Old School Prize Fighting; How It Came To Be What We Know Today
By Scott Mallon (April 19, 2005)  
Photo © Scott Mallon
The art of Leth Wei or Burmese Boxing as it is more commonly known is remains alive and well. Fighters use no gloves although they use hemp or cotton wraps and tape. The utilization of elbows, knees, kicks, punches, throws and head butts are allowed and a fighter may be knocked out three times before the winner is acknowledged.
For nearly 50 years actor Charles Bronson was the classic cinematic tough guy. He was and probably always will be one of my favorite actors and I was truly sad to learn he passed away in August of 2003. I grew up watching his movies; The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk, Breakheart Pass and of course Death Wish. Probably one of his best movies though was Hard Times (1975) which fictionally chronicles a strong and silent bare-knuckle fighter’s life and his quest to fight the best and find the big money. Set in the depression, this movie gave us a realistic glimpse into the no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle, street fighting bouts of days gone by. The boxing we are now so familiar with was in its modern day infancy and most fans have no idea of what old-style fighters endured mentally and physically for boxing to become the sport as we know it.

Boxing as a sport is estimated to date back as far as 5000 years ago although it was much different from contemporary boxing and makes it tame in comparison. Added to the Olympics in 688 BC, a boxer’s only protection was strips of soft ox-hide wrapped around the hand. These strips were called himantes and were about ten to twelve feet in length. The fingertips and thumb were left uncovered, the knuckle portion had layers of hard and sharp leather added to make the blows more devastating and the inside of the gloves was lined with wool to protect the hand. The Roman invention of the caesteus, a boxing glove reinforced with iron and lead, transformed the Greek art of boxing into one even more vicious and into a life or death battle. There were no time limits in these bouts and fights ended by submission or death. Often held in outdoor, make-shift arenas, fighters would jockey for position to lead their opponents into the glare of the sun, thereby blinding them and rendering them defenseless for the moment. A moment was all it took to finish off an opponent.

In order to prevent contests from reaching inane lengths of time, the fighters were given the option of klimax. The combatants would take turns remaining motionless and striking each other. A winner was declared when one of the fighters made his opponent admit defeat or rendered him incapable of continuing.

An ancient Greek vase depicting the brutal boxing contests c. 550BC. Courtesy of the British Museum.
In 393 or 394 A.D. the Greek Olympics were abolished and boxing continued mainly in street fights and cultural events with the last man standing declared the winner. Occasionally iron spikes or some other ghastly device designed to mutilate, blind or kill the opponent would be added to the hand. In parts of Southeast Asia, fighters would immerse their wrapped hands in resin and then dip the knuckle into ground glass for maximum effect and punishment. The sport was brutal by any standard and fighters were in essence gladiators.
Pre-Queensberry era

Boxing began one of several periods of growth and transformation in the early 1700’s when the first recognized boxing champion, Englishman James Figg opened the ‘School of Arms and Self Defense’ in London, England. Figg changed the sport from one which used punching, wrestling and kicking (know as purring) to one which relied solely on punching skill. At the time, there were no weight restrictions or divisions, no gloves, no set number of rounds, no specified length to the rounds and no rest periods.
In 1743 Jack Broughton, a student of James Figg and known as the ‘the father of English boxing’, implemented the use of his Broughton Rules which soon caught on and became the standard for all bouts. Each round would end when a fighter was knocked down or out of the ring and a fight ended when one combatant was unable to rise from a knockdown within 30 seconds. Fights could end by knockout, capitulation or police intervention. These rules remained in play until 1839 when the London Prize Ring Rules introduced the use of a 24 square-foot boxing ring with ropes surrounding it. Also known as the ‘Pugilistic Benevolent Society’ this was to mark the end of the days when spectators formed a ‘ring’ around the fighters. Kicking, gouging, biting, head butting and punches below the belt were all forbidden and a fighter who was knocked down was required to rise under his own power within 8 seconds.

Nottinghamshire prize-fighters in the 19th century. Drawn by artist Gillian Elias of Nottingham, England.
Queensberry rules

In 1867, British sports administrator John Graham Chambers (1841-1883) codified the Marquis of Queensberry rules which paved the way for modern boxing. These rules called for three-minute rounds with a one-minute break and required the boxers to wear padded gloves or mufflers as they were sometime referred too. If a man went down to one knee he was not to be hit and if he was knocked down he would have 10 seconds to stand up. A 3-foot square in the center of the ring was drawn and when a fighter was knocked down, his handlers had 30 seconds to pick him up and position him on one side of the square ready to reenter the fray. If they failed to revive him or the fighter surrendered, the fight would then be called.

The first prizefight using these rules was in 1885 and was between Dominick McCafferty and the man who was to be the last bare-knuckle champion, John L. Sullivan. Gentleman Jim Corbett then defeated Sullivan in 1892 to become the first champion under the Marquis of Queensberry rules. In past centuries, guns, swords and knives had been used in duels to settle disputes, often with fatal consequences. Boxing soon became the favored method of resolving ones differences and boxing clubs, gyms and promotions sprung up everywhere. Young men were urged to ‘step into the ring and work it out’ and the sport slowly gained popularity around the world.

From Bare-Knuckle to Gloves

For 50 years from the initiation of the Marquis of Queensberry rules both bare-knuckle and gloved boxing continued to be promoted. Prizefighting in general was viewed as a sport which attracted the criminal element and was only watched by the lower class. The truth was spectators wagered on the outcome of bouts and fans came from all walks of life. John L. Sullivan had fought and won the last sanctioned bare-knuckle fight in 1889 against Jake Kilrain and from this time on, bare-knuckle boxing would never be the same.

Bare-knuckle boxing continued however fights were no longer sanctioned and it slowly faded away from the public eye. In the early 1900’s, boxing had yet to be legalized in many parts of the United States. In 1920 however, New York passed the Walker Law which permitted public prizefighting. Soon other states followed suit and boxing entered its golden age. Gentleman Jim Corbett demonstrated his excellent boxing skills, Jack Johnson and Gene Tunney showcased their defensive prowess, Jack Dempsey displayed an unmatched ferocity and Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano knocked people out. For the first half of the 20th century boxing enjoyed an unparalleled growth spurt. During this era, fighters would travel from city to city, often week-to-week, challenging others and earning whatever money they could. These were the days when fighters truly had to pay their dues to get the opportunity to fight for a title.

Today’s Scene

The current bare-knuckle scene hasn’t completed disappeared however the average fan doesn’t know it exists any longer other than in movies like Fight Club and Snatch. As in the past, those involved in bare-knuckle fights find it difficult to find a suitable venue where a bout can take place without police intervention. Most bouts are fought ‘underground’ and only observed by a handful of spectators. Recently in the United States, street fighter Kimbo Slice took on Boston police officer and MMA fighter Sean Gannon in unsanctioned bout which left Kimbo unconscious for the first time in his career. Gannon was subsequently reprimanded by the department for engaging in an illegal act however both combatants continue their fighting careers.

Once a year fighters from Thailand and neighboring Burma come together during the three-day Songkran festival for the Muay Kaad Chauk or ‘Bound Fist Fighting’. While technically prohibited by the Thai government, these fights have gone on for hundreds of years and it is doubtful they will end anytime soon. In these clashes hands are wrapped with a hemp rope (not bare) and just about anything goes. Unlike in sanctioned boxing, fights are usually not stopped because of small cuts or slight injuries. Most of the fights are out and out brawls with the fighters preferring to stand toe-to-toe instead of using lots of movement.

In Burmese boxing or Leth Wei as its known, hands are also wrapped with a hemp rope or cotton wraps. As in the Muay Kaad Chuak, punches, kicks, elbows, knees, head butts and throws are all allowed. Leth Wei is the norm around the country and gloved bouts are a rarity. These bouts are not for the fan that is faint of heart. Burmese fighters are known as being some of the grittiest and durable fighters in S. E. Asia and for good reason. Rounds are three minutes with a two minute break as in traditional Muay Thai. A fighter can be knocked out three times in a five-round fight before being declared the loser. If there is a knockout, the corner men have one minute to revive the fighter and prepare him to continue. The fighter must then finish the round he was knocked out in. It’s not uncommon for a fighter to be knocked out, revitalized and then come back to win the fight. If after five rounds neither fighter knocks his opponent out or renders him incapable of continuing, the fight is declared a draw. Until recently the fifth round would continue until one of the combatants was knocked out for longer than thirty seconds. Bouts could go on for hours and fighters literally fought to their last breath. Needless to say these fighters are a rare and soon to be extinct breed. Even with the internet serving as the central marketplace for footage of bare-knuckle or unsanctioned contests, the days of gloveless boxing seem numbered.

The sweet science is a paradoxical sport and one we as humans relate to on the most primitive level. Some look at boxing as an art form or highly skilled profession practiced by talented and courageous athletes, others view it as a brutish, caveman-like sport in which humans administer physical beatings upon each other. Regardless of how one feels, even in our so-called civilized world the sport of boxing shows little sign of waning. While there are the occasional talks of banning the sport and some countries already having done so, boxing translates into big business and big money and economies prosper because of it. It still offers a way out for the less fortunate while at the same time providing entertainment and excitement for fans around the world. Promoters, trainers, managers, corporations and sponsors all add and detract from the boxing equation, hopefully with the person taking the physical punishment ending up with what they themselves consider to be ‘sufficient compensation’. Boxing is a ‘hurting business’ and it only seems fair that those who are absorbing the blows receive the lion’s share. If only someone would tell this to Don King.


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Gee, Tony: Up to Scratch, Bare-knuckle Fighting and Heroes of the Prize-Ring (1998)
Grohol, John Dr:, Pysch Central, pyschcentral.com
Katz, Michael: The History of Boxing, White Collar Boxing, whitecollarboxing.com
Sugar, Bert J.D.: 100 Years of Boxing (1982)
Tiscali Reference: Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas, 8th Marquis of Queensberry, tiscali.co.uk
Wikipedia, from the article “Marquis of Queensberry rules,” wikipedia.com

Marquis of Queensberry rules
1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24-foot ring, or as near that size as practicable.
2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.
3. The rounds to be of three minutes' duration, and one minute's time between rounds.
4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, 10 seconds to be allowed him to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the 10 seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favor of the other man.
5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so that the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
9. Should a glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee's satisfaction.
10. A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
11. No shoes or boots with springs allowed.
12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by revised rules of the London Prize Ring.
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