If you were to ask the majority of people to name a bare knuckle champion, the name that would spring to mind would likely be John L.Sullivan. He is recognised as the last bare knuckle heavyweight champion and also the first champion of the gloved era of the sport.
Sullivan was regarded as the first lineal heavyweight champion and path of glorious boxing greats link him and current lineal champion Tyson Fury. The bare knuckle world faded into the background and from the minds of mainstream fans, behind closed doors however bouts still took place!
Although the origins of the sport are thought to lie with the arrival of the Romans in the UK, boxing as we know it really began with the first recognised bare knuckle champion James Figg in 1719.
Figg who was regarded as a heavyweight was the first fighter known to not only openly promote his fights but also offer to lessons in the art. Figg reigned as champion into the 1730’s when he retired and George Taylor, one of his pupils ascended to the title. Figg is sometimes referred to as the architect of modern boxing and after his death what he had started to build continued to grow.
Taylor was succeeded as champion by Jack Broughton, a man who invented the first boxing glove, even though these were only used in sparring and exhibitions at this early stage. He introduced the first set of rules to the sport, these early guidelines outlawed hitting a fallen opponent but still allowed for you to wrestle your competitor. Broughton also adopted a more defensive style, up until this point the bare knuckle bouts had been almost punch for punch affairs with no real regard for defensive tactics. Broughton changed all this and fathered the ‘hit and don’t get hit’ philosophy so widely used today.
It was the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867 that began the transition of bare knuckle into the sport we recognise today, although it was much later in 1889 when Sulivan fought Kilrain for the world title in the last bare knuckle championship bout under the London Prize Ring rules that gloves became mandatory, the glory days of the bare knuckle fighter were over.
With the rise of it’s gloved cousin and the outlawing of the bare knuckle, the sport had to go underground. Away from the bright lights bare knuckle fights went on with bouts all over the world. Far from being motivated by fame and fortune, these men were fighting for pride, tradition and status. The sport has always had a cult following but for many mainstream boxing fans it has been unattainable. This was until the recent rise of video sharing websites, social media and smartphones. It has now become possible to view bare knuckle boxing from the comfort of your own living room and this has helped to push this most ancient of sports out of the shadows.
Bare knuckle boxing is now becoming big business with several successful UK promotions operating in the market currently. Last year the O2 hosted a bare knuckle event that attracted a reported crowd of 2,000 fight fans. The sport is legal but as of yet still unregulated with the British Boxing Board Of Control still not seeing the need to fill that void.
The issue of safety is one that continues to be debated as the sport is not considered as safe gloved boxing. However there is argument from some corners that bare knuckle can be just as safe as traditional boxing as the competitors are taking less blows as fights rarely go on for more than a round or two.
One thing that can not be denied is that interest in the sport is growing again, with several ex-pros now signed up for various bare knuckle events. Most recently former two weight world champion Paulie Malignaggi. He has signed with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship and expected to make his debut against former UFC fighter Artern Lobov in June this year. The fight is billed as a grudge match due to Malignaggi’s well publicised feud with Lobov’s training partner Conor McGregor. The scene is set for a very interesting fight and in Malignaggi his new employers will hope they have found a genuine cross over star.
It remains to be seen how far this resurrection will go for the bare knuckle promotions and if they can reach the heights of success enjoyed by mainstream boxing and UFC in recent years. However as a boxing fan it is hard not to get drawn into the history of the genre. The fights are as intriguing as they are enthralling and as beautiful as they are brutal and it will remain to be seen if there is room for both disciplines in the hearts and minds of the boxing fans.