allowing fights legally under the Queensbury Rules, Sullivan switched to gloved boxing. Sullivan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Following in Sullivan’s footsteps was Jim Corbett who defeated John L. Sullivan on September 7, 1892. Corbett represented the new age of boxing and played a role in the transition of the sport to the more refined version of boxing that we know today. Corbett didn’t learn the sport from the streets but rather from a coach. He attended college, dressed smartly, and was a sophisticated speaker. He became known as Gentleman Jim.

The end of the bare-knuckle prizefighting era

The prizefighting era ended around 1895. Many Americans detested the brutality of the sport, and the Queensbury Rules were eagerly adopted to civilize the prizefighting sport. Based somewhat on Jack Broughton’s rules that were created in 1743, the Queensbury Rules required boxers wear gloves or “mufflers”. Boxers would fight three-minute rounds with one minute of rest in between each round. You could not strike an opponent once they went down nor could you hit below the belt, gouge their eyes, butt their heads, or throttle their necks. A round ended when one of the boxers was knocked down or ruled “out” by a referee.

The Queensbury Rules ended the prizefighting heyday and transitioned the United States into the Golden Era of boxing. By 1920, legislation was introduced that allowed public boxing matches and fighters such as Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis became sports icons.

Geek Slop’s Prizefighting or Bare-Knuckle Boxing virtual museum

Image Credits

British boxer Nat Langham via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. Hand tinted photograph taken in 1861.
Tom Sayers, champion of England 1860 via Wikipedia Commons by Library of Congress with usage type - Public Domain
1859 Tom Sayers Handwritten Signed Letter Accepting John Camel Heenan Fight via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. 1859
The Champion Fight between Heenan and Sayers on the 17th April, 1860 via Wikipedia Commons by A.V.S. Anthony - New York Illustrated News with usage type - Public Domain
The battle between Crib [Cribb] and Molineaux 1811 via Wikipedia Commons by George Cruickshank with usage type - Public Domain. 10-03-1811
John Lawrence Sullivan Boston Strong Boy 1882 via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. 1882

Featured Image Credit

The Champion Fight between Heenan and Sayers on the 17th April, 1860 via Wikipedia Commons by A.V.S. Anthony - New York Illustrated News with usage type - Public Domain
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