Bare-Knuckle Boxing Champions of the 19th Century

Talk the Talk

As there was little official unification during this period of boxing history, there was often disagreement over who the champion was which makes a definitive list impossible. 

That said, these fighters are generally accepted by sports historians to have been the bare-knuckle champions of the nineteenth century.

Walk the Walk

Prior to the introduction of the famous Queensbury Rules in 1867, it can be argued that pugilism was a much more dangerous sport. 

The number of rounds in a contest was limitless and they would continue until someone was knocked down or unable to fight on. 

Wrestling moves were common during this era as was holding and while boxing gloves were used for training purposes, most bouts were bare-knuckle boxing contests.

Boxing History Facts

Jem Mace was a famous bare-knuckle boxer and is regarded as one of the best of all time as well as being an important ambassador for the sport. 

He used his worldwide fame to help gain acceptance for the new Queensbury Rules, which emphasised the wellbeing of the fighters. 

He also pioneered new methods of crowd control at fights, limiting the outbreak of riots that were commonplace during the period. 

He championed new payment methods for fighters, putting an end to the winner takes all systems and allowing for both contestants to get paid for the work they put in. 

Perhaps the most important legacy of Jem Mace’s career was his stance on equality. 

He was one of the few people in his time fighting for the rights of black boxers and it was largely down to his efforts that there were opportunities for non-whites in boxing history long before most other sports.

Jem Belcher (1800 – 1803) – The first bare-knuckle champion of the nineteenth century was a talented young fighter called Jem Belcher. Grandson of the infamous Jack Slack of the previous century, Belcher held the title for three years before being forced to retire after losing sight in one eye playing rackets. 

Henry 'Hen' Pearce (1804 – 1806) – Hen Pearce was known as the Game Chicken as a result of both his name and his legendary courage that was likened to that of a fighting cock in the pit. He was forced to retire early when a turbulent marriage forced him to develop a problem with alcohol. 

John Gully (1807 – 1808) – John Gully lost to Hen Pearce after six rounds after the latter bought the former out of debtor’s jail so that the two could fight. Despite losing, Gully was classed as the champion after Pearce’s retirement. 

Tom Cribb (1809 – 1822) – Seen by many as the greatest fighter of his time, Tom Cribb held the title for several years before retiring to run a London pub. His two most famous bare-knuckle boxing matches were against Tom Molineaux, (depicted above in their second fight in 1811). Molineaux was an ex-slave and formidable fighter who was the first American to challenge for the title, though he was defeated by Cribb on both occasions. 

Tom Spring (1823 – 1824) – Tom Spring was a student of Tom Cribb and retired after one year as the bare-knuckle boxing champion, despite having several victories (and one loss) in that time. 

Tom Cannon (1824 – 1825) – Cannon claimed the vacant title after Tom Spring’s retirement and lost it a year later in an epic showdown with Jem Ward. 

Jem Ward (1825 – 1832) – Jem The Black Diamond Ward lost the title to Peter Crawley in 1827, who retired immediately after the fight, allowing Ward to retain his status as bare-knuckle champion. He then toured the USA for a while before retiring in 1832. 

James Burke (1833 – 1839) – Known for his devastating punch and nicknamed the Deaf ‘un because he was hearing impaired, James Burke fought Simon Ward for the vacant title, who died because of injuries sustained during their fight. 

William Thompson (1839 – 1840) – Known as Bendigo, Thompson was one of boxing history’s more shady characters and was a gangster whose friends would often intimidate his opponents. Soon after beating James Burke, he retired leaving the former champion and Ben Caunt both claiming to be the world boxing champion. 

Nick Ward (1841) – The younger brother of former champion Jem Ward, Nick fought both of the main contenders, James Burke and Ben Caunt, beating both men on a foul decision to become the tenth undisputed bare-knuckle boxing champion of the nineteenth century. 

Ben Caunt (1841 – 1845) – Ben Caunt beat Nick Ward in a rematch to gain the title and would go on to lose it to former champion William Thompson, who beat him for the third time to regain the title. After a gruelling ninety-three rounds, Caunt was disqualified for going down without getting hit. Afterwards, he retired from the ring. 

William Thompson (1845 – 1850) – Though he held the title for five years after coming out of retirement, Bendigo would only defend it once after his opponent, Tom Paddock, was disqualified for hitting him when he was down. After his retirement he became an evangelist preacher and had the distinction of having a racehorse named after him, a town in Australia also took his name and he was the subject of a poem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

William Perry (1850 – 1851) – Known as the Tipton Slasher, Perry won the vacant title by beating Tom Paddock and lost it a year later to Harry Broome; both fights were decided on a foul. 

Harry Broom (1851 – 1856) – Broome forfeited the bare-knuckle boxing title because he refused to give a rematch to William Parry, whom he had beaten on a foul. 

Tom Paddock (1856 – 1858) – After losing title bids to William Bendigo Thompson and William Parry, Paddock finally achieved his dream and became the bare-knuckle champion in 1856. 

Tom Sayers (1858 – 1860) – Gained the title by beating the veteran Tom Paddock. Sayers weighed in at only 11st so was used to beating much heavier men than himself. After a gruelling draw with American John C Heenan in which he fought many of the forty-two rounds with a badly injured arm, Sayers retired from boxing. 

Sam Hurst (1860 – 1861) – Sam Hurst was another fighter to beat Tom Paddock in a title fight, however, he lost it on his first defence in which he fought against Jem Mace. 

Jem Mace (1861 – 1862) – One of the most famous bare-knuckle boxers of the nineteenth century, Jem Mace toured the world with his boxing Booth, taking on all comers. He lost his title to Tom King after initially beating him in their first contest. 

Tom King (1862 – 1863) – Gained the title after twenty-one rounds against Jem Mace, and then he became the second champion to retire after beating John C Heenan after a hard-fought two-round battle. 

Jem Mace (1866 – 1871) – After originally gaining and losing the title as a bare-knuckle fighter, Mace made boxing history by becoming one of the first high-profile fighters to switch to using boxing gloves in the ring after the introduction of the Queensbury Rules. After his retirement, he continued to tour with his booth and went on to become a successful boxing promoter.

Written by Andrew Griffiths – Last updated 06/06/2023. If you like what you see, consider following the History of Fighting on social media.

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Further Reading:

Holland, B. [Internet]. 2008. History of London Boxing. The BBC. Available from: [Accessed October 8, 2013].

Keating, F. [Internet]. 2010. Tom Cribb's bare-knuckle deeds in the cradle of international sport. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed October 8, 2013]. 

Kent, G. 2009. The Little Book of Boxing. The History Press. Gloucestershire.

Pursall, B. [Internet]. 2010. Jem Mace. Available from: [Accessed October 8, 2013].

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The history of boxing dates back in one form or another as far as civilisation itself with ancient Greek boxing even being a part of the early Olympic Games. Modern boxing rules have made the sport safer for the fighters and more entertaining for the crowds, resulting in pugilism becoming one of the most popular athletics events on the planet today.

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