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The Resurgence of Bare Knuckle Fighting

Updated on March 31, 2017

The last universally recognized bare knuckle world heavyweight title fight took place in 1889, which saw champion John L. Sullivan defeat Jake Kilrain.

Since then, and with the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules, bare knuckle fighting has become a largely underground sport, and remains illegal in most countries. Despite this though, the sport has seen something of a resurgence in the last few years, and over a hundred years after it was phased out, may once again be on its way to becoming a legal sport once again.


Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, bare knuckle fighting eventually evolved into boxing due not to the supposed brutality of the sport.

Gloves were in fact made mandatory originally in order to protect the hands of the combatants, which were frequently damaged during bare knuckle bouts. Already at this time many fighters were using wraps of varying forms to protect their knuckles during bouts, and the mandatory use of gloves simply made the practice uniform.

The immediate effect of the use of standard gloves with the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867 and the replacement of the London Prize Ring rules was that bouts tended to be less bloody due to less cuts occurring, and that the stance of the fighters changed as more blows could be absorbed with the gloves and forearms.

An interesting aside is that a pattern noticed with the introduction of mandatory four ounce gloves in mixed martial arts is that the percentage of fights ended by knockout increased, fighters being able to throw harder punches with less regard for protecting their hands.

The Internet Age

While bare knuckle fighting has continued to exist on the periphery of society, perhaps most famously in traveler communities and through early and often unregulated mixed martial arts, toughman and vale-tudo bouts, it is only relatively recently that it has once again come to the attention of the world at large.

The internet has essentially given anyone the ability to broadcast anything from any location, meaning that fights that would before only ever have been witnessed by a handful of individuals present are now viewable by anyone. This has in turn given birth to a new breed of fighter, made famous by uploaded videos against often questionable opposition but undeniably able to attract attention.

Former bare knuckle fighter Kimbo Slice for example was able to eventually parley a series of backyard fights published on Youtube into a lucrative if not entirely successful venture into mixed martial arts, including a brief stint in the UFC. From this he has since moved into professional boxing and secured the backing of a major promoter, despite already being in his late thirties and with little realistic hope of capturing a major title.

A Resurgence?

Just as it may have appeared that bare knuckle fighting was largely a thing of the past, at least in the public eye, the practice seems once again to be making a comeback.

Although still illegal in most western countries the unique legal system governing native American tribal territories in the United States has meant that several successful bare knuckle events have recently been held, with former professional boxer Bobby Gunn having recently claimed the vacant heavyweight title.

For the time being there is undeniably still a strong novelty appeal in witnessing bare knuckle fighting. Time will tell whether the sport will remain popular and perhaps even gain a modicum of mainstream acceptance once again.

To some the idea of bare knuckle fighting ever being legally regulated in anything but a handful of locales might seem far fetched. It was however only a few short years ago that the same could also have been said for mixed martial arts, a sport which now attracts millions of viewers and is broadcast worldwide. Suggesting that with enough public interest and the right backing, anything is possible.


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      Charlie LoGrasso 4 years ago

      Willie Pep

      Tony Canzoneri

      Jake LaMotta

      Rocky Marciano

      Paul Spadafora

      Joe Calzaghe

      Just to name a few. Fighters of Italian descent have dominated the sport of boxing, then and now. They never ducked African American fighters and always fought (and beat) the best.