Bare-knuckle boxing

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Bare-knuckle boxing
John L Sullivan.jpg
Irish-American fighter John L. Sullivan
Also known as
  • Classical pugilism
  • fisticuffs
  • fist fight
  • illegal boxing
  • prizefighting
FocusStriking, Grappling (early)
Country of originEngland

Bare-knuckle boxing (also known as bare-knuckle, bare-knuckle fighting, prizefighting, fist fight or fisticuffs) is the sport of boxing without the use of boxing gloves or other padding on the participants' hands.

The difference between street fighting and a bare-knuckle boxing match is that the latter has an accepted set of rules, such as not striking a downed opponent. The rules that provided the foundation for bare-knuckle boxing for much of the 18th and 19th centuries were the London Prize Ring Rules.

By the late 19th century, professional boxing moved from bare-knuckle to using boxing gloves. The last major world heavyweight championship happened in 1889 and was held by John L. Sullivan.[1][2] The American National Police Gazette magazine was recognized as sanctioning the world championship titles.

Bare-knuckle boxing has seen a resurgence in the 21st century with the English promotion BKB™ (Bare Knuckle Boxing) which is a sanctioned Bare Knuckle promotion along with other big UK promotions such as Warrington’s UBKB (Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing) and Bare Fist Boxing Association (BFBA) & American promotion Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) and (Back Yard Brawls) (BYB) based out of Miami Florida.

Early history[edit]

The sport as it is known today originated in England.[3] According to the boxing chronicle Pugilistica, the first newspaper report of a boxing match in England dates from 1681, when the Protestant Mercury stated: "Yesterday a match of boxing was performed before his Grace the Duke of Albemarle, between the Duke's footman and a butcher. The latter won the prize, as he hath done many before, being accounted, though but a little man, the best at that exercise in England."[4]

The first bare-knuckle champion of England was James Figg, who claimed the title in 1719 and held it until his retirement in 1730. Before Jack Broughton, the first idea of current boxing originated from James Figg, who is viewed as the organizer of cutting edge boxing. In 1719, he set up a 'pugilistic foundation' and charged himself as 'a professional in the Noble Science of Defense' to instruct boxers on the utilization of clench hands, sword, and quarterstaff. Noted champions were Jack Broughton, Elizabeth Wilkinson, Daniel Mendoza, Jem Belcher, Hen Pearce, John Gully, Tom Cribb, Tom Spring, Jem Ward, James Burke, William "Bendigo" Thompson, Ben Caunt, William Perry, Tom Sayers and Jem Mace.[5]

The record for the longest bare-knuckle fight is listed as 6 hours and 15 minutes for a match between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith, fought near Fiery Creek, Victoria, Australia, on December 3, 1855, when Smith gave in after 17 rounds.[6]

The bare-knuckle fighter Jem Mace is listed as having the longest professional career of any fighter in history.[7] He fought for more than 35 years into his 60s,[8] and recorded his last exhibition bout in 1909 at the age of 78.

Professional bare-knuckle boxing was never legal under any federal or state laws in the United States until Wyoming became the first to legalize on March 20, 2018. Prior to that date, the chief sanctioning organization for bare-knuckle boxing was the magazine National Police Gazette, which set up matches and issued championship belts throughout the 1880s. The Police Gazette sanctioned what is considered the last major bare-knuckle heavyweight world championship, between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain on July 8, 1889, with Sullivan emerging as the victor.[1][2]

Since then, other claimants to being sanctioned bare-knuckle championship bouts include the August 5, 2011, match at Fort McDowell Casino on the Yavapai Nation reservation in Arizona. The Native American tribe sanctioned the bout between Rich Stewart of New Castle, Delaware and Bobby Gunn, with Gunn emerging as the victor.[9] Other noted champions were Tom Hyer, Yankee Sullivan, Nonpareil Dempsey, Tom Sharkey, Bob Fitzsimmons and John Morrissey.

With the emergence of contemporary bare-knuckle promotions like the BKFC and BKB, a number of sanctioned and officially recognized bare-knuckle boxing champions have been crowned. This includes former mixed martial artist Joey Beltran, who holds the BKFC Heavyweight Championship and the National Police Gazette American Heavyweight Championship.[10]

However, in addition to the UK it is important to remember the pioneers of this fighting style in the rest of the world, who thanks to the spread of their fighting on the internet, have helped to give Bare Knuckle Fight the fame it has reached today. We mention for example Kimbo Slice for the United States, Reneé "Level" Martinez for Mexico and Christopher "Kris Man" D'addesa for Italy.


Early fighting had no written rules. There were no weight divisions or round limits and no referee, resulting in very chaotic fights. An early account of boxing was published in Nottingham, 1713, by Sir Thomas Parkyns, 2nd Baronet, a landowner in Bunny, Nottinghamshire, who had practised the techniques he described. The article, a single page in his manual of wrestling and fencing, Progymnasmata: The inn-play, or Cornish-hugg wrestler, described a system of headbutting, punching, eye-gouging, chokes, and hard throws, not recognized in boxing today.[11] Consequently, there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared loser and the fight would be brought to a halt. Fights could also end if broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery, or if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw. While fights could have enormous numbers of rounds, the rounds in practice could be quite short with fighters pretending to go down from minor blows to take advantage of the 30-second rest period.

Even though Broughton's era brought rules to make boxing more civilized, there were still many moves in this era that are illegal in today's gloved boxing. That being said, there were also new revolutionary techniques that were formulated during this time. Grappling was allowed during this time and many favored the use of cross-buttocks throw and suplexes, although grabs below the waist were illegal.[12][13] Clinching, known as chancery, were also legal and in-use. Fibbing, where a boxer grabs hold of an opponent by the neck or hair and pummel him multiple times, were allowed.[14] The traditional bare-knuckle boxing stance was actually designed to combat against the use of grappling as well as block punching.[15] Kicking was also allowed in boxing at that time, with Wiliam "Bendigo" Thompson being an expert in kicks during his fight with Ben Caunt,[16] and the Lancanshire Navigator using purring kicks in his battle with Tom Cribb.[17]

Tom Molineaux (left) vs Tom Cribb in a re-match for the heavyweight championship of England, 1811.

It was during classical pugilism where many famous boxing techniques were invented. Samuel Elias was the first to invent a punch that would later become known as the uppercut.[18] Tom Spring popularized the use of the left hook and created a technique called the "Harlequin Step" where he would put himself just within reach of his opponent, then avoiding the instinctive punch while simultaneously delivering one himself, basically inventing the boxing feint.[19] Daniel Mendoza would become the inventor of the outboxer-style of boxing.[20][21]

Irish stand down[edit]

"Irish stand down" is a type of traditional bare knuckle fighting where the aspect of maneuvering around the ring is removed, leaving only the less nuanced aspects of punching and "taking" punches. This form of combat was popular in Irish American ghettos in the United States in the late 19th century but was eclipsed in the Irish American community first by bare knuckle boxing and then later by regulation boxing. The Irish stand down is also known as strap fighting or toe to toe.

Modern bare-knuckle boxing[edit]

Modern bareknuckle boxing in the UK[edit]

The largest bareknuckle promotion in the UK is BKB™. Bareknuckle boxing returned to the United Kingdom after more than a century in Kettering, Northamptonshire, on June 29, 2015.

Businessmen and boxing fans Joe Smith-Brown and Jim Freeman promoted the show. They had grown tired of the politics and mismatches in professional gloved boxing. After an underground bareknuckle boxing show, the two saw the sport’s potential.  

Smith-Brown and Freeman discovered that, by law, fighters would have to wear hand wraps in order to legally compete in bareknuckle fights.

Rules included fighters being given a 20-second count after being knocked down, a 90-second break in between rounds and a ringside doctor had the power to stop the fight at any time.

Freeman worked as a coach at Kettering Town F.C. and used his connections there to secure the club’s Latimer Park ground for the show. Jimmy Sweeney fought twice on the opening show, winning both fights by knockout. Shows were also staged in Nottingham and Coventry.

The first fully sanctioned professional bareknuckle boxing show in the world was held in Coventry on September 24, 2016. There were around 3,000 fans at the Coventry Skydome for a show there in April, 2017. Early champions included Jimmy Sweeney, Sean George and Kevin Bennett and former UFC fighters such as Melvin Guillard and Julian Lane were brought in to fight them.

Robert Smith, the chairman of the British Boxing Board of Control, voiced his concerns about bareknuckle boxing, calling the sport “brutal.” In response to Smith's comments, Freeman said that his shows took every necessary medical precaution, including having a mobile brain scanner, a doctor, medics and an ambulance. Freeman argued that bareknuckle boxing was safer than gloved boxing, saying: “Having lads being beaten for twelve rounds and having their brains drained of water creates the injury. We don't have that repetition because lads fight for ten minutes.”

Smith-Brown and Freeman, heads of the BKB™ company, decided to make the 3,000 capacity Indigo at The O2 in London their base. The first BKB™ show was staged there in June 2017.

Several former professional gloved boxers have tried bareknuckle boxing, including former world-ranked super lightweight John Wayne Hibbert, Matty Askin, Jack Arnfield and Barrie Jones.

Jones was the most successful, winning the vacant BKB™ world bantamweight title in August, 2021 with a first-round knockout of Izmet Minaz. The Welsh southpaw, who fought Kell Brook for the British welterweight title as a gloved boxer and lost a close decision to ex-WBA super-lightweight champion Souleymane M'baye, won 5 of his first 6 fights in the first round.

The 1st superfight of the modern bareknuckle boxing era was staged at the Indigo at O2 Arena on September 8, 2018.

Sweeney stopped George in the 7th and last round. Sweeney used what commentator Tom Ross described as “a snake charmer’s style” to build a points lead and when George went for the knockout in the last, he ran onto punches and was knocked out.

Several of the top bareknuckle boxers are from Wales, including Sean George, Daniel Lerwell and Dan Chapman.

Chapman was a member of the Great Britain amateur boxing team and was set to compete in the 2012 London Olympics before getting involved in a serious motorcycle accident. He fought his way back to full fitness and was in training camps with British flyweight champion Andrew Selby. Following his recovery, professional managers were interested in signing Chapman as a gloved boxer, but he decided to stick with bareknuckle boxing.

Modern rules[edit]

With the resurgence of bare-knuckle boxing in the 21st century, several modifications have been made to the London Prize Ring Rules that controlled historical bare-knuckle boxing. Additionally, there are several changes from the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Most notably, there is an 18-second count on any knockdown in the BKB, although the BKFC uses the traditional 10-count. In most modern bare-knuckle promotions, there is no three-knockdown rule and fighters cannot be saved by the bell. Fights consists of 5 rounds of 2 minutes in BKFC and 7 rounds of 2 minutes in BKB. One of the distinguishing characteristics of modern bare-knuckle boxing is the inclusion of punching in the clinch, also known as "dirty boxing". In BKB™, the rules are essentially those of gloved boxing but with the absence of gloves.

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship Rules[edit]

1. Fighters are permitted to wrap and tape the wrist, thumb, and mid-hand. No gauze or tape can be within 1 inch (25 mm) of the knuckles.

2. Fighters will “toe the line”. There are two lines, 3 feet (91 cm) apart, in the center of the ring where the fighters will start each round. The front foot will be on the line, and the referee will instruct the fighters to “knuckle up”, which indicates the beginning of the bout/round.

3. Punches are the only strike allowed and must be with a closed fist (no kicks, elbows, knees or grappling).

4. In the clinch, the fighter may punch his way out with the open hand. If there is a three-second lull in action while clinching, the referee will break the fighters.

5. A fighter who is knocked down will have 10 seconds to return to his feet, or the referee will stop the fight. It is not permitted to hit a downed fighter. Any fighter who does will be disqualified, and the purse will be withheld. While a fighter is downed, the other fighter will be instructed to report to a neutral space.

6. If a fighter is cut and the blood is impairing a fighter’s vision, the referee may call a timeout to give the cutman 30 seconds to stop the bleeding. If the blood cannot be controlled and the blood inhibits the fighter’s vision, the referee will stop the fight and award victory to the other fighter.

7. Fights are two minutes per round and each bout will be 3 or 5 rounds in length. In BKB can be 3, 5 or 7.

8. Attire: All fighters must have a groin protector with a cup, a mouthpiece, trunks or boxing trunks, and boxing/wrestling shoes. In Russia Topdog the hand has no protection at all.

9. All fighters are expected to give 100% effort and behave with complete sportsmanship.


Current titleholders[edit]

Bare Knuckle Boxing (BKB™)[edit]

Weight class Holder
Heavyweight / +16 st (224 lb; 102 kg) Jody Miekle
Cruiserweight / 16 st (224 lb; 102 kg) Mickey Parker
Light Heavyweight / 15 st (210 lb; 95 kg) vacant
Super Middleweight / 14.5 st (203 lb; 92 kg) vacant
Middleweight / 14 st (196 lb; 89 kg) Anthony Holmes
Super Welterweight / 13.5 st (189 lb; 86 kg) Daniel Lerwell
Welterweight / 13 st (182 lb; 83 kg) vacant
Lightweight / 12.5 st (175 lb; 79 kg) Barrie Jones
Featherweight / 12 st (168 lb; 76 kg) Jimmy Sweeney
Bantamweight / 11.5 st (161 lb; 73 kg) Barrie Jones
Flyweight / 11 st (154 lb; 70 kg) Dan Chapman
Heavyweight Daniel Podmore
Cruiserweight vacant
Light Heavyweight vacant
Super Middleweight vacant
Middleweight vacant
Super Welterweight vacant
Welterweight vacant
Lightweight James Connelly
Featherweight vacant
Bantamweight Sean George
Flyweight Craig Morgan

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC)[edit]

Weight class Holder
Heavyweight / 265 lb (120 kg; 19 st) Arnold Adams
Cruiserweight / 205 lb (93 kg; 15 st) Héctor Lombard
Light Heavyweight / 185 lb (84 kg; 13 st) Lorenzo Hunt
Middleweight / 175 lb (79 kg; 13 st) Thiago Alves
Welterweight / 165 lb (75 kg; 12 st) Elvin Brito
Lightweight / 155 lb (70 kg; 11 st) Luis Palomino
Bantamweight / 135 lb (61 kg; 10 st) Johnny Bedford
Women's Flyweight / 125 lb (57 kg; 9 st) Christine Ferea
Police Gazette
World Heavyweight Arnold Adams
World Light Heavyweight Lorenzo Hunt
World Middleweight Barrie Jones
World Welterweight Elvin Brito
World Lightweight Luis Palomino
World Bantamweight Johnny Bedford
World Women's Featherweight Patricia Juarez
World Women's Flyweight Christine Ferea

List of English Heavyweight Bare-Knuckle Boxing Champions[edit]

List of United States Heavyweight Bare-knuckle Boxing Champions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b National Police Gazette, 16 Apr 2018, p.
  2. ^ a b Mastro, Tim (August 13, 2011), "Fistful of Danger", The News Journal
  3. ^ Ollhoff, Jim (2008). Martial Arts Around the Globe (The World of Martial Arts). Abdo Group. pp. 20-21. ISBN 1604532815
  4. ^ Miles, Henry Downes (1906). Pugilistica: the history of British boxing containing lives of the most celebrated pugilists. Edinburgh: J. Grant. pp. vii.
  5. ^ The Bare Knuckle Champions of England, retrieved April 17, 2009
  6. ^ "The Victoria Ring", Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, December 22, 1855
  7. ^ "Synonyms Thesaurus With Definitions and Antonyms".
  8. ^ James B. Roberts, Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book
  9. ^ Woods, Michael (August 17, 2011). "Reviving a bygone, bare-knuckle era". ESPN. Retrieved June 17, 2015.
  10. ^ "BKFC 9 Results: Jason Knight avenges loss to Artem Lobov with fifth-round KO, Joey Beltran captures heavyweight title". MMA Fighting. 2019-11-17. Retrieved 2020-03-10.
  11. ^ "tumblr_lx13m7QVfb1qa5yan.jpg". Tumblr. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  12. ^ "The 'Cross-Buttocks' Throw: A forgotten throw of Karate, Boxing & Taekwondo". Ian Abernathy. Retrieved April 13, 2010.
  13. ^ Chill, Adam. Bare-Knuckle Britons and Fighting Irish: Boxing, Race, Religion and Nationality in the 18th and 19th Centuries. McFarland & Company (August 29, 2017) p. 20. ISBN 978-1476663302
  14. ^ "A Fighter Abroad". Philipps, Brian. February 2, 2012.
  15. ^ The Pugilist: Nick Diaz, Daniel Mendoza and the Sweet Science of Bruising
  16. ^ "Bendigo". Seaver, Timothy. November 24, 2015.
  17. ^ Miles, Henry Downes. Pugilistica: The History of British Boxing Containing Lives of the Most Celebrated Pugilists; Full Reports of Their Battles From Contemporary ... of the Principal Patrons of the Prize Ring. 1906. p. 849.
  18. ^ Tacoma News Tribune (Tacoma, WA, USA) Jan. 1, 1924
  19. ^ Tom Spring IBHOF Archived 17 March 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Daniel Mendoza". Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  21. ^ "The Man Who Birthed Modern Boxing". The Huddle. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  22. ^ "What are the bare knuckle fighting championship rules". 29 October 2020. Retrieved 2021-07-17.

Sources and Further reading[edit]

  • The Outsiders – Exposing the Secretive World of Ireland's Travellers Chapters 4 and 5 (ISBN 978-1-903582-67-1) by Eamon Dillon, published Nov 2006 by Merlin Publishing
  • David Snowdon, Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan's Boxiana World (2013)
  • Interview with bare knuckle boxer from the 1950s
  • Near the KNUCKLE; 3,000 fans turn up at skydome to witness a night of bloody battles. - Free Online Library (
  • Inside The World Of Bareknuckle Boxing (
  • Bare-knuckle boxing staged at O2 Arena for first time - BBC News
  • BoxRec: Barrie Jones
  • The brutal life of Wales' bare-knuckle boxing world champion who saw his Olympic dream crushed - Wales Online
  • Can bare-knuckle boxing, stripped of its seediness and danger, go mainstream? (