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Everything You Need to Know About Bare Knuckle Boxing in 2024

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Everything You Need to Know About Bare Knuckle Boxing in 2024

As the name implies, bare knuckle boxing is a combat sport where fighters use their fists without gloves or padding. The sole focus of this sport is to punch and to take punches

The origin of this thrilling sport dates back to ancient Greece. However, the development of bare knuckle boxing started in England in the late 17th century, and it became viral in Irish-American communities throughout the USA. 

The sport faded away after almost 200 years because of the rising popularity of professional “gloved” boxing and some safety concerns. But in 2015, the game came back to the UK with additional rules and regulations.  

Come with us as we explore the modern era of bare knuckle boxing, its history, controversies, and more. From ancient roots to modern comebacks, we're bringing you all the action.

The Rules of Bare Knuckle Boxing

The bare knuckle boxing that existed back in the 17th century and the one that exists now is not at all the same. If you compare its rules, you can see that the game has evolved a lot. 

Old Rules of Bare Knuckle Boxing

Jack Broughton, a champion of the sport, introduced the first set of rules in 1743 to reduce injuries and fatalities in bare knuckle boxing, which lacked formal rules.

The rules stated that a fight would continue until a fighter was knocked down. A downed fighter had 30 seconds to resume the fight and had to stand about one meter away from his opponent or face defeat. Also, striking a downed fighter was prohibited.

The British Pugilists’ Protective Association introduced new rules in 1838, revised in 1853. These specified a 24-foot square ring enclosed by two ropes. A round ended when a fighter was knocked down, and after 30 seconds, the next round began. Fighters had to reach the ring's center unaided within an additional eight seconds, or they would lose. Actions like kicking, gouging, headbutting, biting, and low blows were banned.

In 1867, John Graham Chambers, with endorsement from John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, drafted another set of rules. These included using padded gloves, three-minute rounds with one-minute rests, banning wrestling, and requiring a downed fighter to rise unassisted within 10 seconds. Failure to do so resulted in a knockout. This period also introduced the first weight divisions in boxing.

bare knuckle boxing old

Modern Rules of Bare Knuckle Boxing

Since its 21st-century resurgence, bare knuckle boxing has seen rule changes, with the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) drafting nine key rules. 

  • Fighters can wrap and tape their wrists, thumbs, and mid-hands, but no gauze or tape is allowed within one inch (25 mm) of the knuckles.
  • At each round's start, fighters “toe the line” with two lines 3 feet (91 cm) apart in the ring's center. They place their front foot on the line, and the round begins when the referee says, “Knuckle up.”
  • Only punches with a closed fist are allowed. Kicks, elbows, knees, and grappling moves are prohibited.
  • In a clinch, fighters can use open-handed punches to break free. The referee separates fighters after a three-second pause in action.
  • A knocked-down fighter has a 10-second count to get up. Failure to do so stops the fight, and hitting a downed fighter leads to disqualification.
  • If a fighter gets cut and it impairs vision, the referee can call a timeout, giving the cut-man 30 seconds to manage the bleeding. If vision remains impaired, the opponent wins.
  • Rounds last two minutes, with fights consisting of either three or five rounds.
  • Fighters must wear protective gear, including groin protectors, mouthpieces, boxing trunks, and shoes.
  • Fighters are expected to demonstrate good sportsmanship and give their full effort.

The History and Evolution of Bare Knuckle Boxing

Bare knuckle fighting dates back to 688 BC in the ancient Olympic Games, known as Pygmachia or “fist fighting.” Fighters wore leather straps for hand protection. The Romans adopted this with cestus gloves, featuring hardened leather for more intense fights.

The first recorded boxing match in a newspaper occurred in England in 1681, featuring a duke's footman and a butcher, with the latter winning. James Figg, crowned in 1719, is recognized as the first bare knuckle boxing champion and a modern boxing pioneer. He opened a boxing academy in 1719, signifying the start of organized boxing.

Jack Broughton was instrumental in boxing's evolution, being the first to establish formal rules around 1743. These rules were widely accepted until the London Prize Ring rules replaced them in 1838. The National Police Gazette played a significant role in the 1880s, sanctioning matches and awarding championship belts. The 1889 fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, won by Sullivan, was a notable bare knuckle event.

Bare knuckle boxing resurfaced legally in the UK in 2015, marked by a Kettering promotion requiring hand wraps. In the USA, it remained illegal until March 20, 2018.

Modern bare knuckle boxing has evolved with rule changes, including no three-knockdown rule and no bell saves. Fights typically have five 2-minute rounds, with variations across promotions. Its resurgence has attracted a global audience, spreading across continents like Asia, Europe, and America.

The Rise of BKFC: Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship

The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship is a pioneering combat sports promoter in Philadelphia, United States. Founded by former boxer David Feldman, BKFC is committed to preserving the historical legacy of bare knuckle boxing while ensuring fighter safety with a specially crafted set of rules.

BKFC stands out as the first promotion to hold a legal, sanctioned, and regulated bare-knuckle fight in the United States since the late 19th century. The achievement represents a significant moment in combat sports history, reviving an era of fighting deeply rooted in American tradition.

BKFC maintains strict standards for its roster of fighters. Only established professionals with backgrounds in boxing, MMA, kickboxing, or Muay Thai are eligible to compete. The referees and judges overseeing BKFC matches also possess extensive professional combat sports experience, ensuring fair and knowledgeable officiating. 

Also, all BKFC fights are conducted under the watchful eye of an Athletic Commission, reinforcing the promotion's commitment to regulatory compliance and fighter safety.

BKFC is available to watch on the BKFC app or online. A $7.99 monthly subscription gets you full access to special content, all event replays, most BKFC live events, subscriber-only discounts on pay-per-view events, plus easily watch content on most common devices any time 24/7.

BKFC's vision extends beyond its quest for safety and authenticity; it is pioneering a new era in professional combat sports. Through BKFC, a fully recognized and respected professional combat sport that respects the past while embracing the future is being created. With its dedication to creating the highest-caliber bare knuckle fighting organization globally, BKFC is unquestionably the future of this sport. 

Controversies: The Fine Line Between Brutality and Entertainment

Bare knuckle boxing has always been central to legal, ethical, and safety controversies. While its brutal and bloody nature appeals to some, it raises significant concerns in the eyes of many.

The sport's legality varies from country to country, with some nations permitting it while others prohibit it due to safety concerns. The ethical dilemma stems from the fact that bare-knuckle boxing exposes its participants to intense harm purely for entertainment purposes, a concept many consider morally troubling and exploitative.

Some love its raw, gritty nature and want it to thrive as a legitimate combat sport. Although it was always believed that the absence of padded gloves increased the likelihood of cuts and hand injuries, statistics indicate that bare-knuckle boxing has fewer concussions than gloved boxing.

Nonetheless, safety remains a subject of ongoing debate within the combat sports community, especially after the death of the BKFC fighter, Justin Thornton. He died six weeks after sustaining a neck injury in a BKFC fight, triggering a controversy about the safety standards of the fights. 

Despite organizations' efforts to mitigate risks, such incidents highlight the ongoing debate about the sport's safety standards and place in combat sports. The controversy surrounding bare-knuckle boxing continues to be a hot-button issue, fueling discussions on its future and moral acceptability.

Legendary Fighters in Bare Knuckle Boxing

Bare Knuckle Boxing has been graced by many notable fighters, both in the historical and modern era. Here's a look at five influential figures from different times:

John L. Sullivan

Known as “The Boston Strong Boy,” Sullivan emerged as a professional boxer in the late 19th century.  He is often recognized as the first heavyweight champion under gloved boxing and the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing. 

His most famous match, a 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain in 1889, was the last heavyweight title fight under the London Prize Ring Rules, marking the end of the bare-knuckle era. This fight also gained widespread national media attention, being one of the first sporting events in the U.S. to do so.

Jem Mace

Born on April 8, 1831, in Beeston, Norfolk, Mace was a renowned English bare-knuckle boxer. He gained fame between 1860 and 1866, winning multiple championships, including the English Welterweight, Heavyweight, and Middleweight titles. 

Mace was celebrated for his scientific boxing style; he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1870 in the United States. Mace's career also included significant matches against Bob Travers and Sam Hurst, showcasing his defensive prowess and strategic fighting. 

Beyond boxing, Mace's life involved innkeeping and circus performing. He passed away on November 30, 1910, leaving a legacy as a pioneer in modern boxing techniques.

Elizabeth Wilkinson 

The 18th-century Englishwoman from Clerkenwell made history as one of the first documented female bare-knuckle boxers. From 1722 to 1728, her boxing career included the first-ever recorded female prizefight in London in 1722. 

Wilkinson's unique approach saw her fight fully clothed, challenging the traditional topless style of women's boxing. She married James Stokes, a famous boxer, and fought regularly at his amphitheater. Wilkinson's legacy is revolutionizing women's boxing by promoting serious and organized fights, comfortable attire, and establishing female fighters as athletes. Her fearless spirit defied societal norms, inspiring generations of women to challenge gender stereotypes in sports.

Luis Palomino

Also known as Luis “Baboon” Palomino, he debuted against Elvin Brito at BKFC 10 on February 15, 2020. ​With a professional MMA record of 26-17 before transitioning to bare-knuckle fighting, Palomino has demonstrated his striking prowess and toughness in the BKFC ring. 

Known for his efficient striking, excellent head movement, and fast hands, he has dominated the competition, earning dominant wins over notable fighters such as Elvin Brito, Dat Nguyen, and James Lilley. 

Palomino's success in bare-knuckle boxing is a testament to his hard work and smart fighting approach, which has propelled him to the top of the men's pound-for-pound rankings in the sport.

Christina Ferea

Christina Ferea has been active in combat sports since 2012, with a background in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and boxing. She holds an undefeated kickboxing record and has adapted her skills to the BKFC, where she is the current women's featherweight champion. 

Also known as “Misfit,” she has a professional BKFC record of 7-1-0. She has showcased her prowess in the ring with notable victories, including a win over Britain Hart to claim the inaugural BKFC women’s flyweight title at KnuckleMania 2 on February 20, 2022.

Bren Gray is our resident Kiwi, and has been writing about sports since he could first string words together. He first fell in love with boxing when David Tua took on Lennox Lewis in 2000, and hasn't looked back since.