Comparison Of Bare Knuckle Boxing/Pugilism & Traditional Martial Arts

I was a little intrigued recently when I came across the picture below on Facebook depicting a bare knuckle prize fight that took place in 1877. What intrigued me was that the punch being delivered looks a lot more like a punch that we’d find in Karate/Taekwondo/some styles of Kung Fu, than it does a modern boxing punch! The back is straight, head up, legs are practically identical to our forward stance, hips turned square on and shoulder not turned in as much as a modern boxers. Even the non-punching hand is back on the hip (hikite) like a Karate/TKD punch.

Here is the description that came with it!

“Here’s a historical peek into just how vicious even a “cordial” scuffle could be. The following is from an account of a bit of Pugilism staged in Dodge City in 1877.
The bout featured Nelson Whitman and Red Hanley, who was billed in the newspaper as the “Red Bird from the South.”

In the 42nd round, Hanley implored the referee to call Whitman off so he could, and I quote “put his right eye back where it belonged, set his jawbone and have the ragged edges trimmed off his ears where they had been chewed.”
The referee declined, telling him to “Stick it out as long as he could and to squeal when he’d had enough.”
That was round 42 if you’ll recall. The gritty Red Bird from the South, gritted his broken jaw and waded back in.
He lasted for 23 more rounds finally squealing in the 65th round.
Again, this was a sanctioned, civilized match at the time. What was going on out of the mainstream is far far wilder“.

A tad more brutal than today’s boxing I’d say! But although a “civilised match” (sport), on many levels it would be close to real world street fighting.

At around the same as this fight took place and across “the pond” (the Atlantic Ocean in case you’re not familiar with that nickname) we Brits being even more civilised introduced the Queensbury Rules.

I’d like to quote here from the boxing website, The Art Of Manliness, on the impact of these new rules:

“Perhaps the most important of these new rules required pugilists to don gloves. The wearing of gloves drastically changed the nature of the sport. The bare knuckled fisticuffer stood upright, leaned back slightly, and held his arms with forearms facing outward. The gloved boxer leans forward and protects his face with his gloves. While gloves made the sport less brutal in some ways, they made boxing more dangerous and deadly by allowing fighters to punch with far greater strength (the bare knuckled boxer had to mitigate the impact of his blows for fear of winding up with a broken hand). The bones of one’s head are harder than those in the hand; thus, gloves helped the hitter and hurt the hittee”.

So the bare knuckle fighter (which more closely resembles a real fight) would be more upright with arms facing outward, which is more like traditional Karate, Taekwondo and Kung Fu! I have written about the differences in sport/self protection guards before, but it is interesting to explore this subject in a bit more depth!

Let’s take a look at another bare knuckle picture -

Interestingly, whereas in the first picture shows the attacker using almost a text book martial arts forward stance, in this picture (and the one immediately above) where both of them are squaring off to each other, they are both in almost text book back stance. Check it out, heels almost in line, feet almost like a capital letter “L”, back leg more deeply bent than the front leg and as discussed above the arms are more forward than the modern boxers.

Furthermore, the hands are held one in front of the other, rather than on either side as modern boxers do. If they opened their hands, it would look a lot like the Wing Chun guard where the hands are kept on the centre line. With the fist closed though, it also looks a little like Karate’s Wedge Block (Kakiwake Uke) as in Heian/Pinan Yondan!

Another picture I found interesting is this one -

The position of the attacker is practically identical to near the end of Heian/Pinan Yondon, just before the knee kick and Kiai (shout). If you’re not familiar with that Kata, here it is in slow motion. The move in question is at 1 minute 27 seconds in -

This is usually explained as grabbing the opponents head and pulling down onto the rising knee. However, I have had some doubts about this application as it can take a lot strength to pull down the head of a resisting opponent. I don’t think it would be easy either for the average person to lift another of the ground as shown in the picture above.

However, imagine if the attacker in the picture above (guy on left) were to follow up from this position with a knee attack whilst bringing arms down, (as in the kata), thus dropping his opponent’s groin onto his own rising knee! Using this movement as a strike or a grab (whether it lifts the opponent of the ground or not) is likely to cause a flinch reaction where they would lean back away from the attack. This leaning back leaves them vulnerable to a rising knee in the next movement of the kata which should make it relatively easy to deliver to the groin. I would respectfully suggest that this is far easier than trying to pull down the head of a resisting opponent which is the usual explanation.


Although pugilism/bare knuckle fighting was technically a sport, it was back in it’s day very close to real street fighting with even less rules than today’s MMA. As mentioned above, the introduction of Queensbury rules and gloves made a big difference to the way they punched, their guard, the way they stood and the distribution of their body weight. I think it’s fair to say that the early American and European pugilism/bare knuckle fighting -

  • was a very effective form of self defence as very few rules separated it from the real thing.
  • has more in common with the traditional Eastern martial arts then it does with modern Western boxing.

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