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 legitimate 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 prohibitions against boxing matches, boxers often met in celebrated fights which drew large crowds and were openly reported in newspapers. And in the era before padded gloves became standard gear, the action in the bare-knuckle era was particularly brutal.

Did You Know?

  • Boxing was generally illegal in 19th century America, with fights held in secret locations.
  • Bare-knuckle bouts were brutal, and could last for hours.
  • Fighters could become famous, and some, peculiarly, picked up a political following.
  • One bare-knuckles champion went on to serve in Congress.

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

The fights 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." (His life was very loosely adapted and portrayed in the Martin Scorsese film "Gangs of New York.")

Despite the notoriety and underground nature of bare knuckles fighting, some participants not only became famous, but were widely respected. "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.

A perennial rival of Poole, John Morrissey, regularly found work as an election-day enforcer for New York City political factions. With what he earned boxing he opened saloons and gambling joints. His pugilistic reputation helped Morrissey to eventually be elected to Congress, representing a New York City district.

Lithograph of boxer John Morrissey
John Morrissey during his bare knuckles boxing career. Library of 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, proved he had enormous tolerance for pain when he won that particular 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 peculiarly remote 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.