Bare-Knuckle 80+ Round Boxing Matches

How did prize fighters in the olden days like John L. Sullivan
fight (and survive) bare-knuckle matches that lasted for 80+ rounds?

I just saw something about this in the past few days. The answer is that they were very careful about when and if they tried to hit each other. Gloves made it possible to flail away without inflicting as much damage, and that brought in the lighter punches like jabs and hooks. The heavy punches were about all the bare-knuckle boys were trying to land. And the little sparring punches just weren’t worth the energy.

Back in those days, a “round” lasted until one of the fighters fell, got knocked over, sat down, etc. There was no specific minimum or maximum time.

Zeldar’s opinion of gloves is the typical backwards myth that is perpetuated by sportswriters and other purveyors of lies. Gloves were not invented to protect people who get hit in boxing matches. Gloves were invented to protect the HANDS of boxers. It is possible to hit far harder with padded gloves on (and inflict worse damage) than bare-knuckled. Why? Because knuckles and hands can break on the human head and sternum if one does not have padded gloves on.

As for “little sparring punches” not being worth the energy being the reason for less short punches, this completely ignores the fact that the bareknuckled “short game” wasn’t punching (except for rabbit punching). It was mostly grabbing and grappling. Yes, it used to be legal to grab your opponent. One champion London boxer had a favored tactic of grabbing an opponent by the hair and pounding him. This was legal. “Head in Chancery” at one time was legal–you get a guy in a headlock and pound the back of his neck. This used to be legal in the ring.

I’ve seen many boxing matches pitting two “heavy punchers” against each other, and ending up in a decision. Heavy punchers often throw all the heavy lumber early and get worn out. They could practically go on indefinitely once they no longer have a knockout punch.

Dogface called it, I think you might be able to hit somebody about three times in the head before you wreck your hand.

As was mentioned, the rounds in the fights you are thinking of weren’t counted by time, nor were the rules what they are today. Pushing, tripping, falling, - all part of the game… and every time someone did it there was a round gone by. Get up, get ready, and repeat until someone quits or gets messed up.

As much as the old boys (well anyone actually alive at the time is dead by now) would like us youngin’s to beleive it, people weren’t any tougher back then than they are today, and no human body could possibly go 80 rounds of modern boxing in one stretch without being reduced to a pile of ground beef or dying of exhaustion first; no matter what Grampa Simpson might say :D.

In fact today’s fighters on the whole are much better than back in the good old days; you just can’t compare a lumber camp champ back in the 1800’s who taught himself to fight with a modern olympic boxing prospect (despite the rule differences).

So in short: old-time fighters survived and could take about the same amount of punishment that modern fighters can take, and they could pull of 80-round fights because of a different (one could say lax) way of counting “rounds”.

Gary Wills has a nice discussion of this in an essay about Muhammad Ali (sorry, can’t remember the title but I believe you can find the essay here)

IIRC, Wills–while explaining that boxing gloves protect the hand, not the head–describes the human hand as a “fragile birdcage of bones.”

I’m curious; I have no doubt that the hand can be easily injured in a fight, so why do hockey players take off their gloves in a fight. I played, but never on a level where fighting was allowed. Before I started I asked a camp counselor that played why they took the gloves off and he claimed it was because you couldn’t hurt anyone while wearing gloves. It seems like in a hockey fight that you would be even more likely to hurt your hand since you have to contend with the hard plastic helmet. (Though I suppose you could always “put on the foils.”)

If someone is going to be in a fight would there be any advantage to fighting barehanded as opposed to wearing any type of hand covering?

the old bare knuckle fights had very little punching in them. They were mainly stand-up grapples in which the fighters would try to exhaust the other.

I have seen gypsy bare knuckle bouts, and there is very little punching to the head in that (although the fighters do use their heads as weapons).

Thanks for all the info everybody!

Anybody know at what point boxers adopted the current hands-up fighting stance? In pictures of the old style boxers they always had their arms held way down low (The Leprechaun mascot from Notre Dame style) fighting position. I imagine the different rules influenced this stance or was this was just for publicity photos? You’d never see a fighter adopting this stance today.

Wrestling was permitted, too. It wasn’t as chaotic a situation as it sounds. The London Prize Ring Rules codified all these procedures, and weren’t replaced by the Marquess of Queensberry rules until the 1880’s.

You might be interested in a historical novel titled Black Ajax, by George Macdonald Fraser (better known for the Flashman books), in which the origins of prizefighting in England in the late 1700’s are described from the novelized participants’ views.

Actually, in a way it was a re-adoption. Ken Pfrenger has written
an essay on the evolution of the boxing guard in America over the centuries.

Here is more information on the old schools of pugilism and defence without a weapon in the West:
Price’s Science of Self Defence

Mendoza’s Six Lessons

Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence

Petter’s Clear Education on the Magnificent Art of Wrestling (without pictures)

Parkyns’s work on Cornish wrestling

Walker’s Defensive Exercises