Rules for 19th century bare-knuckle prize fights in America came from England. During the mid-1700’s, Jack Broughton, an English boxing champion, promoted fights in his own amphitheater under uniform rules designed to advance boxing safety and larger purses.[i]
In 1838, after a boxer was killed in the ring during a bout fought under Broughton’s rules, the English Pugilists Protective Association established new regulations to improve Broughton’s rules and further protect the health of boxers. The new rules were called the London Prize Ring rules.[ii]
According to the boxing contract Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey signed on September 1, 1853, their fight at Boston Corners would be fought under those rules.[iii]
The London Prize Ring rules anticipated that most prizefights would take place outdoors in a large field. The rules called for a 24 square foot ring to be created by having eight large turned posts driven several feet into the ground. Two strands of rope were to be tied and drawn around the posts, one strand four feet from the ground and the other two feet.
|Boxing ring in 1860|
The rules provided that a coin toss by the boxer’s seconds would determine which corner of the ring their boxer would fight from. This was important because the ground might not be level, one side of the ring might be hilly, or the sun might be shining intensely. A fighter might gain an advantage by choosing a corner with the highest ground or one which put the sun at his back.
The rules regulated what boxers could wear in the ring. They were supposed to wear knee pants that fastened below the knee, long hose and light-spiked heavy-laced walking boots. Each fighting boot could only have three spikes, two in the broadest part of the sole and one in the heel.[iv] The spikes were not to exceed three-eighths of an inch from the sole of the boot and were not to be less than one-eighth of an inch broad at the point.[v]
Each boxer was expected to bring his colors, usually a large silk handkerchief ornamented with a special design and his nation’s flag, into the ring and tie it to the upper end of one of the center posts. The winner was entitled to possession of his opponent’s colors as a trophy of victory.
The rules required the fighters to strip before the fight and have their drawers examined to see if any “improper substance” had been inserted into them.
Under the rules, a line was to be drawn in the center of the ring. It was called the “scratch.” In every round, when “time” was called, the fighters were supposed to leave their corners and “face the scratch.” A boxer had to continue fighting until a round ended. The round ended when one fighter fell, or was knocked down, or was thrown.
At the conclusion of a round, the seconds and bottle holders were allowed to step into the ring and carry their fighter to his corner where there usually was water, ice, a bottle of brandy or ginger ale, a paper of resin, a sponge and a scraper (a flat piece of steel wire used for scraping the tongue). The fighters were permitted to sit on his bottle holder’s knee or on a soft seat made by one of his friends stooping on all fours to form a stool.
If there were wounds, the seconds might apply clean lint to stop the bleeding. If the fighter’s knuckles were injured, the seconds might rub the bruised parts with arnica or dry resin.
According to the rules, after 30 seconds passed at the end of a round, the timekeeper was supposed to call “time” and each man was required to walk to his side of the scratch unaided. The fighters had eight seconds to walk to the scratch, or lose the fight.
|Allowed. Not a foul.|
Under the London Prize Ring rules, there were a number of other ways a boxer might lose a fight. Head butting was a foul punished by the loss of the fight. A blow struck when a man was down or thrown was a foul. A man with one knee down and one hand on the ground, or both knees on the ground was deemed down. The man who was down was not himself allowed to strike or attempt to strike his opponent.
|Allowed. Not a foul.|
A blow struck below the waist was a foul. In a clinch, it was a foul to seize the opponent below the waist, by the thigh, or otherwise. All attempts to inflict injury by gouging or tearing the flesh with the fingers or nails or biting was a foul. Kicking or deliberately falling on an opponent with the knees or otherwise was a foul.
|Not allowed. A foul.|
The use of hard substances such as stones or sticks or of resin in the hand during the fight was a foul. Hugging on the ropes was a foul. A man held by the neck against the stakes or upon or against the ropes was considered down and all interference with him was considered to be a foul.
A boxer could not use the ropes or stakes to aid him in squeezing his adversary and if he did so he would lose the fight. If a man fell to the ground on his knees while in a clinch, his opponent was supposed to immediately let him go or lose the fight.[vi]
Next, Part VII, Sullivan fights Morrissey.
[i] Gerald R. Gems, Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 11–12.
[ii] Ibid., 18.
[iii] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.
[iv] Richard Kyle Fox, Boxing: With Hints on the Art of Attack and Defense (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1889), 15–19.
[v] William Edwards, Art of Boxing and Science of Self-Defense (New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1888), 104.
[vi] Fox, Boxing, 11–13, 15–19.