What is Bare-Knuckle Boxing? History, Rules, Safety, and Legality

What is Bare-Knuckle Boxing? History, Rules, Safety, and Legality

Parallel to other martial arts disciplines, boxing has evolved as well. Though boxing has a unique history and it has changed so much, passing a whole new way of respect. Bare-knuckle boxing, you have known the term, but if you don’t then you’ll get to know very soon.

So, today we are going to talk about bare-knuckle boxing which has an offensive history of brutality and non-legalities. However, we’ll go through the history of bare-knuckle boxing, its rules, safety, and legalities. So, let’s get started with the basics of Bare-Knuckle Boxing. 

What is Bare-Knuckle Boxing?

It is a combat sport, a form of boxing where fighters don’t use boxing gloves and fight with bare knuckles.

However, bare-knuckle boxing is the predecessor of modern world boxing. Bare-knuckle boxing is highly restricted and mostly illegal today, though there are only a few promotions in the United State and the United Kingdom.

But, since it’s a rising phenomenon in the modern world of martial arts and combat sports, we’ve decided to dedicate one article to bare-knuckle boxing. This article brings you everything you need to know.

Learn: Reasons Why Boxing is the Perfect Martial Art

The History of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

What most people know about bare-knuckle boxing is that it started as bare-knuckle boxing. But most people do not attain knowledge about the facts. According to the reference from history, the first boxing match ever recorded was held in England in 1681 between a local butcher and the footman of the Duke of Albemarle. Fortunately, the local butcher won this fight and later on, the facts came out that he was a local champion of some sorts as he was well-known for his fighting skills. Sadly, there is no other record we possess from history and it was the only record of his pugilistic career. 

Later on, after at least passing the time span of 30 years we get the world’s first bare-knuckle boxing champion, James Figg. He remained the champion until his retirement in 1730 but is also recognized as an important personality in the development of modern boxing.

Bare-knuckle boxing was the most popular combat sport in the west for nearly two long centuries and later on, it was replaced by regular boxing at the end of the 19th century.

During those two centuries, Australia hosted the world's longest bare-knuckle match in 1855. It was a fight between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith. That match went too long and lasted an incredible 6 hours and 15 minutes. James Kelly won the match eventually after fighting 17 rounds in that match.

After passing some years, fighter Jem Mace stepped into this sport and started his career as a professional boxer. His career lasted more than 35 years and at the time of his last combat he was in his 60s and he fought his last exhibition match in 1909. It was the time when bare-knuckle boxing was overshadowed by regular boxing.

As a matter of fact, bare-knuckle boxing was popular enough and widely practiced, even at that time it was illegal in the United States, but the British had a different approach. Rumours are; the last bare-knuckle boxing match was held in 1889 between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. For the record: Sullivan became the first heavyweight champion in regular boxing after defeating Jake Kilrain.

Boxing never stopped, although the context has changed. This sport is still continued under the title of regular boxing but much safer and firmer rules. Regular boxing rose in popularity and bare-knuckle boxing gradually headed for the history books.

Is Bare-Knuckle Boxing Legal?

Bare-Knuckle boxing is not extremely popular today, because regular boxinghas overshadowed its manipulative essence. However, it is also a rising phenomenon in the world of modern combat sports and you can say, it is reviving itself but in a new manner.

Some peeps have compared bare-knuckle boxing with MMA and the UFC. The sport and the organization both also started very slowly, practically as an underground event for extreme fighters. Yet, today is one of the most popular and lucrative sports in the world.

Some commentators suggest that bare-knuckle boxing could become the next MMA considering the popularity of both at the same level

When Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) started, it was a genuinely new discipline, relatively unknown and unfamiliar to the world. It was started as point zero, literally, and it developed through the decades to become legal around the globe. People were unfamiliar with the term MMA when it newly arrived, but they do know what bare-knuckle boxing is and they are impudent with its consequences.

This discipline has been around for more than 400 years and with every passing day, people have learned a lot about it. It is dangerous, brutal, and offensive, which are the reasons why it is prohibited and considered illegal in most of the world.

However, few promotions around the world follow up the lead of this sport. Some of the promotions are in the United Kingdom and some are in the United States. Regardless, the majority of the states still consider it to be illegal. In 2018, Wisconsin was apparently the first state to legalize bare-knuckle boxing. Since then, a few other states have followed suit. It is hard to foresee how the story of bare-knuckle boxing will end. On one hand, it is gradually rising in the world of combat sports, but on the other- it is undoubtedly dangerous. Because of its aggressive nature, bare-knuckle boxing is still illegal in practically every place on Earth, with a few notable exceptions.

Bare-Knuckle Boxing Rules

What forced you to think of it? Initially, bare-knuckle boxing had no rules whatsoever that made it easier to imagine what a lawless fight between adrenaline-pumped looked like. It was, absolutely, pure chaos.

There were no rounds, no weight categories, not even a referee to control the brutal acts of fighters. The fighter fought in the circular ring, however, the shape of the ring was probably the only rule that was firmly in place. They kept fighting until one of them couldn’t fight anymore. That was certainly dangerous, but we couldn’t find out whether and how it was fatal

However, lack of rules might be the reason for offensive acts or may result in a lot of very dangerous punches, which are strictly illegal today, being allowed. Such are choking, headbutts, throws, eye-gouging, etc

The only thing that could stop a fight was the police. The police and the overlooking crowd would break it up more than it finishes regularly.

In general, original bare-knuckle boxing was more of an MMA technique. It combined a lot of martial arts and combat sports like BJJ into one composite unit. By that means, it allowed the access of different influences for punches and techniques. Some of them are today banned and considered too dangerous to be involved in any combat sport.

Read More: A Brief but Complete History of BJJ: Origins to Modern MMA

In 1838, the codification of the rules came when the London Prize Rules entered into power. The LPR is a very famous document and has dire importance in the history of boxing. Though it is considered as the first codification of boxing rules ever. It limited a lot of the earlier liberties fighters had. Thus, bare-knuckle boxing became a proper sport and just a form of vulgar street fighting. 

Therefore, many people considered bare-knuckle to be a form of street fighting. But the truth is wholly different from that. Both of the fighting styles are and were worlds apart. There were no rules in street fighting ever. It was not even a sport, not an art, just a fight between people.

Whereas, bare-knuckle was and still is a sport, despite its controversial status. Moreover, it has a lot of followers in the world today. Punching a downed opponent is prohibited in bare-knuckle boxing, which is allowed and completely regular in street fighting. This example is enough to understand how different bare-knuckle boxing and street fighting are.

How Dangerous is Bare-Knuckle Boxing?

Controllability became the major concern in bare-knuckle boxing. Brutality stands in second place. We have already discussed the former above in this article and have deduced that bare-knuckle boxing has its rules implied that do not allow the fighters to make a false move that could be harmful to their opponent.

Well, coming to the safety issues, we have to admit, is a bit more complex. Namely, most martial arts disciplines and combat sports have at least some forms of protection. MMA has simple gloves, Tae Kwon Do has a full set of Armor and boxing has the famous boxing gloves. Bare-knuckle boxing, however, had absolutely no protection and that was the goal.

It is a fact that modern boxing always emphasizes its ancient roots, which were much more savage and natural than the heavily defended modern version of the sport.

Bare-knuckle boxing signifies its inspiration from Ancient Greece but opted for a more direct imitation of an ancient source.  Ancient boxing was also fought without protection and equipment that familiarizes the bare-knuckle boxing.

Hence, the question is, whether bare-knuckle boxing is safe or a complex one? Nominally, this sport is far more dangerous than a lot of its peers, but since it is controllable, major issues can be neglected.

Certainly, bare knuckles are far more dangerous for the head and some of the internal organs, but you cannot forget about the damage done to the hands.

Are regular boxers as effective in bare-knuckle boxing?

Get to Know: Future of Martial Arts


Despite all the facts: bare-knuckle boxing is still keeping its place as a combat sport. However, in case of any type of consequences, we know that the organizations are responsible. Although, they are the ones who are in charge of this modern combat sport and they will have to answer a lot of safety-related questions before the sport becomes localized as an everyday phenomenon.

Reading next

What is the Best Boxing Workout? Learn All You Need to Know
Boxing Workouts to Help You Knockout Your Body Fat

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.