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Wrestling and Pugilism – Entertainments and Self Defense in 18th and Early-19th Century America

In our last post, we talked about some of the methods that people used to defend themselves, their loved, and their property against crime in the English colonies and the early United States. In this post we are going to turn to other skills that were useful for self-defense but in early America were more often viewed as “sport” or entertainment. Today we will discuss wrestling and pugilism (boxing).

Historic Origins of Wrestling

Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of combat, referenced in the Iliad and depicted in 15,000-year-old cave drawings in France. Early Egyptian and Babylonian reliefs show moves still used today. The ancient Greeks further developed it to train soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, so the first wrestling matches were almost certainly part of military training.

Egyptian Wrestling Carving
Egyptian Wrestling Carving

The Ancient Greeks were the most prolific wrestlers, and they elevated it to a physical art form. They realized that wrestling is like playing chess with your body, using techniques and moves to outwit your opponent and, in the process, dominate him. The Greeks also created the Olympic Games. There were two wrestling championships in the early Olympic games beginning in 776 BC. The first was a toppling event for the best two of three falls; and the second was the Pankration (Latin: pancratium) which was an empty-hand submission sport with few rules. In Pankration, the athletes used boxing and wrestling techniques but also others, such as kicking, holds, joint-locks, and chokes on the ground, making it like modern mixed martial arts. It ended with the submission of one contestant.

The most famous ancient Greek wrestler was Milon of Croton, who won the wrestling championship of the Olympic Games six times, seven times at the Pythian games, ten at the Isthmian games and nine at the Nemean games. Over a period of thirty years, he was the big favorite. He won extreme fame at that time.

Wrestling from a Greek Urn
Wrestling from a Greek Urn

Later, with the fall of the Greek Empire in the fifth century A.D., the Olympic Games ceased, wrestling reverted to its more militaristic beginnings and became less of a sport and art form. In the Roman version, the sport was divided into two parts: the upright part and the part where wrestlers would struggle on the ground. The match would, according to Tribunes and Triumphs, continue until someone gave up and admitted defeat. Written history has many accounts of female wrestlers. Historians of the time described women arguing with each other as the after-dinner acts of the first century B.C. These women also fought dwarves, and other women in matches hosted by the emperors Nero, Titus, and Domitian. According to David S. Potter, a classics professor at the University of Michigan:

“They would say to women you're strong, let's train you as a wrestler, you'll make a lot of money from your fights.”

Potter added that at that time women were practicing a variety of sports and keeping fit, and Roman officials encouraged them to build their bodies for work. Rich women could afford to train, have free time to exercise, and hire professional wrestling coaches who sometimes encouraged those who excelled in wrestling to try wrestling matches.

Pankration was never a formal part of Roman 'martial art'. Plutarch mentions hand-to-hand combat, but that can be interpreted as any one of many forms of hand-to-hand, least of all simple boxing and wrestling. The Romans carried their pugio (dagger), which was used in Close Quarter Combat, more so than any hand-to-hand techniques. Flavius Josephus wrote about how Roman soldiers tended to subdue and capture rebels by throwing them to the ground, but he does not elaborate on what sort of martial art was used.

This is not to say that Romans did not practice Pankration. Plutarch, in his “Life of Coriolanus” wrote:

"And so Marcius, who was by nature exceedingly fond of warlike feats, began at once, from his very boyhood, to handle arms. And since he thought that adventitious weapons were of little avail to such as did not have their natural and native armor developed and prepared for service, he so practiced himself in every sort of combat that he was not only nimble of foot, but had also such a weight in grapplings and wrestlings that an enemy found it hard to extricate himself. At any rate, those who from time to time contended with him in feats of courage and valor, laid the blame for their inferiority upon his strength of body, which was inflexible and shrank from no hardship.”

Again, this does not specifically mention Pankration, but it does show that some individuals may have trained in many different forms of combat.

Wrestling in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Early Modern Europe

In the Middle Ages, wrestling was practiced as both pastime and self-defense by every level of society - nobles, townsman, and peasants alike - and was regarded as the foundation of all other martial arts. Wrestling remained popular during the Renaissance, and for much of the 16th century. In 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold pageant, Francis I of France threw Henry VIII of England in a wrestling match, after his Cornish wrestlers had soundly defeated Francis' Breton wrestlers. In Henry VIII's kingdom, wrestling was widely popular and had a long history.

Henry VIII vs Francis I
Henry VIII vs Francis I

The German tradition has records of several master-Ringer (master-Wrestler) throughout the 15th to 16th centuries specializing in unarmed combat. Unarmed combat was divided in two categories, sportive grappling or "geselliges ringen" and serious unarmed combat or "kampfringen" (where kampf is the Early Modern German term for "duel"). While sportive grappling had fixed rules that prohibited dangerous techniques, usually starting in grappling hold and ending with a throw or submission, kampfringen can be considered as a descendent of Pankration as it was a system of unarmed self-defense including punches, joint-locks, elbow strikes, chokeholds, headbutts and (to a limited extent) kicks.

One of the main men who shaped kampfringen at the beginning of the German Renaissance appears to have been Austrian master Ott Jud. He is said to have developed a system of grappling to be used in combat, including joint breaks, arm locks and throws designed to cause severe injury. No treatise from Ott's own hand has survived, but his system was taught by several fencing masters of the later 15th century

Wrestling Illustration from a 15th Century German Source
Wrestling Illustration from a 15th Century German Source

It was only at the beginning of the Early Modern period, due to the more "dignified" code of behavior the upper classes imposed on themselves in the Baroque period, that European nobility abandoned wrestling, and it became a pastime of rural populations, developing into the various surviving forms of European folk wrestling. The Lancashire style of folk wrestling may have formed the basis for Catch wrestling also known as "catch as catch can." The Scots later formed a variant of this style, Scottish Backhold, which would later remove all groundwork and focus solely on the takedown. The Irish also developed the "collar-and-elbow" style which later found its way into the United States.

Wrestling in North America

Many Native American tribes practiced wrestling, but little is known about their distinct styles, which are likely to have varied from tribe to tribe. While the styles may have been different, the goal was the same -­‐-­‐ to become skilled warriors. On the frontier, aspects of native wrestling were sometimes incorporated into the wrestling skills of the whites.

There were also forms of wrestling among the Native Americans that were played for sport or gambling purposes. One of these, in the 1950s-1970s, was often known to Boy Scouts as “Indian Leg Wrestling”. Indian leg wrestling was used in physical training and competitions between the men of the tribes, sometimes with wagers riding on the outcome. This practice was first recorded by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. They saw that the Native Americans did not wrestle in the Greco-Roman style, instead preferring to use body parts against each other, of which leg wrestling was one type.

"Indian" Leg Wrestling
"Indian" Leg Wrestling

To play this “sport,” both contestants must lie down, side-by-side, touching each other, with their backs on the ground in such a way that their heads are in opposite directions, and their hips are even with each other. The contestants now simultaneously lift the leg next to their opponent perpendicular to the ground three times. On the third attempt, instead of taking their leg back down, the players must lock their leg with the others at the knee or ankle, and try to push the opponent’s leg forward, forcing the opponent to do a backward flip, without moving any other part of their bodies. Once a player flips his opponent completely over, the match ends, and the winner is declared.

The English and French who settled on the North American continent found wrestling a popular pastime. Soon, there were local champions in every settlement, with contests between them on a regional level. The colonists in what would become the United States started out with something more akin to Greco-Roman wrestling, but soon found that style too restrictive in favor of a style which a greater allowance of holds. During the 1700’s, wrestling graduated from a form of combat into a genuine spectator sport. It was the major contact sport among men of all classes in America. The wrestling style of the day was collar and elbow, named for the starting position. Standing face to face, each wrestler placed one hand behind his opponent’s neck and the other hand behind his elbow. This form did away with dirty tactics, such as “bull rushing” and throwing dirt in the opponent’s eyes; and allowed for different techniques specific to a wrestler’s size and strength.

In the backcountry of Virginia and the Carolinas, wrestling contests were among the favorite athletic events of Scots Irish colonists. The brutality of the matches was so great that the Assembly of Virginia had to legislate against illegal holds by prohibiting "maiming 'by gouging, plunking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping upon'" an opponent. In the backcountry, these rules and laws were often ignored.

Caricature of George Washington Wrestling the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard
Caricature of George Washington Wrestling the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard

Interestingly, George Washington was one of our country’s formidable wrestlers. At age 18, he held a collar-and‐elbow wrestling championship that was at least county wide and possibly colony wide. Washington wrestled through much of his youth and continued to hold a winning record. Even at the age of forty-seven, ten years before he became President, the “Commander of the Continental Armies” was able to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard. His successor in the White House, John Adams, was especially fond of wrestling because he believed it taught him self-discipline. A favorite target because he was a bit pudgy, Adams prided himself on his agility and the fact that he would never give up.

In fact, during the period that the Norfolk Towne Assembly represents (1790 – 1830), three Presidents were known to have been wrestlers – George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson. Additionally, five other individuals, who grew up during this period and later became President – Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln - were also known to wrestle

Historic Origins of Pugilism (Boxing)

The earliest physical evidence portraying ancient boxing comes from the first known civilization, Samaria (modern day Iraq) where it is depicted on several carvings that are believed to have been produced in the third century BCE. Some equipment appears to be in use at this time and while the fighters are bare fisted, they do have straps around their wrists that would have provided them with some support and protection for the small bones in the wrists and hands. Bare knuckled boxing was also the norm in Egypt, as depicted on a relief sculpture from around 1350 BCE from Thebes (modern-day Luxor). It shows spectators watching three sets of fighters and what is interesting is that it looks like they are performing for the pharaoh.

Minoan Fresco Showing Boxing Gloves
Minoan Fresco Showing Boxing Gloves

The earliest representation of ancient boxing gloves in use comes from a Minoan fresco from Thera (modern-day Santorini) which is commonly known as the Boxing Boys and dates from around 1600 BCE. A vase from the same region depicts fighters wearing helmets as well as boxing gloves and it is believed that they may well have been used extensively at that time. There is some academic dispute on the purpose of ancient boxing gloves, however. While some scholars believe they were used as safety equipment for training purposes, others argue that their shape may suggest that their purpose was to cause more damage to the opponent rather than to act as cushioning for the bones in the hand of the one doing the punching.

The god of boxing in ancient Greece was Apollo, who was said to practice a form of the sport known as “pyx” (with clenched fist). The object of pyx was to either knock out the opponent or force him to submit, which was shown with a raised index finger. The fight would continue until a submission or knock out was achieved; in this particularly vicious version of ancient boxing, there were no rounds and participants could keep punching even if their opponent were knocked to the floor. Pyx was introduced to the ancient Olympic Games in 688 BCE where opponents were only allowed to punch. Other forms of attack such as grappling, biting, and gouging were prohibited although, it is debated if kicking was allowed in ancient Greek boxing.

Depiction of Greek Boxing (Pyx)
Depiction of Greek Boxing (Pyx)

A soft dirt pit known as a “skamma” was used to fight in and a referee oversaw the bout, carrying a switch to whip any fighter that broke the rules or stepped out of line. While these contests were brutal affairs, a fighter would still need elevated levels of training, skill, and courage to make it as an ancient Greek boxer. Pyx seems to have been akin to modern boxing though in place of boxing gloves, their wrists and knuckles would often be wrapped in straps made from ox hide and were designed to protect the boxer’s hands.

After the fourth century BCE these were replaced with so-called sharp thongs that served the same purpose and consisted of a thick strip of leather. Different fighters used these straps in diverse ways, some covering much of the hands while others just used them as support for the wrist. While their primary use was for protecting the boxer’s hand, when covering the knuckle, the leather would also cut into an opponent when he was hit causing far more damage than if they were hit by a fighter using the softer thongs.

In ancient Rome, boxing was known as “pugilatus” (from which we derive the modern word pugilism) and was even more ruthless than ancient Greek boxing. The leather straps around the hands could be used but were often replaced by what were effectively leather knuckledusters known as “caestus” that had metal inserted into them to cause maximum damage to an opponent. In many ways the caestus was more like a knife than an ancient boxing glove as it could stab and rupture a fighter. In his poem the Aeneid, Virgil references their brutal nature by mentioning that when a Sicilian fighter called Entellus wanted to wear a pair previously worn by his brother, they were still “stained with blood and splattered brains.”

Roman Boxers
Roman Boxers

These metal laden boxing gloves were not compulsory however as can be seen from the same poem when Entellus’ opponent, Dares of Troy, refused to fight in them opting instead for lighter, padded gloves. Unsurprisingly, ancient Roman boxing matches often ended in the death of the loser and while many fighters were willing contestants, they were also fought between unwilling participants such as slaves. As well as being a sport and a gladiatorial contest, it was also seen as a training method for soldiers in the Roman army, though safety equipment would have been used in this case to prevent injury during training.

Boxing held a significant role in Roman culture until when, around 400 CE, Emperor Theodoric the Great banned it outright. As a Christian, he disapproved of the deaths and disfigurements it could cause, and of its use as a form of violent entertainment. After this, the sport fell out of favor across Europe until it was revived and popularized in Britain beginning in the seventeenth century in the form of bare-knuckle boxing

Pugilism in Early Modern England

Early in its history, British boxing was illegal but despite this, the boxing scene grew rapidly, especially in London with the first documented account coming in 1681 in the London Protestant Mercury. Christopher Monck, Second Duke of Albemarle, arranged the fight between his very own butler and his butcher with the butcher, it seems, being victorious. By the end of the seventeenth century this new craze of prize fighting in England had taken off so much that bouts were even being hosted at the Royal Theatre. A purse would be agreed upon and side bets could be taken by the contestants themselves, their entourage and by the watching crowd. In seventeenth century boxing, prize fights in London were ferocious affairs with no referee to keep order; as a result, they were more a test of strength and brute force than of skill and technique.

That all began to change when James Figg began to compete. He changed the course of British boxing history by employing the fighting method and footwork he had learned from fencing. He was the first bare knuckle boxing champion of the modern era and from 1719 to 1730, had a little under three hundred fights, winning every one of them. After his retirement, he went on to set up the world’s first boxing academy. This started a process of legitimizing and organizing boxing into a coherent sport where trained athletes could compete in evenly matched contests against each other.

Of even more significance to boxing history was one of James Figg’s students, John ‘Jack’ Broughton. Broughton was the bare-knuckle boxing champion from around 1729 – 1750 and was so influential in the development of the sport, he became known as the Father of English Boxing. After one of his opponents, George Taylor, died due to injuries sustained in a fight with him, he introduced several rules as well as safety equipment. This action supplied the beginnings of regulation and gave some protection to the fighters themselves whose interests had up to that point, been ignored. Broughton's rules as they became known were devised in 1743 and said that if one contender were knocked down, he had until the end of a count of thirty to get up or the match would be over. Grasping and punching below the waist were outlawed as was hitting an opponent who was on the floor. He also introduced helmets and a type of boxing gloves called mufflers for use during training which reduced the damage done to boxers when compared to constantly getting hit (and hitting) with bare knuckles. These rule changes were the most important advances in modern boxing history until the introduction of the Queensbury Rules in 1867.

English Boxing (Prize Fighting) in the 18th Century
English Boxing (Prize Fighting) in the 18th Century

In 1750, a savage fighter named Jack Slack, grandson of James Figg, beat Jack Broughton to become the champion. He went on to become the first international boxer of the period when he fought a Frenchman named Jean Petit. During the fight, Petit tried to strangle his opponent until Slack kicked him in the groin; the fiasco continued and later the French man was chased out of the ring. Slack is remembered for being a dirty fighter and he is credited with inventing the rabbit punch, a blow that strikes the back of the head or neck. It derives its name from the technique employed by hunters to kill rabbits which is a swift, hard strike to the back of the head.

Jack Slack also has the distinction of being the first known person to fix a prize fight. It had been rumored for years that he was crooked and had paid off some of the better fighters to lose in other matches to stop the top contenders challenging for his title. After losing it anyway to William Stevens in 1760 (also possibly a dive), a year later he paid Stevens to take a fall against George Meggs, Slacks protégé. Once the infamous Jack Slack got the ball rolling, bare knuckle boxing became corrupt and as a result lost much of its popularity. Others would go on to follow in Jack Slack's footsteps and the art of boxing became corrupt in the coming decades.

However, towards the end of the century, there was a return to respectability in pugilism when the well-loved Tom Johnson became champion in 1783. He was known to be an honest fighter though he loved to drink and gamble which, after keeping the title for eight years, eventually took its toll and led to him neglecting his training.

Other fighters who had a profound influence on modern boxing history as the eighteenth century ended included:

  • William Futrell, a boxer from Birmingham was an undefeated fighter until he fought future champion ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson in a 1788 fight that lasted over an hour. Futrell’s main contribution, however, was to publish the first paper on boxing in the later part of the eighteenth century.

  • Daniel ‘Mendoza the Jew,’ who was the bare-knuckle champion from 1791 – 1795, had a profound effect on how the sport would develop in the coming century in terms of fighting skill. Weighing in at just 160 pounds, he emphasized speed and technique over strength and helped popularize the concepts of using footwork and counter punching to enable smaller men to have a chance against larger ones. He also introduced sparing and is credited with bringing sophistication to what was still an otherwise brutish game.

  • Known as the ‘Gentleman,’ John Jackson came from a good background and though an excellent fighter, was champion for just one year in 1795. After three defenses, he retired and went on to teach members of the aristocracy the art of boxing, including the likes of Lord Byron and Lord Chesterfield.

Pugilism in America

The sport of boxing came to the United States from England in the late 1700s but only took root in in large urban areas, such as Boston, New York City, and New Orleans, in the early 1800s. While there is no authentic history of boxing in America during the Revolutionary period, the art was certainly practiced. Bill Richmond, known as The Black Terror, was taken from New York to England during the first year of the American Revolution. He was born at Richmond, on Staten Island, in 1763 and died sixty-six years later. He fought in many important contests in England, where he was a great favorite and a friend of Lord Byron. He was taken to that country by the British Revolutionary War general, Earl Percy, early in 1777.

Tom Molineaux
Tom Molineaux

Tom Molineaux, another great black American pugilist, was born in Georgetown, District of Columbia and became a pugilist after the early Revolutionary period. His name was taken from the Molineaux plantation, upon which he was born as a slave. As many lesser pugilists were also developed at that time, it may be concluded that the ruling class in America gave some attention to boxing as a diversion. It is interesting to note that the two first great American pugilists were sons of slaves and obtained their freedom because of their prowess with their fists. Molineaux was the first to claim the Heavyweight Championship of America.

William Fuller is credited with formally introducing "scientific" boxing as the art of self-defense in America in 1818. Fuller was not a bruiser of the first grade, though this not really a relevant question. His record includes only four fights. He fought Molineaux twice, getting a draw once and suffering defeat once. He was beaten by a second-rater named Joy, but later won from the same man. A traveler in America around that time wrote about the method of fighting in Kentucky and his hopes for the future:

"From the rascality and quarrelsome behavior of a few of the Kentucky men, the whole people have got a very bad character amongst the sister states. . . . The question is generally asked, 'Will you fight fair or take it rough and tumble? I can whip you either way, by damn.' The English reader knows what fair fighting is but can have little idea of rough and tumble . . . in the latter case the combatants take advantage, pull, bite, and kick, and with hellish ferocity try to gouge each other's eyes out of their sockets ... I saw but two men who had been injured by this method of fighting— one had almost lost an eye, the other ... a free Negro, was nearly sightless. They both lived on the banks of the Ohio, where this dreadful art is more practiced. It was introduced from the southern states. There certainly ought to be a strong law enacted to prevent a resort to so brutal a practice; surely it is a disgrace and stigma to the legislature . . . We hope Mr. Fuller, will be able to remove in a great degree, these barbarous practices."

As it turned out, Mr. Fuller did little to relieve this practice as it was still occurring in Ohio just before the turn of the 20th century.

We hope you enjoyed today’s post on the origins and history of wrestling and pugilism. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the place of these sports in colonial America and the Early Republic. Please join us again in two weeks when we will examine look at the origins and history of a favorite holiday drink: Eggnog.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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Geist, C. (2008, Spring). The Emergence of Popular Culture in Colonial America. CW Journal, pp. 22-29.

Griffiths, A. (n.d.). Boxing in the Ancient World. Retrieved from History of Fighting:

Litt, W. (1823). Wrestliana; or, an Account of Ancient and Modern Wrestling. Whitehaven, UK: R. Gibson.

Loomis Chaffee. (n.d.). Origins of Wrestling. Retrieved from The Loomis Chaffee School:

Perseus Project, Classics Department, Tufts University. (2004, August 13). Retrieved from The Ancient Olympics:

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Sports Aspire. (n.d.). Everything You Need to Know About Indian Leg Wrestling. Retrieved from Sports Aspire:

Tripp, M. (2009). Persistence of Difference: A History of Cornish Wrestling. Exeter, UK: May.

Tully, J. (1926, July). Early American Pugilism. Vanity Fair, p. 74.


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