Folgand Lighthouse – Episode 13: The Seventh Rule Of Fight Club
“The Prince of Bruisers, by Vainglory hurt / Has laid at last his conquests in the dirt“.
From The Bruisder Bruis’d, author unknown.
Content warnings: descriptions of physical violence, death.
Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.
Rule Number One: a square a yard wide should be chalked out, and the fighters should be brought to each side of it before fighting commences. After all, if you’re going to punch someone in front of a crowd for money, as a bare minimum there should be a set time and a set place. Not that a professional career was necessarily what John Broughton had planned. He certainly had the body for it. Five foot ten inches tall, a towering height for the early 18th century, with biceps so big they would later be used as a model for a statue of Hercules. He had honed them in his first trade as an oarsman, going back and forth across the Thames, ferrying people to and from the Hungerford Market. He won a race against his fellow oarsmen in 1730. But some time before that his real talent started to show. The story goes that a dispute broke out with another rower, and boxing has always served a dual purpose as both sport and dispute resolution. As happens with these things, a crowd gathered, and someone, we don’t know who, maybe it was John himself, spied an opportunity.
Rule Number Two: if a man doesn’t get up thirty seconds after being knocked down, he shall be declared a beaten man. This would have been especially relevant to John’s opponents during this period, as one by one they fell to the relentless force of Broughton’s bare-knuckle blows. John Gretton ,Thomas Edwards, Charles Raventon, George Taylor, a decades-long undefeated streak that propelled him from the amateur into the professional boxing world. He trained at the School of Arms on Tottenham Court Road, Britain’s first boxing gym, refining his technique, graduating from brawler to fisticuffer. The informal gathering by the river became the packed-out amphitheater. His fight against George Stevenson drew such a big crowd that one of them was squeezed to death by the densely-packed mass of bodies. Boxing had always been disreputable, the sport of ruffians, there were laws on the books that made it illegal, though they were rarely, if ever, enforced. But John saw a different route for the sport. Maybe it was the patronage and friendship of the Duke of Cumberland, who he fought alongside for a brief stint in the Austrian War of Succession, seeing that even war had its codes of conduct. Maybe it was seeing that poor man trampled in the chaotic mob of an audience at the Stevenson fight. But John saw a future where boxing was the sport of Gentlemen. And he would be its bald-headed, leathery face.
Rule Number Three: No-one but the fighters and their seconds may be on the stage, except, of course, for Mr Broughton. John drew up plans for an open-air amphitheatre all his own, found a plot of land on Oxford Road, started raising funds in 1743, and in the same year it was built. With it came the Broughton Rules, seven statutes governing each fight held there, rules enforced by the charismatic emcee, host and ringmaster that was John himself. Long before any formal association for Boxing existed, long before that vile aristocratic homophobe the Marquis of Queensbury put his name on a set of rules he had nothing to do with, Broughton’s Rules, the first written rules of British boxing, came from a ruffian, someone who’d been in the dirt, in the blood and sweat, and knew what they really meant. The idea of any kind of regulations governing this entertainment must have been a bolt from the blue to many of the Georgians. To give you a flavour of some of the other live events on offer around this time, they include a match between a panther and twelve dogs, and a fight between a donkey and a dog covered in fireworks. But the plan worked, the well-heeled clientele came in such quantities that Broughton’s amphitheatre had to be expanded, and as a host and venue manager John brought in more cash than he ever made as a fighter, more than he ever would have dreamed of as an oarsman.
Rule Number Four: no man is beaten until he fails to get up, or is declared beaten by his second. This seems harsh by today’s standards, but before the idea of timed and scored rounds existed, it was comparatively merciful to have the chance to be bailed out of the fight by a compassionate friend. John opened his own boxing school off of the success of the amphitheatre. In it, he developed a new technology to further round off some of the hard edges of boxing. A pair of gloves packed out with padding, which he called “mufflers”. This caught on for the training of new boxers, but was considered too “unmanly” by John’s peers to be used in public fights.
Rule Number Five: Two thirds of the prize money goes to the winner. No matter how much money he made, no matter how far he got from his roots, John was still a brawler, and boxing as dispute resolution was still ever-present alongside boxing-as-sport.. We don’t know what Jack Slack, aka the Norfolk Butcher, aka the Knight of the Cleaver, said to John to get him so upset, but when it happened, he didn’t take his grievance to the duelling field or the courts like his many gentlemanly acquaintances. No, just like with the oarsman decades before, he told Jack to meet him outside. A month’s lead in was given to allow him to get back in to fighting shape,. Unlike the 29-year old Slack, who was hot off a string of wins, the 47-year-old Broughton hadn’t been in a match of his own in years. But he was the champ, right? You can’t mess with the champ. Broughton came out swinging, the old furious force still present, bookies giving ten-to-one odds in his favour, but two minutes in, Slack threw a blinding punch that hit John like a thunderclap. John staggered through the fight for another twelve minutes, but he didn’t need his Second to step in on this one, he knew he was beaten. He lost a thousand pounds that night, hoisted by his own rules-petard. It was a rout.
Rule Number Six: The fighters shall pick two umpires from the audience. A rule rarely followed by Jack Slack. The sport of gentlemen soon reverted to its ruffian roots under his reign, as he took dives for cash and trained his protegés to do the same. Broughton closed his amphitheatre a few years after the fight. He kept giving private lessons, but he himself couldn’t keep away from the advance of ruffianism either, getting involved in the hire of a gang of bruisers sent to disrupt an election in the sixties.
Rule Number Seven: No hitting a man when he’s down. It feels mean spirited to fixate on a man’s decline, or to hold it up as undermining his earlier ideals or achievements. John certainly knew how he wanted to go out . He had his coffin made ready years before his death, and a will written out leaving a seven thousand pound fortune to his favourite niece. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, with all the Dukes and aristos and gentlemen who likely would have turned their noses up at his trade. There was a disagreement with the Dean over the inscription under his name. It was blank for a long time, then filled out with the word “Pugilist”. But if John had made the rules, it would have read what he wanted it to read – Champion of England.