Classical Pugilism

Thursday 18:30 – 20:00

Classical pugilism, or in our context bare-knuckle boxing, can trace its recorded origins as a sport back to the late 17th/early 18th century. The first bare-knuckle champion of England was James Figg in 1719, a title he held until he retired in 1730. From then on the sport proved to be exceptionally popular amongst the working and upper classes alike up to the publication of the ​Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867 that effectively drove the sport to the brink of extinction.

At the York School of Defence we are specifically interested in the bare-knuckle boxing side of pugilism and its associated arts of chancery and purring. Chancery is a grappling and wrestling component that was a large part of early prize-fights, whilst purring refers to a form of kicking that was also allowed. In early history rules were non-existent other than those agreed by the fighters before the bout, indeed there are records of fighters throwing their opponents clean off the stage.

The first major shift in classical pugilism occurred when Jack Broughton’s seven rules of boxing were introduced in 1743. The majority of these rules were concerned with affairs such as the size of the ​ring and the behaviour of your ‘seconds’ and people in your corner, however one rule specifically banned grabbing below the waist and the other hitting a man when he was down (down being considered any part of the body above the foot, so even a knee touching the ground was considered down).

An ‘anything goes’ attitude reigned under Broughton’s basic rules until 1838 when the London Prize Ring rules introduced. Under these new rules things such as kicking, grappling, striking with the knees and elbows and many of the other more brutal elements of the sport gradually declined until it almost began to resemble modern boxing. The final nail in the coffin occurred in 1865 when the Marquess of Queensberry Rules were introduced that outlawed many of the things considered acceptable in older boxing and pugilism.

We are very much aware that we are studying this exceptionally violent art in the 21st century so everything we do is careful, precise and controlled. We work on technique, pad work, partner drill and study techniques from 18th and 19th century manuals written by prize-fighters, and there are opportunities to spar with your skills for those that wish to. Initially this takes place wearing a headguard and light gloves.