Boxing: soaking one's fists in vinegar?

Quoth Wikipedia on 19th-century boxer Tom Molineaux:

What exactly was soaking one’s fists in vinegar supposed to accomplish? Does it actually work, or was it just quackery? Is it still done today by bare-knuckle fighters?

No-no-no! Boxers wash their face with vinegar; they soak their fists in urine:

Bare knucklers soaked their fists in various preparations. The idea is to toughen the fist, especially the skin over the knuckles. Same for the face so you wouldn’t cut as easily.

Bare knuckle boxing is extremely hard on the hands, which are not designed to be used on hard things like heads. If you study the old bare knuckle boxers, you notice some things about them - [ul][li]The bouts lasted for hours, often. That is because, under London Prize Ring rules, a round was over when one or both fighters hit the ground. If you take a big punch at someone, you might knock them down, but you are quite likely to break your hand on his head. A common tactic for a veteran was to get a novice to throw a very hard punch, and catch it on the forehead. Therefore the idea often became to wear your opponent down and get him to give up from an accumulation of punishment rather than one big knock out punch.[]Wrestling was as important as punching. When John L. Sullivan, the last heavyweight champion under London Prize Ring rules, fought his last bare knuckle bout, he hired William Muldoon, a champion Greco-Roman wrestler as his cheif sparring partner and trainer, not a boxer.[]The boxers went for months or years between bouts. This for for several reasons, but one was that often the winner was in as bad shape as the loser, especially his hands, from striking more blows.[/ul][/li]
There aren’t many bare knuckle fights nowadays. There used to be, in the UFC when it first got popular, but they found out that punching to the head resulted often in hand injuries. And grapplers ruled the day, Now they mostly use light gloves, to protect the hands.


Thanks for the informative post, Shodan. I’m still wondering, though, what it is about vinegar (or horse urine) that supposedly toughens the skin on the fists.

Would embalming fluid do the job?

As a WAG the use of various irritants can promote the formation of keloid scar tissue. When young Heidelberg duelers wanted to be sure their facial scars showed as much as possible they would pour wine into the wound to promote scarring. Various African tribes that use scarifying body designsrub ash into the wounds to raise the scars.

If you are beating up your fists on tree bark or peoples heads you will have huge numbers of micro abrasions and cuts on your hands. Possibly horse urine etc. acting as an irritant promoted the formation of thicker scar tissue on the hands and knuckles while healing.

As I understand it, scar tissue isn’t like a bone-break where it heals stronger. Scars are actually weaker than undamaged skin. At least, fighters who have been cut before get cut much, much easier in the same spot from then on. People have had to retire due to having so much scar tissue on the face that they basically open up like a faucet as soon as they get hit. So I don’t think scarring your hands would do you much good.

The idea, at least in karate, is not to form scar tissue over the knuckles, but callous. Thus the idea is not to break the skin.

I have no idea why vinegar was used. A WAG might be that tannin, which is used in making leather, is acidic. Vinegar is also weakly acidic - perhaps they thought it would serve the same purpose in toughening the skin into becoming leathery.

I never heard about horse urine. I have heard about using brine solutions to toughen the skin of the face. I knew that Dempsey chewed spruce gum to strengthen his jaw muscles in an effort to increase his punch resistance.

Dempsey spends a lot of time discussing how to punch without breaking your hands in his invaluable Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense. He fought a lot of impromptu bouts on the street as a young man, and even more in saloons and so forth, so he was more concerned with bare knuckle fighting than one would expect from a boxer with his success in gloved fights. Gene Tunney, who beat Dempsey, also had troubles with his hands. He said that he developed his skills as a boxer because he could not hit hard enough to score a knockout without hurting his hands, and so had to rely on skill to win in the long run. He claimed that chopping wood and other hand exercises cured the condition. He certainly packed a wallop in his later career - he decked Dempsey in the round after the famous Long Count, and knocked out fighters who Dempsey could not.


I’ve heard hikers and runners say that putting peroxide or vinegar on their feet tends to prevent blisters. I don’t know if it really works.

We used to swear by soaking our conkers in vinegar when I was a young un, so it might have some ‘toughening’ qualities.

I wonder if the above ideas have anything to do with being full of piss and vinegar?

Still do, sometimes. :slight_smile:

Champion Klitschko uses infant son’s wet diapers to reduce hand swelling

This is what I came into say. Vinegar just seems to be the substance of choice in England for soaking things you want to toughen, regardless of efficacy.

Pre-war baseball pitchers used to soak their hands in brine for the same effect.

I’ve occasionally done some work with itinerant field workers, and they have a habit of pissing on their hands to toughen calluses.

I’ve read that soaking ones feet in strong tea can stop a sweating problem. Sweat makes the hands slippery, and it would be harder to maintain a fist in the correct position once the punch is thrown. If vinegar or horse urine had the anti-sweating effect, it would be quite an advantage. (This would also make one less likely to get blisters when hiking, as wet socks rub much more abrasively, and wet skin is more vulnerable to chafing.)

there is a few methoods to hardening/toughening or hands.
the old school irish bare knuckle technique was to soak the hands in petrol for 20 minutes a day every day. making your fists like stone.
also you can use brine or as you have mentioned, vinegar.
the way it works is the acid is soaking into your skin and creates a reaction inside. not a bad reaction but makes the body build more skin layers on the hand.
cement dust is the same, thats why builders have tougher skin than the normal workers.
it is wise to condition your hands if you doing any hand to hand fighting without gloves, as there is only 2 layers of skin covering your knuckles, thats why it hurts when you get punched as its bone on bone. also its very easy to fracture or break your knuckles in a bare knuckle fight, thats why conditioning is crutial.
being able to give a strong punch without hurting yourself but breaking the oppenents jaw is what the travellers aim for.
hope that helps :slight_smile:

That may be (a very vague description of) how vinegar works, but this can’t be true of petrol or brine, neither of which are acidic.

Specifically, it was urine from mares, not stallions or geldings. And the mares were generally pregnant, since mares at that time were generally bred. (And brood mares are pregnant 11 months out of the year.)

So this was effectively a version of the modern PreMarIn, an estrogen (female hormone) compound.

It would be exuded from Dempsey’s hands when he struck his opponents face, and then absorbed by their skin (especially if the fight had produced cuts on the opponents face). The absorption of this hormone would have a ‘feminizing’ effect on his opponents body, including reducing muscle mass. This reduced the strength of the opponent, especially in later rounds, thus giving Dempsey a slight advantage, just enough to enable him to win the toughest fights.

:slight_smile: Joking! Completely made up.
But will probably be reported as fact somewhere on the Internet within a year.