Martial Truths: Savage Stuff, Ponsonby!

Les boxeurs

See that illustration? That is not a display of Queensberry Rules, no matter what the Telegraph thinks.

The fact that the Telegraph can take Gericault’s Les Boxeurs, 1818, and caption it “Marquess of Queensbury” (sic), a fellow who wasn’t even born until 1844 and only endorsed Chamber’s rules in ’66 or ’67 (sources differ) says something about the Telegraph’s ability to do basic research; but also how pervasive “Queensberry Rules” are in our image of pre-20th Century boxing. This even happened to me a few weeks back when someone insisted that Queensberry Rules were a Regency invention and to my embarassment I couldn’t remember the actual dates to set them straight.

Let’s be clear, then. Les Boxeurs is a late Regency piece depicting a bare-knuckle fight in a ring of onlookers. The illustration was appropriated for George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax and could be Tom Molineux and Tom Cribb from their 1811 bout except Cribb’s facial hair is wrong (too much ‘tasche, not enough mutton chop; I wonder if the fellow is an American) and the ring looks characteristic of fights of the long 18th Century, whereas the Cribb/Molineux bout probably took place on a stage with rails per the period cartoons.

Queensberry Rules introduced 3-minute rounds with a rest between, no grips, wrestling or chancery1, and gloves or “mufflers”2. But also, all this formality gets conflated with Victorian sensibilities and repressed emotion, such that Queensberry boxing seems terribly effete now. Patent nonsense, when you consider that Dempsey and Ali and Tyson and their peers all fought (and continue to fight) according to the similar rules, but there you go.

Prior to 1743 bare-knuckle fights were pretty much unregulated. Supposedly there was plenty of gripping below the waist, tripping, eye gouging and all other kinds of nasty stuff, though not as awful as some of the descriptions of brawling in the Southern states (warning, that link is brutal). Then George Stevenson died in 1741 following his bout with Broughton, who formulated his rules. Notably rounds were not formalised, the only requirement that a fighter knocked down had to come to scratch in half a minute (Rules II and IV). Perhaps the most important point was a downed opponent was not to be struck (Rule VII). Aside from that all kinds of grips and throws (cross buttocks and hanging trippets) were allowed, just with no grips below the waist.

Sport vs. Combat

In modern MA we must have rules in place to prevent injuries, bad behaviour and bad feelings that arise from different expectations when MA groups meet to compete3.

Historical fencers are frequently down on modern sporting equivalents. Take modern sabre, for example: when two thrusts land simulaneously, the point is awarded to the fencer who straightens her arm first4. It makes sense in a sporting context but with sharps it’s a moot point if you run your enemy through and then they do the like to you a fraction of a second later.

Truthfully, though, we’re almost as bad. Historical fencers may fight with good form right to the moment when they perceive they’ve scored a hit; at this point they suddenly stop and look not at their opponent, but the judge. There is no fencer who has attended a tournament and has not done this, at least once.

This codifying of rounds and above all, this stop-start in bouting means hobbyist fencers aren’t tested to a realistic degree regarding endurance and the need for fitness. Granted, boxing sits at the extreme end of this spectrum, but all fighting arts are basically periods of waiting and concentration between bouts of intense rapid exertion, much like a series of sprints.

There is one very significant factor that still sets boxing apart from playing with swords, and that is when to call it a day. Swordplay is fairly clear-cut in terms of scoring, even when it degenerates into contre-temps and exchanges. Three points scored against the loser will settle the bout in our school, with a strike to the head or thrust to the body counted as triple. But for pugilism this is less credible, and bouts tend to either be for fixed time or conceded by one side. And to force a concession one actually has to beat the other side up, just a bit. Blows are pulled, masks and gum-shields are worn, but still, being punched in the face is an unpleasant experience, so much so that eventually one side gives up.

Conditioning and Mindset

(This is the part where I deviate a bit from historical treatise and go into personal anecdote.)

Just as there are no short-cuts to expertise (10,000 hours of practice) there is no substitute for base fitness5.

I have done some endurance based training. I used to run, and now I cycle. I’ve even done a century. None of this is like spending 3 minutes in a ring fighing another person. The repeated sudden, explosive movements are exhausting. But it’s mentally draining as well, because you need to be prepared to go forward and risk being punched in the face.

Silver’s Governors include the twofold mind to press in and offend one’s enemy, while being prepared to go back as security demands. But the consequence of being hit with a sword in a fencing bout is mainly to my pride, nothing more. Thus the mindset I have when bouting with swords cannot be the same as when bouting with fists, where I know I am at real risk of (temporary) hurt.

One of the best combatives instructors I met prioritised mindset above all, followed by tactics, then technique, and finally gear:


That’s to say a mindset to actually cause harm will trump anything else. Or to paraphrase another instructor, black belts get beaten up by artless brawling thugs all the time.

Constituents of a Boxer

Let’s talk about something all RPG players and designers can grok: attributes.

The numbers of attributes drift between three and seven depending on which boxing manual you read (and who it’s plagiarised from). Terminology varies also. Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence provides a comprehensive discussion on the seven attributes. These are:

Strength, art, courage, activity, the power of bearing blows, a quick eye and wind are the constituents of a complete boxer. (Fewtrell, p17)

Strength vs Science

The debate on whether art (or science) can make up for a lack of brute strength is a feature in Silver, and persists in many boxing manuals. The fact is strength always helps. But what is strength? For us gamers it’s either power to wound or strength to carry gold pieces. But “strength” needs to be considered in light of the physical activity. Dancers are undoubtably strong, but perhaps not suited to delivering or warding blows.

Fewtrell handles this diplomatically but quite rightly, saying strength comes first, not because it’s superior but because it’s impossible to display art without it; however he then goes on to comment that “Art is intitled (sic) to a preference over Strength” in the view of “the most intelligent professors, and the best seconds”.

Courage and Bottom

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.” (Frances Urquhart, House of Cards)

Fewtrell says “there are men who seem peculiarly formed for bottom”. True, the glutes of the LSD’s pugilists have been the source of much comment in the WMA community and beyond — but that’s not what Fewtrell meant. Bottom, which “the old school6 furnishes a surprising instance of” is the Power of Bearing Blows. It’s the willingness to be punched in the face, over and over again.

Since Fewtrell separates Courage and Bottom, it implies the latter is purely physiological. In my view the two are the same, and it’s Bottom above all that embodies the mindset that is so critical. Hardly surprising then that the old school, lacking a widespread science of boxing, depended so heavily on willingness and capacity to endure hurt in pursuit of victory.

Activity, A Quick Eye, and Wind

The last three are fairly obvious. Activity or Shifting is the capacity to move and avoid blows, Wind is overall fitness and endurance and “a quick eye” is the ability to perceive openings and threats. No-one can dispute the usefulness of all of these. However there are overlaps. A Quick Eye should be synonymous with Science, as is Activity (harking back to Silver’s Governors). And depending on definition, Wind may be a component of Strength or Bottom.

Top Thumps

Now we have a few attributes, we can maybe design a game around it…



…and someone already did.

The black box was the final print run with “The Good Old English Custom Of Deciding A Quarrel” on the front. The two pugilists are (I believe) Mendoza and Humphreys. The White box was the original mock up and has a picture of James Figg on the front. Why do I have it? Because the designer is one of our students (I have a very nice singlestick he made, too).

The game references Egan, Fewtrell, Godfrey and Scrogins. For the five attributes he chose Strength, Shifting, Science, Bottom and Striking. Savage stuff, indeed!

(Sadly I think the print run is long since sold, but if I bump into the author and learn otherwise, I’ll amend this post)


1: Chancery includes the informal definition of “(Of a boxer or wrestler) with their head held, contrary to the rules, between the opponent’s arm and body and unable to avoid blows”; clearly this definition is a post-Queensberry Rules one.

2: Mufflers were an invention of Broughton for his own academy to “effectually secure them from the inconveniency of black eyes, broken jaws and bloody noses…” but weren’t used in the professional ring prior to Queensberry rules.

3: There are some individuals who can be real jerks; they take their competition too seriously, they delight in inflicting real pain, and they don’t respect the feelings of their opponents. When it comes to whole groups however, you need to be careful not to confuse individuals “being a dick” with the established norms of that group re: degree of contact and competitive behaviour. Perfectly respectable groups get the reputation of being rough because of mismatched expectations between their members and other groups when meeting up at tournaments; the reality is, these “hard players” don’t want this repuation, nor do they want to cause harm to anyone. Rules are a big part of managing expectations and behaviour and avoiding upset, so they’re a good thing.

4: this is to do with Priority).

5: I won’t get into how fitness drops off. Let’s just say it’s a truth most of us are in constant denial about. If we want to relive the glories of our youth in the ring, we need to keep training, stop smoking and drinking and eating all the pies.

6: Three ages of pugilists are documented in Fewtrell, beginning with Broughton and concluding with “the moderns” including Mendoza and Humphreys.