Boxing History in the 18th Century: Broughton’s Rules Evolve Boxing & Sport
With today’s morals and enlightenment it is hard to accept the bloody and brutal world of bareknuckle boxing as a legitimate sport. However, a look back from Broughton’s rules and the birth of modern pugilism in the eighteenth century, the shift of power from London to America, and the ultimate decline in favor of gloved boxing, offers us a unique look at the organization and development of modern sport. As the first sport to match opponents from different races and religions against each other, the history of pugilism also has much to teach us of nationalism and race relations.
Broughton’s rules and the birth of modern sport:
For a sport to achieve legitimacy and transparency it must first have a set code of rules and regulations for all to adhere to. Also, a legitimate sport must have regular participants and set venues. All of this sounds obvious enough but before pugilist Jack Broughton introduced such measures few sports had any such characteristics. Pugilism paved the way for the sporting world as we know it today.
Jack Broughton was born in Britain in 1703. A strong and athletic young man he worked as a waterman on London’s vast river Thames. An early exposure to pugilism and fencing saw the young Broughton gain a tremendous reputation and by the 1730s was considered Britain’s finest combatant. The groundbreaking Broughton embraced new media and openly used newspapers and his relationships with journalists to entice fans and challenge opponents. His actions were to give his sport prominence, legitimacy and entertainment, often attributes only credited to the modern form of boxing.
Before Broughton, pugilism, and many other sports, often consisted of unruly competitions between the staff of nobility. Broughton embraced a new idea of professional sport, where a fighter would dedicate his time to training and competing. Staging bouts in specially designed amphitheatres, which could charge spectators an entrance fee, allowed a regular clientele to develop and real money to be earned. But the sport was still a messy and violent past time with little to no regard for its participant’s health, and wide spread reforms were needed.
So, in 1743, after opening his own amphitheatre, the undefeated Broughton sought to legitimize the sport by creating a list of rules. A bout against ‘The Coachman’ George Stevenson in 1741, in which Broughton won, but Stevenson died from the injuries he suffered, highlighted the need for change. Broughton’s rules included allowing a knocked down fighter thirty seconds in which to regain composure, the appointment of ‘gentlemen’ to serve as umpires, and most importantly that no fighter could hit an opponent who is knocked down, pull an opponent’s hair or strike below the waist.
By 1750, the famed and feared Broughton signed to fight Jack Slack for the championship of England. This bout, however, would end in controversy rather than glory and bring about Broughton’s demise.
While fighters were no longer the butlers and footmen of the British gentry, the sport certainly still needed their financial patronage and support. Pugilism had been outlawed in Britain but with the backing of the upper classes local justices would turn a blind eye. The Duke of Cumberland was one such powerful patron. He often backed Broughton and with his man the overwhelming favorite against Slack, wagered a staggering £10,000 on Broughton to win.
After just five minutes the less skilled Slack landed a powerful blow to Broughton’s eye. Virtually blinded, the hapless Broughton struggled on for a brutal ten further minutes. Utterly outclassed and injured, Broughton conceding defeat. The Duke believed the fight had been thrown and was enraged. Utilizing his power and influence over justice officials he had Broughton’s amphitheatre closed and drove the fledgling sport underground. Following this unceremonious ending, Broughton chose to leave pugilism and spend the rest of his days financially secure, but isolated from public life. Although the sport forgot him, it did not forget his rules, which were used for a further eighty-eight years before being modified.
Broughton, despite his quiet ending, was possibly the most important individual in combative sports. He gave the ‘sweet science’ legitimacy and structure. He embraced the notion of the professional sportsman, the importance of enticing spectators, and most significantly, of the safety of the pugilists themselves. These ideas laid the foundations, not only for pugilism, but for all the sports we enjoy today.