Iconic bare-knuckle brawlers part 1: Figg and Broughton
In the first of a five-part series, Luke G. Williams presents his personal pick of the ten most significant bare-knuckle brawlers from boxing’s pre-gloved era, beginning with a pair of commercial innovators - James Figg and Jack Broughton...
It was amid the tumult, disorder and rowdiness of the 18th Century that professional prize-fighting was born. The sport originated from the common English custom of semi-organised street fighting, by which private and public quarrels were frequently settled, often in the presence of an excited crowd of locals.
Street-fighting spectacles were a routine part of English existence - as commonplace on the effluent-drenched streets of major cities such as London and Bristol as they were on the cobbled stones of picturesque country villages. As one fascinated French visitor to these isles remarked in 1680, “any thing that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman”.
This ‘pre-Queensbury Rules’ era has always fascinated me, populated as it is by so many larger than life characters, events and stories.
This two-part article is not intended as a serious attempt to rank the best ten bare-knuckle boxers of all time – after all, how could I fairly judge or rate fighters who lived hundreds of years ago and of whom no video footage exists? Rather, this is my way of drawing attention to ten towering figures from the pre-gloved era who I believe are particularly significant or noteworthy - for a variety of reasons, ranging from the sporting to the social to the historical.
Hopefully, those boxing fans with little knowledge of the era in which so many of the pugilism’s traditions and customs were formed, will be inspired by this series to find out a little bit more about the sport’s early history.
Here then, in chronological order, are my ten chosen bare-knuckle brawlers…
1. James Figg (c. 1684-1734)
Considered ‘the father of modern boxing’, Oxfordshire-born Figg was the first man to be widely regarded as the pugilistic ‘champion of England’, although it must be noted that many of his contests probably also incorporated rounds during which swords, daggers, shields, cudgels or quarterstaff were utilised, alongside periods of bare-fisted combat.
Described glowingly by contemporary newspapers as “the invincible” and “the most eminent prize fighter of this age” Figg was the first pugilist to accede to the status of public celebrity. Quite an achievement considering his humble birth and the fact he was probably illiterate.
The Derby Mercury claimed in October 1730 that Figg never lost a single bout in the course of 271 “prize” contests, although a quick scan of newspaper archives reveals an account in the Ipswich Journal of a June 1727 defeat against “Gravesend champion” Ned Sutton. This reverse aside, boxing historians tend to regard Figg as having ruled as champion of England from around 1719 until 1730.
Whatever his final fistic record, by opening an ‘ampitheatre’ in central London to host fighting contests, Figg undoubtedly was the first major organising force in the history of boxing, ensuring the sport’s first step in its transformation from an informal street activity into an organised public spectacle.
When Figg died in 1734 he was much mourned and the death notices were admiring. Rather sadly, the day after his funeral, it was reported that his wife gave birth to a “young Champion”. Nevertheless, his legend was secure: as boxing's first great writer Pierce Egan observed: "it might be said that he boxed his way through life".
2. Jack Broughton (c. 1704-1789)
In the mid-18th Century, Jack Broughton’s amphitheatre in central London was the centre of the prize-fighting universe, with excited reports of the bouts that took place there often appearing in newspapers.
A former performer at Figg's ampitheatre, Broughton’s arena was not the first public prize-fighting venue but it soon eclipsed all others in public popularity and esteem.
Before he became a ‘public bruiser’ Broughton had been an accomplished waterman, winning Doggett’s Coat and Badge race in 1730. After taking up boxing, he fought many times at Figg’s establishment before opening his own venue near to modern day Oxford Street around 1743.
An impressive physical specimen of around 14 stone, Broughton’s past endeavours on the River Thames accounted for his imposing build and wide, well-developed shoulder muscles. As well as being the fiercest and most successful pugilistic competitor of his day, Broughton was also a sporting innovator - his rules for prize-fighting, published in 1743 and widely adopted thereafter - would form the regulatory basis for the sport until the development of London Prize Ring Rules almost 100 years later.
Courtesy of victories against George Taylor and George Stephenson and a string of other leading pugilists of the day, Broughton was, by the early 1740s, widely regarded as ‘Champion of England’.
By 1750, Broughton was in his mid-forties and his reputation as the undefeated champion of England seemed assured. Fatefully, though, Broughton - like so many of his pugilistic successors - was lured back into the ring for one final contest. It was a fight that would define boxing for the next 40 years.
His challenger was one Jack Slack, a Norfolk master butcher. Slack’s boxing record was decidedly mixed and many thought him an unworthy opponent for the great Broughton – however, he detonated the finest punch of his career “directly in [Broughton’s] eye”, enabling him to secure a famous 14-minute upset victory.
Contrary to popular myth, “Broughton’s amphitheatre” did not close in the wake of the Slack fight, but was actually still in operation until 1754 when, possibly on the promptings of some form of legal crackdown on boxing in London, it closed down.
Broughton retired into private life, keeping himself busy by establishing an antiques business.
When he died in 1789 (aged 84, 85 or 86 according to which source you believe), Broughton was a wealthy man, with the estate bequeathed in his will said to be worth a vast £7,000, probably more than £1million in today’s money, as well as including several properties in Vauxhall.
By force of his business instincts and pugilistic genius, Broughton had succeeded in shaping boxing into a major form of public entertainment, complete with rules, regulations and an iconic central venue.
Ironically, though, such was his dominance of the sport, that when he retreated from it, boxing nearly died, with public interest in it declining dramatically.
Luke G. Williams is a writer and boxing historian. His acclaimed book Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar (2015, Amberley Publishing) is out now.