Busted Faces and Broken Fingers: Bare-Knuckle Boxing is Back

As the first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing match on U.S. soil in over 100 years approaches, we take a look back at the history of pugilism.

by Jack Slack
Apr 11 2018, 7:11pm

What difference can four ounces of padding make?

Rumors are already circulating that Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather are working on a rematch but this time it will be in the cage. There will be no kicks, no knees, no elbows, and no grappling of any sort, but the gloves are going to be four ounces. Most likely this isn’t true—it was tweeted by some random guy who owns a sports brand that you never heard of and rapidly pedalled back—but that didn’t stop the internet from getting into the hypotheticals. With four ounce gloves Mayweather wouldn’t stand a chance, the McGregor marks insisted. Of course, the promise in the original fight was that the ten ounce gloves were how Floyd was going to survive the fight, if he went down to eight he would be done for inside a round. If was a beautifully crafted bit of salesmanship by Mayweather which the Nevada State Athletic Commission took part in, whipping the masses into a frenzy over their decision to drop two ounces of padding from leather oven mitts each man wore.

To many, gloves still symbolize acceptance. They are the barrier between the accepted brutality of the prize ring and the real world fighting of "The Streets." If you fight in gloves you are fighting for sport and if you fight without them what you are doing seems seedy that is likely to get broken up by the police. Yet this week it was announced that on June 2 in Wyoming, the creatively named Bare Knuckle FC would become the first promotion to hold a state-sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing event in the U.S. since 1889. For many Americans this might come as something of a surprise, but the bare-knuckle game, or "pugilism" if you’re feeling aristocratic, has been making a comeback in the United Kingdom for a while. British promotion, BKB has held a number of events which have apparently been well attended and received, and returns to London’s O2 Arena on June 9.

The bare-knuckle game effectively died in America after 1889 because that was the year that John L. Sullivan defended his title against Jake Kilrain under London Prize Ring rules. After the fight, Sullivan pulled the ladder up behind him, insisting he would only defend the world title under Queensberry rules, the code that gave birth to modern boxing, and the first set of rules to require the use of gloves. Sullivan fought proficiently in the gloves and bare knuckle, but preferred the modern rules because he was a thunderous hitter who didn’t enjoy either the wrestling or the broken hands that were part and parcel of pugilism. When Sullivan finally lost it was to Jim Corbett, a man who had only competed in gloved bouts, and the age of bare-knuckle fighters was over.

The bare-knuckle game had been on the way out of favor for years by 1899 though. The Queensberry Rules were drawn up in 1865 to regulate amateur contests between gentlemen but quickly found a place outside of purely sporting bouts. John Sholto Douglas, The Marquess of Queensberry—he of the "mad, bad line" who did in for Oscar Wilde—was chosen to endorse the rules because he and his predecessors were synonymous with sporting pursuit and wagers, be it on horses or pub bets. Queensberry himself loved a tear up, famously getting arrested for fist-fighting with his own son in the street. Queensberry’s name and rules became so well known that when a bare-knuckle fight ended in a riot in 1873 it was reported in major newspapers that it had been for one of Queensberry’s trophies. John Sholto wrote a venomous letter to The Telegraph wherein he stated that his Queensberry cups were only fought for at amateur events under Queensberry rules which insisted upon gloves, and that he was nowhere near the scene of that night’s "blackguardism." After an unusually self-preserving denial of attendance, John Sholto returned to his usual form, stating:

“Had I known of it, it is quite probable that I should have been present as, thank-God, I have no objection to see a good fight with gloves, or without them for the matter of that […] England may regret some day that her sons should substitute for the use of their fists the first deadly weapon that comes to their hands.”

Pugilism went in and out of vogue in London with the whims of the nobility, but by John Sholto’s time it was on the way out. In down periods, most fighters—who were almost invariably laborers—couldn’t afford the damage to their hands that a pitched battle practically guaranteed. And this is where the modern bare-knuckle resurgence gets interesting: it isn’t really pugilism as it was, it is just boxing without the gloves.

BKB still has its fighters compete in timed rounds, 3 minutes at a time with a minute rest in between. Under London Prize Ring rules, the round ended when a man was felled, whereupon both men returned (or were dragged) to their corners and were given thirty seconds to recover, rising and coming up to the scratch to begin the next round. On the one hand, fights could go for hours and technically for an indefinite number of rounds. On the other, the ease with which hands could be damaged meant that fighters probably weren’t taking the kind of punishment in each round that they would in a modern boxing match. One thing was certain, to lose under the London Prize Ring rules, you really had to be beaten. Modern BKB’s concession to this older way of fighting seems to be having a twenty count rather than a ten count on a knockdown, though the clock doesn’t seem to stop so really this just eats up more time.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of truly bare-knuckle fighting is the consideration each man should have to make for his own hands. Gloves turned boxing into a gentlemanly sport by removing much of the blood and nastiness from the bare-knuckle game. The less padding you have between your knuckles and the opponent’s face, the more likely you are to cause a cut. Gloves do not actually make boxing any safer, in fact most studies now suggest that the gloves add weight to impacts and increase head trauma. But even putting the weight of the gloves aside, they allow a fighter to punch harder without the risk of broken fingers and wrists, which were the plague of the London Prize Ring. Plenty of fighters couldn’t afford to keep destroying their hands in lengthy brawls. The most famous example is Tom "Waterman" Lyons who became champion of the London Prize Ring and quit immediately afterwards because the damage he sustained to his hands kept him out of his day job for weeks at a time. But BKB’s brand of bare-knuckle boxing is not strictly bare-knuckle. BKB’s official rules state:

3.0) Bandages have to be worn and not weigh over 4oz. These have to be of soft material.


3.2) Bandages will be provided by management and these are the only ones to be used.

Obviously in modern boxing and MMA, all fighters wrap their hands (though you will read the odd story of fighters like Rory MacDonald trying not to). The earliest adopters of gloves in MMA back when it was called No Holds Barred fighting were men who wanted to make use of their fists without risking injury. A tight set of wraps permit fighters to feel a lot safer in their wrist alignment and throw a lot of punches that they probably wouldn’t want to if they were truly bare knuckle.

Hand wraps brace the wrist and compact the bones of the hand. Obviously the fingers are still vulnerable but it would be fascinating to see how some of the fighters who come out swinging on these cards would do were their hands completely unwrapped. Not only would fighters have to be more cautious, it might also see a return of the chopper or back-knuckle, blows delivered back-handed with the intention of causing cuts and swelling.

Over the couple of centuries that pugilism drifted in and out of fashion, fighters generally found that they had to be more conservative with their blows and cautious with their placement. One general thread connecting fighters like Jack Broughton and Dan Mendoza was their appreciation of a body shot. It is a lot harder to break a bone or sprain a wrist hitting the abdomen than it is hitting the skull.

In fact for a long established tradition of gloveless fighting, you might want to check out some Lethwei on Youtube. The Burmese kickboxing style is basically Muay Thai with headbutts and bandaged hands, and you can readily watch fighters take blows on the top of their head simply because they expect the other man to get the worst of it. With seven other weapons to use, many Lethwei fighters eschew throwing combinations with their hands and tend to use simple set ups: for instance a wide slapping left hook with no intention of doing damage, just to slot a short right straight down the center. The overhand is still ever present but fighters tend to throw single shots with certainty rather than pump punches in bunches for the sake of activity.

Notice that the right straight connects high on the forehead—a great way to break your own hand.

Often when they do throw circular blows, it is common to see Lethwei fighters connecting with the palm on a slap or the wrist on an overhand swing than it is to see them connecting a clean hook with the front of the fist. Of course, that’s a generalization—a lot of Lethwei matches descend into sloppy brawls with hair pulling to boot.

But Tway Ma Shaung is always worth a look as a man known for all out aggression and a chaotic style. Ducking in behind booming overhands, he still tends to get in his best work in combinations to the body—smashing in headbutts when he wants to go upstairs. The bowling ball on top of your neck is a lot more practical to hit with than the meaty sack full of gravel-sized bones that is your hands—it just isn’t as conducive to a long and happy life full of clear speech.

At present, bare-knuckle boxing is exclusively the territory of average boxers who can’t make big money as professionals, and struggling MMA fighters. Cody McKenzie, Melvin Guillard, and Joe Riggs have all tried their hand in BKB. In fact Cody McKenzie is fighting on the upcoming BKB 11 card, if you fancy watching a man who was known for being a bad striker in the UFC try to box. Here is McKenzie’s fight with BKB’s middleweight champion and main attraction, Jimmy Sweeney.

Sweeney is a fun watch though. Unlike many of the fighters at BKB events, his style seems to be evolving well to the ruleset. His peculiar waving of hands is something you don’t see in eight ounce gloves because it’s a great way to tire your shoulders out and it leaves the fighter out of position to strike with the body weight. Sweeney can wave his hands around and crack opponents with short check hooks that still sneak through and hurt.

You will also see Sweeney pull many of his punches to the head, working in rapid combinations of controlled tap-tap-tap striking. Flicking backhanded jabs also form a good part of his arsenal—swelling the face and laying the bait for that check hook.

As expected, Bare Knuckle FC’s card contains middling boxers and struggling MMA fighters. The 44-year-old Bobby Gunn fills the role of the boxer, a decade removed from his world title loss to Enzo Maccarinelli. Ricco Rodriguez and the incredibly ancient kickboxing legend, Maurice Smith are also apparently on the card.

At present bare-knuckle boxing promotions seem to be no different to the many kickboxing ones out there—they scoop up old timers and use what remains of their name power. The bare-knuckle part is more of a gimmick than anything. The rules are barely different from those of a regular boxing match, and in the case of BKB "bare knuckle" doesn’t really mean that. It certainly works to get more fans through the door than Melvin Guillard or Cody McKenzie would, though.

Bare-knuckle boxing could become interesting if BKB and similar promotions manage to take off to any degree and give rise to a few more career bare-knuckle boxers. If that happens the sport may come to be something all of its own with its own distinct tactics, strategies, and meta-game. At present, it’s probably not the most riveting night of fights you will watch.