Today I found myself in an odious mood, a mood that normally lends itself to loud noises, breaking things, and severe indigestion. I stress-ate a bit (pepperoni and mushroom pizza, breakfast of champions), lifted some heavy free weights, and still felt the need to cave in someone’s face…which brings me to today’s topic: pugilism in the Victorian Era.
Fighting was common in the early 19th century, and was relatively unregulated, brutal, and horribly bloody. Matches were fought on dirt in and between villages with untrained amateurs or with professionals in rings with well dressed spectators. Most of our assumptions and impressions of “old timey bare-knuckle boxing matches” are largely correct: grimy venues with spectacularly mustachioed men with fists of iron and a thirst for the other man’s blood.
This is James “The Gypsy” Mace a.k.a Jem Mace, English boxing champion who competed well into his late 70’s. He was considered by many to be the most scientific pugilist alive and had a career that spanned more than 35 years. Apparently, he was also a skillful violinist who was looking to pursue a career in music until “the trashing of his violin by three thugs in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and his subsequent thrashing [of] them led [him] to the ring.”
(I want you all to pause for a brief moment to ponder that glorious bit of information before we continue on. Sip it like a fine wine and let it linger in your mind.)
Boxing as a sport was on the downtrend before the Queensbury Rules came into effect in 1867 in an effort to bring some order into the chaos of the ring, marking the transition away from the brutality of bare-knuckle boxing (also known as prizefighting or fisticuffs. FISTICUFFS.), once so popular in England in the 18th century but now outlawed and consigned to unsavory, underground areas and gambling venues. These rules included many guidelines that would form the basis for modern boxing, such as timing of and between rounds, codes of conduct in and outside the ring, and the banning of any wrestling moves from the action. To quote Wikipedia on the subject, “[t]his version persuaded boxers that “you must not fight simply to win; no holds barred is not the way; you must win by the rules” (17, sect. 5, pt. 1).” These were also the first rules to mention gloves in boxing, which would replace bare-knuckle combat in the last decades of Victoria’s reign. This would change the very nature of the sport, the size of the gloves easily lending itself to improved defense and parrying, which in turn led to longer bouts that emphasized long-term strategy and the stamina of the fighter over the short-term power of a single blow.
After 1866, prizefighting was outlawed in England and any athlete caught red-handed (SORRY NOT SORRY) was liable for arrest and prosecution. This led many boxers to head to the States to find their glory against fine fellows such as this.
This is John L. Sullivan, known as the Boston Strong Boy, the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing and in 1889, the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring Rules of 1838. The fight lasted 75 rounds and in the end, John stood victorious over Jake Kilrain. A sports reporter in 1890 once spoke of him thusly: “Sullivan is a marvel of strength, skill, and agility. If there is another man on earth who is equal, certain it is that that man has never been publicly known. The force with which he delivers a blow is simply appalling to ordinary people. There is nothing comparable to it…his motions resemble those of a tiger in the act of springing on its prey. No ordinary man has any chance at all before him, and it is idle, foolish, to talk otherwise.”
Just because, this is his opponent, Jake Kilrain. He’s a bit of a dish. Suffice to say…I’d hit it.
After years of struggling for legitimacy, glove-boxing increased in popularity as more sanctions and rules were put into place to regulate the sport and establish universal champions. It survived the prohibition of the late 19th century and has endured to this day. Before you float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, you’d better thank these fine gents first; modern boxing owes everything to these pioneer athletes and those enthusiasts who created the rules that transformed and regulated the sport.