IN ANTICIPATION OF FIGHT CARD’S DECEMBER RELEASE, FIGHT CARD SHERLOCK HOLMES: WORK CAPITOL, AUTHOR ANDREW SALMON PROVIDES US WITH A VICTORIAN BARE KNUCKLE BOXING PRIMER ...
Boxing has evolved and changed since ancient times and boxing in Victorian times was a different animal than boxing today. In the early 1800s, bare knuckle boxing was king. Earning lavish purses, toasted wherever they went, hired as boxing instructors or bodyguards for the rich aristocracy, who also funded their bouts, bare knuckle fighters (or rawsmen) were the rock stars of the day.
Fighters lived fast and hard, spent their fortunes without a thought, usually dying young from drink, the long-term effects of their sport, or from diseases that were beyond medicine at that time. This up and down lifestyle made it common for fighters to know the inside of a debtor's prison or seek work as porters, blacksmiths, and on the docks between fights. Some survived the sport such as John Gully who was elected to Parliament. Most died poor and destitute.
The fights themselves were raw, brutal affairs until The Pugilistic Club was formed in 1834 as a governing body to regulate fights, make sure fighters were paid, and retained an official ring-maker. This lead to the Prize Ring Rules of 1838 which created some guidelines for bouts, eliminating head butts, hitting or kicking a man when down, and outlawing spiked boots or cleats.
Stripped to bare chest and britches, a fighter would step into the ring, tie his colors to a corner post, proceed to the middle of the ring. There, a scratch line would drawn in the sawdust, sand, or earth (if the fight was outdoors). The fighters would toe the line and begin fighting until one or both fighters were knocked down. At which point, the scratch (or round) was over, and both fighters had to return to their corner. Rounds lasted until a knockdown, so a single scratch could last from mere seconds to forty-five minutes or longer, depending on the skill of the combatants.
No stools were provided in the corners, in fact using one was considered a foul. Rather one of the fighter's seconds would go down on one knee, creating a bench for the fighter to sit on to take water from a damp sponge. From the moment a fighter retreated to his corner, he had thirty seconds to return to the scratch line in the center of the ring, toe the line, and resume fighting. If he didn’t (or couldn’t), the fight was declared over and the fighter still standing was the winner. Wrestling throws and grips were also permitted and an integral part of the fight, which were usually refereed by two umpires.
These fights eventually gave way to the Queensberry Rules of 1867, which instituted three-minute rounds, with a minute's rest in-between, established the standardized ring, and also abolished the thirty-seconds to scratch rule. A downed fighter was counted out backward, from 10 to 1, not like today where the lone referee counts up from 1 to 10.
The terminology of the ring was also different than it is today. To retreat after sparring was called breaking ground. If a fighter maneuvered to the right or left to gain a strategic advantage, it was referred to as taking ground. Colorful terms were also used to describe various parts of the body. The torso itself was the mark. The nose was often referred to as the smeller, whistler, beak, snorer, sneezer, or proboscis. The mouth was called the oration trap, the tato-trap and, of course, the kisser.
Blood was a welcome sight at fights and a host of terms were used to describe it as a fighter drew the claret, opened a fresh tap, drew the home-brewed, drew the cork, drew the juice, or drew the crimson, to name a few.
When a fighter retired from boxing, a benefit was usually held by the Fancy (the brethren of the boxing ring), a celebration to raise money for the fighter to put towards life outside the ring. Since heavy drinking was something the majority of rawsmen had in common, most bought pubs and ran them until they died or lost them through bad business management. Some did prosper, living well into old age though such cases were the exception, not the rule.
Queen Victoria's reign spelled the beginning of the end of organized bare knuckle boxing. As the 1800s progressed, the perception of boxing as a worthwhile sport waned. People moved on to other pursuits until, gradually, boxing lost its mass public appeal, royal patronage and the support of influential figures in society.
This time period also saw the rise of gloved boxing as an alternative to the bloody contests of the past. Gloves protected a fighter's hands, allowing him to throw more punches, whereas rawsmen had to be more judicial in their attacks for fear of damaging their hands. As a result, gloved boxing was seen as more exciting.
However, bare knuckle boxing did not disappear. It continued in the shadows, becoming more and more corrupt and dangerous along the way. Relegated to seedy clubs or attics, gypsy camps, the Navy, and canal workers, the fights continued. The bouts were no-holds barred, primal affairs controlled by the criminal element as the 1900s loomed. For fans, it became a sport one did not talk about in unfamiliar company, a guilty, gritty pleasure practiced amongst a tight-knit fraternity throughout the decades since the glory days. And so it remains to this day.