The Development of Boxing in 18th Century England

Talk the Talk 

Boxing is often called prizefighting, a term that suggests a fight is taking place with the intention of the combatants getting a financial reward for their efforts (usually with the lion’s share going to the victor).

The first known use of the term prize fight came in 1706, though the term Boxing was also well established by then (which is known to have been used from at least 1605).

Walk the Walk

The best boxers took to touring the country fighting in what was known as boxing booths and by 1735, George Taylor became the first title holder to do so.

They would go from town to town and issue the challenge to the local young men that if any could go a certain number of rounds, they would get a cash reward.

When not on tour, prize fighters would undertake bare-knuckle boxing matches against each other in fights that had no weight categories or limits to the number of rounds. Rather than being timed, each round would continue until someone was knocked to the floor.

Boxing Quote

"I got fifty guineas more than I should otherwise have done by letting George beat me and damn me ain't I the same man still?" 

~ William Stevens - Stated after admitting to taking a dive against George Meggs ~

Sports that were similar to boxing were very popular in the ancient world however, at the start of the fifth century, the Roman Emperor Theodoric the Great banned the practice because of the excessive violence involved. This ban pretty much stayed in place for over one thousand, two hundred years until the sport saw a revival in seventeenth-century Britain.

Early British Boxing History

Early in its history, British boxing was illegal but despite this, the boxing scene grew rapidly, especially in London with the first documented account coming in 1681 in the London Protestant Mercury. Christopher Monck, Second Duke of Albemarle, arranged the fight between his very own butler and his butcher with the butcher, it seems, being victorious.

By the end of the seventeenth century, this new craze of prize fighting in England had taken off so much that bouts were even being hosted and the Royal Theatre. A purse would be agreed upon and side bets could be taken by the contestants themselves, their entourage and by the watching crowd.

Influential Bare Knuckle Boxers of the Early Eighteenth Century

Early in modern boxing history, prize fights in London were ferocious affairs with no referee to keep order; subsequently they were more a test of strength and brute force than of skill and technique, much as they had been in ancient times.

James Figg – That all began to change when James Figg (pictured above) began to compete. He changed the course of British boxing history by employing the fighting methodology and footwork he had learned from fencing. He was the first bare-knuckle boxing champion of the modern era and from 1719 – 1730, had a little under three hundred fights, winning every one of them. After his retirement, he went on to set up the world’s first boxing academy. This started a process of legitimizing and organising boxing into a coherent sport where trained athletes could compete in relatively even contests against each other.

John ‘Jack’ Broughton – Possibly of even more significance to modern boxing history was one of James Figg’s students, John ‘Jack’ Broughton. Broughton was the bare knuckle-boxing champion from around 1729 – 1750 and was so influential in the development of the sport, he became known as the Father of English Boxing. After one of his opponents, George Taylor, died as a result of injuries sustained in a fight with him, he introduced a number of rules and safety equipment.

This act provided the beginnings of regulation and gave some protection to the fighters themselves whose interests had up to that point, been largely ignored. The Broughton's rules as they became known were devised in 1743 and stated that if one contender was knocked down, he had until the end of a count of thirty to get up or the match would be over.

Grasping and punching below the waist were outlawed as was hitting an opponent who was on the floor. He also introduced helmets and a type of boxing gloves called mufflers for use during training which greatly reduced the damage done to boxers when compared to constantly getting hit (and hitting) with bare knuckles. These rule changes were the most important advances in modern boxing history until the introduction of the 
Queensbury Rules in 1867.

Fixing Prize Fights – Jack Slack

In 1750, a savage fighter named Jack Slack, grandson of James Figg, beat Jack Broughton (illustrated below) to become the champion. He went on to become the first international boxer of the period when he fought a Frenchman named Jean Petit. During the fight, Petit tried to strangle his opponent until Slack kicked him in the groin; the fiasco continued and later the French man was chased out of the ring.

Slack is mainly remembered for being a dirty fighter and he is credited with inventing the rabbit punch, a blow that strikes the back of the head or neck. It derives its name from the technique employed by hunters to kill rabbits which is a swift, hard strike to the back of the head. Today, the rabbit punch is against the rules of boxing due to its close proximity to the brainstem which can make it a very dangerous attack that can even be fatal.

Jack Slack also has the distinction of being the first known person to fix a prize fight. 
It had been rumoured for years that he was crooked and had paid off some of the better fighters to lose in other matches to stop the top contenders from challenging for his title. After losing it anyway to William Stevens in 1760 (also possibly a dive), a year later he paid Stevens to take a fall against George Meggs, Slacks protégé. 

Once the infamous Jack Slack got the ball rolling, bare-knuckle boxing became corrupt and as a result, lost much of its popularity. There were many scandals and accusations of diving in the 1760s and 70s, notable examples included; William Darts (Champion 1766 – 1771), alleged to have taken a dive for £100 after losing the title in the first round to Peter Corcoran and Harry Sellers (Champion 1776 – 1779), who lost in a fight after less than a minute prompting furious allegations of a dive. This trend would come to an end though periodically there would be accusations of corruption in boxing right up to the modern day.

A Return to Respectability in British Boxing History

Tom Johnson 
 Others would go on to follow in Jack Slack's footsteps and the art of boxing became corrupt in the coming decades. However, towards the end of the century, there was a return to respectability in the history of pugilism when the well-loved Tom Johnson became the champion in 1783. He was a colourful character and known to be an honest fighter though he loved to drink and gamble which, after retaining the title for eight years, eventually took its toll and led to him neglecting his training. 

Other fighters who had a great influence on modern boxing history as the eighteenth century drew to a close included:

William Futrell – William Futrell, a boxer from Birmingham was an undefeated fighter until he fought future champion ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson in 1788 in a fight that lasted over an hour. Futrell’s main contribution however was to publish the first paper on the sport in the later part of the eighteenth century.

Daniel Mendoza – Daniel ‘Mendoza the Jew’, who was the bare-knuckle champion from 1791 – 1795, had a profound effect on how the sport would develop in the coming century in terms of fighting skill. Weighing in at just 160 pounds (73 kg), he emphasized speed and technique over strength and helped popularise the concepts of using footwork and counterpunching to enable smaller men to have a chance against larger ones. He also introduced sparing and is credited with bringing sophistication to what was still an otherwise brutish game.

John Jackson – Known as the ‘Gentleman’, John Jackson came from a good background and though an excellent fighter, was champion for just one year in 1795. After three defences, he retired and went on to teach members of the aristocracy the art of boxing; counted among his more affluent students were Lord Byron and Lord Chesterfield.

Written by Andrew Griffiths – Last updated 13/06/2023. If you like what you see, consider following the History of Fighting on social media.

Further Reading:

Boxing. [Internet]. 2013. Mott Community College. Available from: [Accessed May 28, 2013].

Holland, G.  [Internet]. 2008. History of London Boxing. BBC. Available from: [Accessed May 28, 2013].

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

Poliakoff, M. [Internet]. 2013. Boxing. Britannica. Available from: [Accessed May 28, 2013].

Southorn, M.C. [Internet]. 2005. 1750-1791: The Fall and Rise of the British Prize Ring. East Side Boxing. Available from: [Accessed May 28, 2013].

 More Boxing History

Boxing History Home

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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