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Bare knuckle boxing training

by Wilson Pitts

John L. Sullivan hailed from Roxbury, Massachusetts and became known as “The Boston Strong Boy.” His career lasted from 1879 to 1892. He came up in the last of the bare knuckle days fighting under the London Prize Rules [LPR] in which any time a knee went down time was called and 30 seconds rest given. Most fights were fought outdoors, often on the bare ground, and were usually to the finish. A round could last 30 seconds or it could go on for many minutes. A take down or push counted as a knock down and there was a lot of grappling during the fights. Bare knuckle fights fought under London Prize Ring Rules LPR lasted anywhere from a few minutes to over two hours and so were fought at a walking pace. John L. Sullivan had fights that lasted 10 minutes or less, but with LPR rules he never knew when he might have to sustain effort. Once he went 75 rounds with Charley Mitchell in a fight that lasted three hours in the pouring rain. In the bare knuckle era Sully had to be ready for anything. Knees, elbows, finger jabs, throttling [grabbing the throat] while technically illegal, were common place. Stand up wrestling was within the rules such as they were. The match might go on for hours if the opponent in Sullivan’s words "started flopping" or "hugging the ground". This is why Sullivan wanted a rules change, and did countless demonstrations and fights using the new rules and with gloves on. His influence as heavyweight champion was why they eventually went to gloves and the Marquis of Queensbury rules with timed three minute rounds. Sullivan was the last London Prize Ring Champion, a title he carried to his grave. His record was 38-1 which was a lot of mostly bare knuckle fights. He had an astounding 78% knockout ratio and was deemed one of the truly great hitters of all times by none other than Nat Fleisher of The Ring Magazine. Many men could not withstand more than a hand full of fights using these

For example this picture is from 1890. By the time he lost to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in 1892 fighting for the new Heavyweight Title under Marquis of Queensberry Rules. Training Methods of the Old School I n Hazlett’s 1822 account of attending an bare knuckle fight outside of London he recounts his favorite’s training regime. he was the prototype for the modern conditioned athlete before 1900. A yolk of an egg with a spoonful of rum in it is the first thing in a morning.the fight was a good stand-up fight. meaning he lost forty tapping and trifling. none of the petit-maîtreship of the art .“There was little cautious sparring . Inside the ring it was a very hazardous environment that had it roots in the boxing booths in London and links to Catch Wrestling in Ireland. the first week was spent sweating the alcohol out of his system! The rest of the training centered on taking unwanted fat off of his body in preparation for contest. Sullivan represented the end of a two hundred year long era of bare knuckle boxing. abstinence and exercise. before being knocked out. When you examine the pictures of Sullivan in his prime you can see that. the first gloved heavyweight title fight. well after his fighting days were over. over twenty rounds with five ounce gloves. “The whole art of training …consists in two things. and then a walk of six miles till breakfast. exercise and abstinence. repeated alternately without half-hits . like Farmer Burns in wrestling. . In Sullivan’s day a training camp usually lasted eight weeks. he was clearly past his prime. Indeed. many men were maimed or killed in these contests. “Exercise and abstinence” indeed! There was a lot of time spent sweating under blankets and getting rub downs during training. in preparation for this last bout of his career and stayed with the younger man for an hour. Then another six or seven miles till dinner-time” Of the fight itself he reports.they were almost all knock-down blows: . He went into heavy training.” There are pictures of Sullivan from a later period that are somewhat misleading.primitive rules.

too hard on the hands. Then Bush would hold a rugby ball and move around and Sullivan would throw body shoots at it while working on his timing and footwork. He worked on takedown defense in training camp because being thrown down counted just as much as a knock down. He went to the gym and worked out in the afternoon with light dumb bells and did a traditional boxing/wrestling .” He then cross trained with swimming by treading water for 15 minutes. He had the same sparring partner who worked with him for years. his name was George Bush. He walked 12-14 miles each morning. to get ready for big fights. running the last two miles “at a dead run. Here are a few examples that I found interesting in this regard: He never sparred in preparation for fights. Sullivan’s primary training method was what Ernst van Aaken termed the Long Slow Distance method of roadwork. a bout against Jake Kilrain that lasted two hours in the mid day heat in Mississippi.Reading Sullivan’s autobiography “I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House” was very interesting for what could be learned about his training methods. He used to wrestle with William Muldoon. Muldoon trained him for his greatest contest. They would walk through the fight over and over working out what was going to happen at each stage and what tactics where going to be used when. John L. the great strong man and conditioning expert of his era. shaved the sides of his head in preparation for a fight to prevent hair pulling.

then run. then swim. then wrestle and then do a boxing workout! Walking that far in and of itself is deeply exhausting. “ Here is my challenge to you. Sullivan’s workout sometime! Get up early and start walking for six or seven hours. take a Saturday off and try John L. now go to the gym! Report back to me with your findings… . dear reader.workout in which he found rope skipping to be “the perfect exercise.