John Shotto Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, has two major claims to fame. First he was the nemesis of gay author Oscar Wilde who sued him for libel after he had publicly objected to the liaison that Wilde had with his son Lord Alfred Douglas. The suit was dropped but ultimately led to Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment for homosexuality. His second achievement was in the sporting world. All boxing fans have heard of the Queensberry Rules which paved the way for the emergence of gloved boxing to replace bare-knuckled prize-fighting. Yet in actuality they were not the idea of the Marquess himself.
Let us backtrack. Fighting has always been a brutal sport. Nowhere more so than in the backwoods of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America where, in the ‘rough and ‘tumble’ contests, it was permissible to tear and rend each other with eye-gouging and castration not infrequent occurrences. The emphasis on maximum disfigurement and severing body parts made this style of fighting unique: except for a banning of weapons it was no holds barred contest won only when one fighter until gave up or was incapacitated. Gouging out an opponent’s eye was the ultimate objective of most fighters, the most celebrated of whom hardened their fingernails and honed them sharp. To modern eyes the brutality seems barbarous, but perhaps it was less so to the inhabitants of the backwoods who saw daily danger and regular violence in a land frequented by wild animals, outlaws and Indians.
In Britain, pugilism, also known as prize-fighting, while perhaps less brutal than the frontier fights was still a gory business. The bare-knuckled bouts ended not in a decision on points but by one of the combatants being unable to continue. A round ended when one of the protagonists was felled (or chose to go down) and then they had 30 seconds to get back on their feet in the centre of the ring. Hence fights could last many rounds and take hours to complete. A set of named rules was issued in 1743 by pugilist turned boxing promoter, Jack Broughton, to control the conduct of prize fights in his London amphitheatre. Even though the rules were few they demonstrated the complexity of regulating a violent spectator sport involving gambling. There were rules to determine the result, outlaw crowd disorder, choose adjudicators, disallow certain practices by the fighters and prevent financial impropriety. Although formulated for his own amphitheatre, the rules were quickly accepted for all fights of any importance and, despite competing codes, continued to be the dominant form till the Victorian times. The one major omission – the legitimacy of falling without being struck – began to be specified as foul play in the articles of agreement (which continued as explicit additions to rules to remove ambiguities for a particular contest). Over time this became unnecessary and later articles were often simplified to cover only basic details of any stakes.
In 1838 the London Prize Rules superseded those of Broughton. They outlawed head-butting, kicking and biting, hitting below the belt and defined the size of and situation of the ring, 24 feet square and on turf surrounded by ropes. Yet the sport was on the ropes itself. Increasingly magistrates were deciding that prize-fights were illegal, partly because men were being paid to assault each other but especially because the fights were held in the open air with little means of controlling crowd access or behaviour.