This article has been cross-posted from Cageside Seats and is part of a semi-regular series exploring the "shoot" era of professional wrestling.
"Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past."
- The Phantom of the Ring
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
- John Ford
Author's Note: Some contemporary sources contain terms in reference to various ethnic groups, which some may find derogatory and/or offensive. While neither I, nor this site, condone the viewpoints expressed with their use, we also do not condone pretending such sentiments did not exist. For that reason, they have been left in. Hopefully, they will not detract from your reading experience.
"What's Battle Royale? C'mon, don't tell me you don't know that!? Why bother coming to a pro wrestling match, huh?"
""The name of a move? The name of a tournament?"
No. Just no.
Allow me to explain, a Battle Royale's a Pro Wrestling match... In a nutshell, let's see, Battle Royale is --
Well, you know how your usual pro wrestling match is one-on-one or between paired up partners? Well, with Battle Royale, ten or twenty wrestlers all jump into the ring. And then you're free to attack anyone, one-on-one, or ten-against-one, it doesn't matter...
In any case, the ones who fall lose, they have to leave the ring.
Fewer and fewer players remain in the game; until there're only two left in the end. One-on-one, a very serious match. Then, one out of those two will eventually take a fall. And then, there's only one player left in the ring, and he's the winner.- "A pro wrestling fan's rant..." from Battle Royale by Koushun Takami [NOTE: added punctuation & mild edits for ease of reading]
The battle royal,
a long time mainstay of professional wrestling, might be the most unique pro wrestling match in all of pro wrestling.
Are not fights inside the UFC Octagon nothing more than cage matches? Isn't an "I Quit" match just another name for a submission grappling contest? What is a "No Rules" match, but another name for a "no-holds-barred" fight from the early days of MMA?
Even tag-team matches, which have no equivalent in boxing, MMA, or amateur wrestling, still divide the participants between two sides, where it then limits the action to only the two men in the ring.
It is only in the battle royal however, that we find the absurdity of 10, 20, 30, or even more wrestlers who are all competing at the same time in a true free-for-all. This makes it even more surprising to learn that the battle royal is not a creation of some fanciful pro wrestling booker.
Instead, it was at one time an actual competition. One that has its roots not in wrestling... but in, of all sports, boxing!
have existed as a type of combat sporting competition for more than 300 years.[EN1] Advertisements for them can be found in the Flying Post and Daily News of London as far back as the early 18th century. The contests they promoted were similar to modern battle royals in that they involved several men fighting each other in a free-for-all mélée; the one major difference being that the participants were boxers, and the contests themselves were competed using the rules of boxing at the time.
Ironically, the fact they were boxing matches made them resemble professional wrestling even more so, for boxing was a very different sport in those days. As the late Harry Mullan described it in his Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing,not only was fisticuffs permitted in this earlier version of the sport, but also:
"Wrestling was accepted as a proper part of boxing and so were blatant fouls such like gouging and purring."
The sport's champion
during these early days was one James Figg, the oft-cited "Father of Boxing." Figg had risen to the top of English prize-fighting through what became known as, "Figg's Fighting". His was a style of fighting that incorporated both striking and grappling. It was Figg and his "Fighting" that made boxing a popular spectator sport, and it was at his amphitheaters that one could not only find boxing matches, but also duels with swords, fights with cudgels, and, of course...
... the battle royal.[EN2]
Eventually, Figg gave way
to the famed Jack Broughton, renown not only for winning the Heavyweight Championship, but for also introducing Broughton's Rules; the first written set of rules that established boxing as a stand-up only sport. These rules were introduced in 1743, the same year that he opened his new amphitheater on Oxford Street in London.
A bill advertising its inaugural event made sure to highlight the following details:
There will be a BATTLE ROYAL between the NOTED BUCKHORSE, and SEVEN or EIGHT more; [EN3]
These contests, and others that followed, were most likely held under The New Broughton's Rules, rules that went on to forbid attacks below the waist and ground fighting.
The matches were popular for some time, being held with enough regularity at the amphitheater for them to become known as Broughton's Battle Royals and even serve as inspiration for satirical political cartoons in the day. But, as the 18th century came to an end, the public's appetite for battle royals soured, viewing them as, "too barbaric and too dangerous for a place as civilized as the United Kingdom".