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In defense of Bare-knuckle Boxing, and why it should come back

Bad Left Hook's fight analyst Connor Ruebusch takes a brief look at the history of bare-knuckle boxing, and argues for its return to the mainstream.

(Note: This article was originally published on BloodyElbow.com)

MMA contender Rory MacDonald made some headlines recently arguing for a return to the classic, "no holds barred" rules of early MMA. Headbutting, soccer kicking, long rounds--the whole bit.

"I always enjoy longer fights. I don't like going to decision," MacDonald said in an interview with the Fight Network. "Fighting guys this high level, you need more than 15 minutes."

"[Fighting without a time limit] doesn't play into fan-friendly things because guys get tired and it can drag on. You've seen that in the older UFC's with those rules. But yeah, I'm a purist kind of guy. I like knees to the head on the ground, kicks to the head on the ground, headbutts. I think those are all really good tools for human body weapons . . . It changes the positions completely."

The appeal of this kind of fighting is obvious for the fighters. If the idea of MMA is, as Urijah Faber so hilariously put it, a "simulated death match," then the removal or adjustment of the Unified Rules would allow the sport to more closely replicate a true, life-or-death streetfight.

But personally, I don't like it. I don't want to see groin strikes in a sanctioned fight. I don't want to see noses broken with headbutts. I don't want to see a prone man or woman soccer kicked in the side of the head. For my blood, that kind of combat is just a little too brutal.

But like MacDonald, there is a purist in me. And that part of me wants to see a resurgence of classic prizefighting. I want to see bare-knuckle boxing make a comeback.

SAFETY

The primary concern with bare-knuckle boxing is safety. It was for safety's sake that gloves were originally mandated. Not only were those in the boxing world convinced that they made fights safer, but they were also surely motivated by public relations. Critics of boxing wanted to see the sport banned, but the less vitriolic might quiet down if they saw the fighters' fists muffled. It was for similar reasons that championship bouts were reduced from 15 to 12 rounds in 1982 after the death of boxer Duk Koo Kim. Likewise, the Unified Rules of MMA under which the vast majority of MMA promotions operate were devised in part to make mixed martial arts more palatable to a cautious public.

I would be a fool to argue against many of the rule changes that have taken place over the course of boxing history. Under Jack Broughton's original rules, pugilists were throwing each other to the ground, drinking whiskey between rounds, and grabbing one another by the hair (the great Daniel Mendoza was famously undone by his flowing locks). A boxing match is a fight, but then again it isn't. Rules are what keep Urijah Faber's "simulated death matches" from becoming actual death matches. Boxing needs rules, and the ones which removed the sort of behavior named above are welcome indeed.

Gloves are a different matter. As you probably already know, gloves do far more to protect the hand of the puncher than they do the brain of the punched. This is less true with MMA gloves than with boxing gloves, but in both cases the glove cushions the small, fragile bones of the hand, especially with a professional tape job holding everything together underneath.

    Gennady Golovkin courteously cushions his fist before shattering Kell Brook's eye socket. Photo by Richard Heathcote, Getty Images

Unsheathed, the human hand really is no match for the human skull. One is designed for a myriad of delicate tasks, the other serves only to protect. Without protection for his hand, a fighter must carefully restrict his attacks to the soft body of his opponent, and a few very small portions of the head. Gloves and wraps remove the need for that caution. Far from preventing brain damage, they actually encourage a fighter to throw more recklessly, putting more power into his shots and less care into their placement.

Cuts do occur. They remain a problem in gloved boxing, but there really is no match for the damage that a clenched fist can do to an eyebrow, or the bridge of a nose. Trying too desperately to avoid this damage is a fool's errand, however. Cuts and bruises are, by and large, superficial wounds. No one likes to see a cut stoppage, or look on as the cameraman zooms in on the bloody gash that prompted the doctor to intercede--but the truth is that, down the line, fighters don't really remember these injuries. The brows may sag, or the cheeks crinkle around an old scar, but the wound heals.

Far worse are the wounds that fighters do remember, or the ones that they cannot. Boxing will always be a dangerous sport, and that is a truth that fans and fighters alike must come to terms with, but measures are always taken to protect the health of the fighters as much as possible, without damaging the integrity of the sport. Ironically, the rule to which we cling most fiercely is the one which likely causes the most lasting damage to the fighters. The headgear goes, the knockdown rule is relaxed, and the commissions and fans are perfectly willing to overlook old injuries if there is money and prestige on the line. But the gloves stay laced.

THE RULES (SOME OF THEM)

It would be a sanctimonious farce if I were to claim an entirely moral reason for my support of bare-knuckle boxing. After all, it would remain a violent, combat sport. The notion that gloveless boxing might ensure the long-term health of the athletes is a boon, but it is the red-blooded veracity of bare-knuckle fighting that appeals to me most strongly. Were the sport to come back in a big way, the rules would have to be adjusted to suit a modern audience, and our modern understanding of human health. I do not think this is impossible.

To get a grasp of how modern bare-knuckle boxing might look, we can look to the London Prize Ring Rules. The original London rules were written in 1838 as an improvement on the rules created by legendary boxer Jack Broughton, and updated in 1853. They lasted as the official rules for sanctioned boxing matches until 1867, and vanished from use completely by the turn of the 20th Century, superseded by the Marquess of Queensberry rules upon which the modern rules of boxing are based.

The last legal London Rules championship boxing match took place in 1889, when reigning heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan defended his title against Jake Kilrain at a secret location in front of 3,000 spectators. The fight ended when Kilrain's corner threw in the towel after the 75th round.

That may sound like a lot (and it is) but under the London Prize Ring Rules there were no strict round times. Rather, a fighter was given 30 seconds to rest after being knocked or thrown to the ground, and an additional eight seconds to "return to scratch"--in other words, 38 seconds to regain his breath and his senses, and return to the center of the ring. As there was no round-by-round scoring and fighters could only be beaten by knockout, retirement, or corner stoppage, boxers were liable to fall deliberately in order to take advantage of the rest period.

    • John L. Sullivan, the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion.

The Marquess of Queensberry Rules were celebrated for bringing civility to boxing, but in truth they included some dangerous changes as well. For one, fighters could be knocked down several times in the space of a single round, with early referees not being obliged to stop the fight unless absolutely necessary. And because boxers under the Queensberry rules were not expected to retreat to a neutral corner after scoring a knockdown, they were keen to hover over their opponent, waiting to hit him again the moment he returned to his feet.

Gloves, too, were introduced wholesale by the Queensberry rules. As noted above, these "mufflers" likely reduced the amount of blood spilled in a fight, but they also encouraged more ferocity in the ring.

A modern bare-knuckle boxing ruleset might build upon the London rules, but improve some of the particulars. Since this is just a fun little exercise, I'll list some of the amended rules which I would suggest.

1. A non-title fight shall consist of one 20-minute round, the time paused only for fouls and referee intervention. Title fights shall be 30 minutes long.

Yes, 20 and 30-minute rounds. Hear me out. Rounds were originally introduced to boxing in order to protect the fighters. The belief was that boxers could more easily recover from a knockdown or staggering blow if they were given time to rest between frames. This works, in part, but only to protect fighters from knockout--not necessarily from brain trauma. There is evidence to suggest that lasting brain damage is caused not by knockouts, but by repeat trauma.

A 2010 study on mortality rates in boxing found that, of 339 boxing-related deaths between 1950 and 2007, the majority occurred in lower weight classes. It is common knowledge that heavyweights produce the most knockouts, while strawweights produce the least. An informal gathering of data by BoxingScene poster -Kev- backs this up. Similar data on CTE and pugilistic dementia does not exist, but my feeling is that the same factors which lead to sudden traumatic brain injury likely lead to long-term injury as well. There does not seem to be any comprehensive data available on the average number of punches landed per weight class in boxing. FightMetric does collect relevant data as it relates to MMA, however, and they have ranked the 10 fighters with the most significant strikes landed. Eight of them fight at or below 155 pounds.

The takeaway would seem to be that a high volume of blows is more dangerous to a fighter's health than a definitive finish. By removing the rounds and forcing fighters to actively protect themselves from harm, more knockouts and stoppages would likely result, but fighters would take less punishment. This would be enhanced, of course, by the removal of the gloves.

2. A mutually acceptable referee to be present in the ring at all times to break the fighters from neutral clinches, enforce the rules, and protect any fighter too hurt to protect himself by stopping the fight. No other person other than the two fighters is to be allowed in the ring for the duration of the bout.

These days, it seems absolutely crazy not to have a referee present in the ring at all times. Fighters are much more likely to foul if they know that no one is there to physically stop them, and we have all seen instances of blood drunk fighters going after their opponents well after they have been finished. Put a man like John McCarthy in there and these problems are resolved.

3. Fouls are to be punished by no less than one soft warning, one hard warning, and ultimately disqualification, with particularly egregious fouls to be punished at the referee's discretion. Punishable fouls include:

  • Eye-gouging
  • Biting
  • Headbutting
  • Fish-hooking or inserting of the fingers into any orifice on the opponent's body
  • Blows below the belt
  • Intentionally throwing, tripping, or wrestling one's opponent to the ground or out of the ring
  • Grabbing of clothing or hair
  • Kicking
  • Timidity
  • Pretending to have been fouled

The usual stuff. Low blows, biting, and eye-gouging may be "real," but they have no place in a sporting contest. Keep it clean. One of the biggest problems with refereeing in modern boxing and MMA is that the referees are too lenient. Smart fouling will always be a part of the game, and I can appreciate a savvy rulebreaker like Bernard Hopkins, but the referees are there for a reason. Point deductions are the modern solution to repeat infractions, but under my rules there would be no scoring. Thus, the consequences for fouling must be more dire. Two strikes, and you're out. Enforce the rules, and give fighters a real incentive to obey them.


4. A 10-count after every knockdown, during which the referee is to remain between the downed fighter and his opponent.

10-counts are an ingrained part of modern boxing, and they deserve to stay. Without a count, a fighter could linger on the ground as long as necessary to recover. With a 38-second break, a la the London rules, a fighter can quite easily game the system in order to gain a reprieve, especially because the knockdown does not hurt him on the scorecards.

That 38-second break could also, however, give the fighter ample time to recover--enough to continue fighting, but not necessarily enough to stave off his opponent's renewed assault. A 10-second break is adequate to give the downed man a fighting chance, but not so much time that, should he find himself on the brink of a knockout, he can continue to absorb punishment for several more minutes.

The fighter who has scored the knockdown need not return to a neutral corner (indeed, if these matches were to take place in a classic dirt ring, there might be no corners to return to), but he should not be allowed to pounce on the downed fighter as soon as he stands. Instead, the referee should be given a chance to look the downed boxer over and determine whether or not he is fit to continue.

5. A fight ends when:

  • One of the combatants cannot continue, either because he does not beat the count, because he tells the referee he wants to retire, or because the referee deems him unfit to intelligently protect himself.
  • A fighter has been knocked down five times. Even if the fighter manages to beat the count, his opponent shall be declared the winner after the fifth knockdown.
  • Either of the respective corners intercedes. A corner can throw in the towel for their fighter, at which the referee will call off the action and declare his opponent the winner. If a cornerman interrupts the action without the intent to rescue his fighter, then his fighter is disqualified, and the opponent declared the winner.
  • A foul is committed which the referee deems egregious, or which causes one fighter to be unfit to continue. In this case, the fouled fighter is deemed the winner by disqualification.
  • The time limit expires. In this event, the fight is declared a draw.

These standards allow a fight to continue only to a certain point. John L. Sullivan's contest with Jake Kilrain lasted 75 rounds, and that wasn't even close to the maximum. Guinness World Records have one match lasting 276 rounds. It took four hours and 30 minutes.

Knowing that fighters under the London rules would willingly fall in order to gain a rest, these numbers aren't perhaps as absurd as they seem, but a round could only end with a knockdown. If only 10 percent of those knockdowns were legitimate, that would still mean 28 knockdowns--14 for each fighter if we divide them evenly.

That is too many concussive blows for either man to safely continue fighting. For safety's sake, we not only limit bare-knuckle bouts to 20 or 30 minutes, but limit the number of knockdowns which either fighter can endure to five.
The referee must also be granted authority to call off a bout, rather than simply waiting for one man's body to fail. Fighters are frequently too tough for their own good, and their corners are too often hopeful of their ward's ability to recover and win. A neutral party should be able to call off the bout when one fighter is incapable of protecting himself to a reasonable degree.

There is a place for scoring in boxing, and part of me does feel that fighters without natural punching power should have the ability to win even if they cannot stop their opponent. Still, there is something appealing about the idea of a fight to the finish, and the surging popularity of submission-only grappling tournaments supports this idea. Wins should be definitive. And you might say that a man who bravely and smartly defends himself, even if he does not get the better of the action, deserves the moral victory of having fought to a draw. If he is so timid that no action occurs, the referee has it in his power to disqualify him.

CHESS MATCHES

These rules would lead to slower fights. It is for that reason that I have little hope of such a ruleset ever gaining ground. Without gloves, fighters would have to place their shots carefully to protect their hands, and guard themselves fully to mitigate the risk of a cut or swelling on the face. A high precedence would be placed on shots to the body, which have a greater effect without the dissipating effect of gloves. Fighters would also have to manage their energy wisely without the benefit of rests between rounds.

    Bare-knuckle boxing would prioritize a careful combination of precision and power. Photo by Steve Marcus, Getty Images.

The action would be decisive, however. The long bouts of careful measurement and consideration would explode into exchanges with real meaning. Soccer enjoys vast international popularity despite Americans' constant critiques that it does not have enough action. Soccer fans know that, though the goals may be fewer and farther between, they are more meaningful when they do occur.

As a boxing fan, I can envision the same appeal in bare-knuckle boxing. These rules could be safer and encourage more patient, strategic work on the part of the fighters. But they also allow for the main appeal of bare-knuckle boxing: its innate realness. If bare-knuckle ever does make a comeback to the mainstream (and there are a few groups trying to make that happen) I know I'll be watching.

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Want more thoughtful analysis of violence? Then check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's show features analysis of women's MMA star and terrifying person Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino.