The old school boxer's guard

The oldest photos of boxers, those of the nineteenth century, show pugilists, who are not always provided with a carefully combed "Poilu's" mustache, but who almost invariably pose in a very strange position, with a low guard. Inoperative and even risky today, this guard was nevertheless the best at the time simply because the rules and combat techniques were different from those in force in our time.

The most significant distinction was that many fights were practiced with bare hands: the famous "bare-knuckle boxing". In this way, violent blows to the head were rarer because boxers, without gloves to protect them, could injure their hands. So if we did not target the head as a priority, as is the case nowadays, it is the rib cage, the abdominal area or the liver that were rather targeted. This explains in these pictures an arm position protecting the body as we constantly hold a high guard today to prevent the opponent from reaching the jaw, nose, eyebrow arches, forehead or temples. Knockouts and consequences for brain health were thus rarer and pugillists could sometimes have much longer careers than those we have been used to seeing since the twentieth century. Also, some fights did not last until the end of the 1800s, and only ended when one of the two boxers could no longer get up or gave up. Prior to the codification of boxing matches that came into effect in 1891 as the Queensberry Rules, named after the Scottish Marquis who greatly helped spread them around the world, the protocol varied from match to match ranging from wrestling, to what could be similar to what we know today as MMA, through street fighting where all blows were allowed, including catching his opponent by the hair and strikes below the belt...

tommy ryan bareknuckle boxerTommy Ryan, American boxer, welterweight and middleweight world champion.

This specific guard of the eighteenth century, it was therefore the head back and for the majority of boxers an outstretched arm to gauge the distance with the opposing fighter while having the possibility of "poking" him, with a method: parry the opponent's right with his left, the left with his right, and always keep one arm folded to protect against blows to the body and counterattack with more powerful blows.

It was Daniel Mendoza, an English boxer of Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic origins who cultivated and popularized this technique during his career at the end of the eighteenth century. With his 1m70 for 73 kg, smaller and less heavy than most of the fighters of the time, he had achieved the prodigy of becoming heavyweight champion of England in 1792 and to keep his title until 1795, when he was only middleweight ... Like Mohamed Ali a little less than 200 years later, it was said of him that he flew like a butterfly and that he stung like a bee. His method notably introduces dodge and parry, drawing inspiration from fencing, dodging and blocking. Novelties initially criticized for their character considered as “cowardly”, in an environment where one cultivated and privileged the brute force and the resistance. But little by little, European and American boxers would adopt this new fighting science, especially after the publication of his bestseller “The Art of Boxing” in London in 1789.

peter jackson bareknuckle boxer167/5000 Australian Peter Jackson, "The Black Prince", one of the best heavyweights of his generation, champion of Australia and the Commonwealth at the end of the 19th century.

john l. sullivan bareknuckle boxerThe « Boston Strong Boy » John L. Sullivan, world heavyweight champion for 10 years from 1892 to 1992.