A History of Bare-Knuckles Boxing

Brutal Form of Boxing Thrived In the 19th Century

Illustration of bare knuckles boxing match
Bare knuckles boxing match, circa 1860s. Rischgitz/Getty Images

For much of the 19th century boxing was not considered a sport in America. It was generally outlawed as a notorious crime, and boxing matches would be raided by the police and the participants arrested.

Despite the official bans on matches, boxers often met in celebrated fights which drew large crowds and were reported in newspapers. And in the era before padded gloves became standard gear, the action in the bare knuckles era was particularly brutal.

Despite the fame of some boxers, matches tended to be scraps organized by neighborhood political bosses or outright gangsters.

Matches could go on for hours, with opponents battering away at each other until one collapsed or was beaten insensible. While the contests involved punching, the action bore scant resemblance to modern boxing matches.

The nature of the fighters was also different. As boxing was generally outlawed, there were no professional fighters. The pugilists tended to be otherwise employed. For instance, one noted bare knuckles fighter in New York City, Bill Poole, was by trade a butcher, and was widely known as "Bill the Butcher."

Despite the notoriety and underground nature of bare knuckles fighting, some participants not only became famous, but were widely respected. Bill Poole, known as "Bill the Butcher," became a leader of the Know-Nothing Party in New York City before being assassinated. His funeral drew thousands of mourners, and was the largest public gathering in New York City until Abraham Lincoln's funeral in April 1865.

An opponent of Poole, John Morrissey, tended to work as an election-day enforcer for New York City political factions. With what he earned boxing he opened saloons and gambling joints, and he was eventually elected to Congress. 

While serving on Capitol Hill, Morrissey became a popular figure. Visitors to Congress often wanted to meet the man known as "Old Smoke," a nickname he picked up in a saloon fight when an opponent backed him up against a coal stove and set his clothes on fire. Morrissey, incidentally, won that fight.

Later in the 19th century, when the boxer John L. Sullivan became popular, boxing became somewhat more legitimate. Still, the air of menace continued to surround boxing, and major bouts were often held in peculiar locations designed to skirt local laws. And publications like the Police Gazette, which focused on boxing events, seemed happy to make boxing seem shady.

The London Rules

Most boxing matches of the early 1800s were conducted under the "London Rules," which were based on a set of rules laid down by an English boxer, Jack Broughton, in 1743. The basic premise of the Broughton Rules, and the subsequent London Prize Ring Rules, were that a round in a fight would last until a man went down. And there was a 30-second rest period between each round.

Following the rest period, each fighter would have eight seconds to come to what was known as the "scratch line" in the middle of the ring. The fight would end when one of the fighters could not stand, or could not make it to the scratch line.

Theoretically there was no limit to the number of rounds fought, so fights could go on for dozens of rounds. And because the fighters punched with bare hands, they could break their own hands by attempting knock-out punches to their opponent's heads. So matches tended to be long battles of endurance.

Marquess of Queensberry Rules

A change in rules occurred in the 1860s in England. An aristocrat and sportsman, John Douglas, who held the title of the Marquess of Queensberry, developed a set of rules based on the use of padded gloves. The new rules came into use in the United States in the 1880s.