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7 Things You Should Know About Bare Knuckle Boxing

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The words “bare knuckle boxing” probably invoke visions of corny looking old-timey fighters throwing down in tight pants or drunken bar patrons getting stomped by Patrick Swayze in the 1980s film classic Roadhouse.

While people are still getting their tails handed to them in bars all across the world everyday (except no longer by the Swayz, RIP), most people assume that actual bare knuckle boxing matches, the kind you could pay money to watch in person, went away when gloves were brought into the professional boxing equation. But many of you will be surprised to know that this is not the case.

Here are seven things you should know about bare knuckle boxing…

It Still Exists

The last officially sanctioned bare knuckle boxing match happened in 1897, but that doesn’t mean that fighting purists ever gave up on the idea of squaring off sans gloves for sport. As we speak, there’s still a World Bare Knuckle Boxing Association. They have a website and everything, so you know they’re legit! According to the site, they hold John L. Sullivan, the winner of that fabled 1897 bare knuckle match, in the highest regard. Here’s a quote…

“For nearly 123 years Sullivan’s title remained vacant until former seven time cruiserweight champion Bobby “The Celtic Warrior” Gunn defeated Richard Stewart to claim the linear title.”

That’s right, there’s a reigning bare knuckle boxing world champion, Bobby Gunn. With a name like that, you better be able to fight.

So, yes, bare knuckle boxing still exists. But…

Don’t Take That to Mean It’s “Legal”

The video above is from an actual bare knuckle boxing match in which Bobby Gunn defended his world title. There are a lot of clues in that video that point to the legal status of bare knuckle boxing being a gray area at best, but none more telling than this…the man defending his title is doing it while wearing jeans. No official sport happens in jeans, ever. Add in the fact that the venue appears to be the kind of place a seasoned kidnapper would call home and what it all adds up to is the human equivalent of cock fighting. Yes, it happens and people show up to watch, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the room will get off easy if the cops show up.

In fact, as this story points out, someone did actually yell “police” at the end of this match, forcing everyone from the boxers to the shady looking audience to the backward baseball cap wearing “referee” to find a good hiding spot. But they just did it as a joke, apparently. That person has probably since been beaten into a coma.

It’s More Than Just Regular Boxing Without Gloves

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According to this article about bare knuckle boxing from, where else, Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” website, there’s a little more to being a successful bare knuckle boxer than just taking off the gloves. For example:

Punches – With no gloves to protect their dainty little hands, bare knuckle boxers have to be far more precise and controlled with their punches. A misplaced punch while wearing boxing gloves will just inflict less damage. A misplaced punch with bare knuckles could literally shatter your hand if it lands on one of the less forgiving areas of the skull, which would be all of them.

Defense – Gloves don’t just protect your hands in a fight, they also provide a welcome cushion between your face and your opponent’s fist. Bare knuckle boxers don’t enjoy the same luxury, so attention to proper fighting stances and defense is crucial.

Targets – Again, no gloves means no protection for your hands. And ramming your fist into something as strong as the human skull is bad times unless you enjoy broken digits and dislocated knuckles. Because of this, bare knuckle boxers focus more of their attention on crippling body blows.

But a lack of protection doesn’t necessarily mean bare knuckle boxing is any more dangerous than fighting with gloves. In fact…

It’s Safer Than Boxing With Gloves

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Here’s a fun fact you can use to impress your friends. Gloves were not introduced to the sport of boxing for safety reasons. They were, in fact, meant to make the sport more dramatic and violent. Why? Because bare knuckle boxing, as far as spectator sports go, is far more boring to watch than you might imagine. Take that last officially sanctioned bare knuckle fight that happened in 1897, for example. It lasted a free-time-destroying seventy-five rounds. Taking in a boxing match on Friday night becomes a lot less enjoyable if you’re not even sure it’s going to end in time for you to make it to work at a respectable hour the following Monday.

So, gloves were added to the mix in the hopes that they would lead to more shots to the head and dramatic knockouts. And, you know, fights that don’t last a month and a half. Gloves might keep you from breaking your hand when throwing a jab to the face, but they do nothing to keep your brain from rattling around in your head if you happen to be hit with that jab to the face. But don’t take our word for it. Check out this quote from Dr. Alan J. Ryan, a bare knuckle boxing proponent…

“However, gloves do not lessen the force applied to the brain as it rattles inside the skull from a heavy blow. In fact, they make matters worse by adding 10oz to the weight of the fist.

A full-force punch to the head is comparable to being hit with a 12lb padded wooden mallet travelling at 20mph.”

He also adds…

“In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 with a John L Sullivan heavyweight championship fight, there wasn’t a single ring fatality. Today, there are three or four every year in the US, and around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career.”

The fact that bare knuckle boxing leads to less serious injury means some people can do it really well for a really long time. Like who? Glad you asked!

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