“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot probably was not referring to bare knuckle boxing when he wrote those words. But we do seem to find ourselves in that situation today.
Richard K. Fox took over the National Police Gazette in 1877 and soon began featuring boxing within the Gazette’s pages. This was prize fighting, by the London Prize Ring Rules. There were no gloves, no wraps, no protection of any sort from the waist up. And it was totally illegal in every jurisdiction within the United States.
Prize fighting had always been illegal in the U.S. But it was popular nonetheless, until the first high-profile tragedy occurred in 1842. In a match in Hastings, New York, Christopher Lilly essentially beat Thomas McCoy to death. And the combination of a law-enforcement crackdown and the public’s shock at the incident put a pall over the sport in this country for a generation.
With the passage of time, however, the public’s taste for bare knuckle boxing began to return. And then two things happened. Those things were Richard K. Fox and John L. Sullivan.
Fox’s story can be found elsewhere in this website. But in a nutshell, he was the P.T. Barnum of publishing. He refined sensational journalism to a degree never before approached, which is still the template for it to this day. Conflict was king, and shocking, in-your-face depictions of activities society preferred to sweep under the rug was queen. Bare knuckle boxing fit this recipe to a T.
John L. Sullivan, like Muhammad Ali 80 years later, had phenomenal ring skills combined with an uncanny feel for promotion and public relations. Did Fox and Sullivan really hate each other as is commonly thought? After all, Fox was Irish Protestant and Sullivan Irish Catholic. Was it a coincidence that their conflict produced the greatest boxing matches of the late 19th century, bringing Sullivan, the Police Gazette, and boxing in general to heights no one could have imagined? Don’t bet on it.
In 1889, Fox backed the latest of his challengers to try to teach Sullivan a lesson. Jake Kilrain lost that fight, and Sullivan solidified his hold on the bare knuckle boxing championship of the world, winning the Police Gazette championship belt. It would be the last bout to determine that championship for over 120 years.
After more than 10 years of Fox and Sullivan’s efforts, boxing was on the threshold of mainstream acceptance. But there was one catch: it had to be gloved, Marquess of Queensberry Rules. In 1892, Sullivan fought James Corbett for the first gloved championship to be held completely legally in the light of day. From that point on, professional boxing followed the gloved path and the bare-knuckle variety was left to the back alleys and dark corners.
But after more than 100 years of evidence, who are the gloves really protecting? The punch taker or the punch thrower? There are not enough examples yet to do a scientific comparison, but are brain injuries really less common in the gloved version than the bare knuckle? Or is it reversed? One way to answer the question might be to ask which sport has more brain injuries, rugby or American football? Both similar sports. One with no protection, the other with massive amounts of protection. But again, what is being protected more? The recipient of the blow or the deliverer who is so cushioned he can deliver with maximum force each time without worry of doing damage to himself.
With that—and other factors and influences—in mind, bare knuckle boxing has been experiencing a renaissance. Yet it picks up right where it left off in 1889: as illegal as the day is long. This in spite of the fact that safety precautions are now abundant, so a repeat of a Thomas McCoy incident is remote. Bouts are no longer governed by the London Prize Ring Rules, which allowed stand-up grappling, throwing, and the rule that said if a fighter was able to walk to the center of the ring without assistance the fight would go on. Fighters like McCoy had to rely on his seconds to know he’d had enough and to stop the fight, whereas impartial referees have that job today.
How, then, can a new bare knuckle championship belt be given without condoning illegal activity? The first Americans have the answer! On August 5, 2011, the Yavapai Nation just outside Scottsdale, Arizona, sanctioned a bare-knuckle bout between Bobby Gunn and Richard Stewart under the laws of the Nation. Gunn emerged the victor and claimed the bare knuckle world championship, a claim made more official when Scott R. Burt of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame presented Gunn with a championship belt in 2014.
This belt is the first given to a bare knuckle champion since Richard K. Fox presented his to John L. Sullivan on behalf of the National Police Gazette in 1889. This year, the Police Gazette officially recognizes the authority of Scott Burt’s belt, bringing full circle a sport that has remained in the shadows for 125 years, and giving today’s fans a chance to “know the place for the first time.”