London Prize Ring Rules

The London Prize Ring rules was a list of 29 rules drafted by Britain’s Jack Broughton in 1743, governing the conduct of prizefighting/bare-knuckle boxing for over 100 years. The original rules were revised and expanded in detail in 1838 and 1853 to make them more gentlemanly. They were later superseded by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, the origins of the modern sport of Boxing.

Fights under these rules were typically fought with bare knuckles. The rules also allowed for a broad range of fighting including holds and throws of the opponent.

Spiked shoes, within limits, were also allowed. Also included were provisions dealing with how wagers would be resolved if various events such as interference by the law, darkness, or cancellations occurred. In contrast with modern boxing rules based upon the Marquess of Queensberry rules, a round ended with a man downed by punch or throw, whereupon he was given 30 seconds to rest and eight additional seconds to “come to scratch” or return to the centre of the ring where a “scratch line” was drawn and square off with his opponent once more.

Consequently, there were no round limits to fights. When a man could not come to scratch, he would be declared loser and the fight would be brought to a halt, unless broken up beforehand by crowd riot, police interference or chicanery.

Fights could also end if both men were willing to accept that the contest was a draw. While fights could have enormous numbers of rounds, the rounds in practice could be quite short with fighters pretending to go down from minor blows to take advantage of the 30-second rest period.

Fighters: Famous fighters of prize ring include William “Bendigo” Thompson, Jack Broughton, James “Deaf” Burke, “Professor” Mike Donovan, Tom Allen, Samuel “Dutch Sam” Elias, John “Gentleman” Jackson, the “Benicia Boy” John Carmel Heenan, Daniel Mendoza, Tom Molineaux, John “Old Smoke” Morrisey, Tom Sayers, Owen Swift, the “Trojan Giant” Paddy Ryan, Joe Goss, and James “Yankee Sullivan” Ambrose. England’s last prize ring great was “gypsy” Jem Mace, and America’s was John L. Sullivan — both men fought under both sets of rules, with and without gloves and are considered bridges to the modern era of boxing.

John L. Sullivan is the last fighter to have won a “world” championship under the London Prize Ring Rules in 1882 against Paddy Ryan and was the last champion to defend a title under the rules in 1889 against Jake Kilrain.

The rules: These are the original London Prize Ring Rules, although incomplete, that were later superseded by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules:

  1. That a square of a yard be chalked in the middle of the stage, and on every fresh set-to after a fall, or being parted from the rails, each Second is to bring his Man to the side of the square, and place him opposite to the other, and till they are fairly set-to at the Lines, it shall not be lawful for one to strike at the other.
  2. That, in order to prevent any Disputes, the time a Man lies after a fall, if the Second does not bring his Man to the side of the square, within the space of half a minute, he shall be deemed a beaten Man.
  3. That in every main Battle, no person whatever shall be upon the Stage, except the Principals and their Seconds, the same rule to be observed in bye-battles, except that in the latter, Mr. Broughton is allowed to be upon the Stage to keep decorum, and to assist Gentlemen in getting to their places, provided always he does not interfere in the Battle; and whoever pretends to infringe these Rules to be turned immediately out of the house. Every body is to quit the Stage as soon as the Champions are stripped, before the set-to.
  4. That no Champion be deemed beaten, unless he fails coming up to the line in the limited time, or that his own Second declares him beaten. No Second is to be allowed to ask his man’s Adversary any questions, or advise him to give out.
  5. That in bye-battles, the winning man to have two-thirds of the Money given, which shall be publicly divided upon the Stage, notwithstanding any private agreements to the contrary.
  6. That to prevent Disputes, in every main Battle the Principals shall, on coming on the Stage, choose from among the gentlemen present two Umpires, who shall absolutely decide all Disputes that may arise about the Battle; and if the two Umpires cannot agree, the said Umpires to choose a third, who is to determine it.
  7. That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist. A man on his knees is to be reckoned down.

Modern Parallels: The development of these rules has since been mirrored in the evolution of modern ‘No holds barred’ competition into Mixed martial arts.

During the development of boxing, while some rules were added for the protection of the fighters, most rule changes such as the addition of gloves (which became thicker with time) were not added so much for the protection of the fighters, but rather to create more action in a typical fight.

In the bare-knuckle era, fighters were unable to throw as many full-force punches without risking damage to their hands. Therefore, after a couple of rounds, the punches tended to be less forceful. The addition of gloves meant that the fighters could throw more hard punches without injury.

Ironically, the addition of gloves to boxing made it a much more violent sport than without. Modern boxers frequently suffer head tramas due to the repeated full-impact punching that the gloves are able to offer. Visually, mixed martial arts competitions may look more violent to the casual observer, in truth it is actually safer for the competitors because the risk of head trama is substantially lower from constant impacts. This is demonstrated by the rarity of deaths and severe head tramas in regulated mixed arts competitions, while in boxing people die every year, and head tramas are a major concern, leading to physically debilitating illnesses such as Parkinsons.

Although commercial modern mixed martial arts competitions use some form of gloves (thickly padded boxing type for most stand-up styles such as in K1 or a lighter fingerless version for those that include more grappling such as Pride or UFC), another modern parallel with full contact bare-knuckle fighting can be found in Kyokushin karate, which uses no gloves or body padding in its highest level tournaments. Kyokushin fights differ in that fist or elbow strikes to the head are no longer allowed, although all forms of kicks and knee strikes are permitted, including to the head.