James Figg: The Lost Origins of the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts

Promoted from the Fan Posts by Kid Nate.

Middlejf_mediumTracing the lineage of mixed martial arts back to its point of origin in no simple thing. Unlike its sister-sport boxing, the evolutionary path of the sport of MMA has not been a direct line. Where as modern boxing can be traced back to the Marquis of Queensbury rules which in turn are directly descended from London Prize fighting which is directly descended from the boxing of Jack Boughton who in turn is directly descended (both figuratively and possibly literally) from James Figg, the first English boxing champion and the universally accepted father of boxing, the parentage of modern MMA is not as easily discernable. It is the child of two parents, with one branch of the family tree reaching back to Japanese puroresu shoot matches and the mixed discipline fights of Antonio Inoki, and the other branch leading to Brazil and to the Gracie clan and Vale Tudo. But, interestingly enough, if one were to go back even further and look at the root for each of those two branches of MMA, they would see that they both share a common ancestor. One, coincidentally, shared by boxing: James Figg.

Born in 1695 to a poor farming family in Thames, Oxfordshire, James Figg was the youngest of 7 children, who grew to be a 6-foot tall, 185-pound athlete.  From early age he was an expert fencer, having become renown for his mastery of the short sword, cudgel, and quarterstaff. Later he took up the study of "boxing" as the unarmed combat, which had become popular in the late 1600s, was commonly called. Figg himself referred to all these martial arts as "the manly art of self-defense".

The "boxing" practiced by Figg was a very different sport in the early 1700s then from what it is today.  These were no-holds-barred contests that would usually take place over 3 bouts, one of swordplay with a choice of live swords, daggers & shields, one of bare-knuckle boxing, and one of quarterstaff or cudgels. The earliest "boxers" not only had to learn various weapon skills they also trained in a fist fighting art that included eye gouging, hair pulling, spitting, head-butting, purring (shin-kicking), stomping and kicking downed opponents, or wrestling throws and grappling whilst on the ground. The men who partook in these matches were often referred to as "prizefighters" because they would fight against all comers for prizes of money, free beer, hats or cups. And the best of these "prizefighters" was James Figg.

Figg had perfected a unique style of unarmed combat, which became known as "Figg’s fighting". When dealing with a wrestler, instead of confining himself to only grappling, Figg would strike a rival with his fists in the clinches when it was possible. Against a better wrestler he would use his pugilists skills to batter them, until they could no longer continue or they were so beaten he could easily pin or submit them. Against an opponent who could trade blows, he would grapple them to the ground and force them to concede.





Figg traveled far and wide working the fairs at the time, where he challenged all comers in armed or unarmed combat "from noon til night". Soon the Earl of Peterborough became his patron and helped him set up a fighting academy to train others, as well as build a fighting stage which become known as "Figg’s Amphitheatre". The amphitheatre was a raised platform surrounding by railings so that the combatants would have a proper stage to exhibit their skills. Later, other such amphitheatres would be built in Hyde Park and on Oxford Street in London, where crowds would gather to watch young men participate in what was known as "boxing’" or "Figg’s Fighting". The combatants were not always exclusively male either. There are many reports of bouts between women. One such match took place in 1722 when two women took the stage to box for a prize of three guineas. The rules for this match required each woman to strike each other in the face while holding a half-crown coin in each fist, the first to drop a coin would be the loser. According to the London Journal, the two women "maintained the Battle with great Valour for a long Time, to the no small Satisfaction of the Spectators." 



Figg became the first celebrity prizefighter of England and his fame only grew when he claimed the Championship of England in 1719. He would go on to defend it against such noted (at the time at least) boxers as Timothy Buck, Tom Stokes, Bill Flanders, Chris Clarkson, and Ned Sutton. In all he is believed to have had 270 fights of which he had only lost once, to the pipe-maker Ned Sutton, after having previously beaten him.

A third, deciding match, between the two took place on the 6th of June 1727, in front of an audience of 3,000 spectators that included the Prime Minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole. The first round was with swords and a cut to Sutton's shoulder resulted in Figg winning that round. The second round was fist-fighting which included throws and grappling, Figg won this round by submission. The third round was with cudgels during which Figg shattered Sutton's knee to win the match and reclaim the title. Now that is a mixed martial artist!

The path from Figg to modern boxing is an easy one to follow. Following his retirement in 1730 (he would pass away only four years later, at the age of 38), James Figg passed the Championship of England to his student, George Taylor. Taylor would in turn lose the title to the legendary Jack Boughton. Boughton, himself a student of Figg – and possibly his grandson - would in 1743 write down his seven rules for the bare-knuckled fighting popularized by Figg. The first person to ever codify the rules of the sport, they were intended to protect boxers, a need a remorseful Boughton saw after killing an opponent during a match. Boughton’s rules, as they became known, governed such matters as the size of the fighting surface, who would hold the purse, the length of the count (in this case 30-second count) and forbid such tactics as grappling below the waste of a standing opponent, or kicking, hitting, or grappling a downed opponent. These rules lasted close to a hundred years, eventually giving way to the London Prizefighting rules, which were introduced in 1838 (which forbid eye-gouging, biting and limited the spikes on one’s shoes), and then revised in 1853 (the use of foreign object - stones, sticks, or resin - were now officially banned). These in turn gave birth to an even more regulated set of rules written by John Graham Chambers in 1867. These new rules, which called for boxing gloves, a limited number of 3-minute rounds, the forbidding of any wrestling, a 10-second count, and various other features of modern boxing, became known as the Marquis of Queensbury rules upon the Marquis’s endorsement. Modern boxing had been born.



The path from Figg to MMA is not so direct. The easiest path to follow is from Figg to Inoki and the Japanese puroresu scene, where the concept of Shooto or shoot wrestling was merely a pro wrestling match fought for real. The rules of these matches come directly from the rules that pro wrestling pretends to follow. And where did these rules come from? The rules of modern "fake" pro wrestling are almost exclusively the responsibility of one Joseph "Toots" Mondt, a pro wrestler of the 20’s and 30’s, who was also a member of the Gold Dust Trio.  He was looking to develop a new style of fighting to help his wrestling promotion, and began looking to the past for inspiration.

He [Mondt] recalled the history of an early bare-knuckle fighter, one James Figg, who dated back to 1716. Mondt dug around in the library until he unearthed printed proof of Figg’s fame and went to BilllySandow (another member of the Gold Dust Trio and manager of Ed "Strangler" Lewis) with his data.

Sandow was interested in what he read, but it was Mondt who supplied the inspiration.

"We’ll take the best features of boxing and the holds from Graeco-Roman, combine these with the old time lumber camp style of fighting and call it "Slam Bam Western Style Wrestling," Mondt said.

- Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce by Marcus Griffin, 1937

Thus the Japanes path to mixed martial arts goes from Figg to Mondt to worked pro wrestling matches to real (shoot) pro wrestling matches, and then, finally, to mixed martial arts.

The path from James Figg to the Gracies and Vale Tudo is a little more tenuous, and a lot more fun, as we first make a side trip to the colonial United States. There immigrants from the hardscrabble highlands of Ireland and Scotland settled into the hinterlands of mostly the southern states and mountain regions, bringing with them the new sport of boxing. Before every match combatants would be given the choice of "fighting fair" - Boughton rules - or "rough and tumble". "Rough and tumble - or Figg’s fighting – became the combat sport of the young new world, but as befitting those that had left villages with murder rates that would shock even those from the most violent inner city neighborhood, they had made it their own.



The Quaker Thomas Ashe, gave a detailed description of a melee between a Virginian and a Kentuckian in his travelogue, Travels in America (London, 1809), The two had agreed to "tear and rend" one another - to rough-and-tumble - rather than "fight fair". Ashe elaborated what this meant: "You startle at the words tear and rend, and again do not understand me. You have heard these terms, I allow, applied to beasts of prey and to carnivorous animals; and your humanity cannot conceive them applicable to man: It nevertheless is so, and the fact will not permit me the use of any less expressive term."

Ashe goes on to describe what can only be described as truly ultimate fighting.  It was the size and power of the Kentuckian against the science and craft of the Virginian. After exchanging cautious throws and blows, suddenly the Virginian lunged at his opponent:

"The shock received by the Kentuckyan, and the want of breath, brought him instantly to the ground. The Virginian never lost his hold; like those bats of the South who never quit the subject on which they fasten until they taste blood, he kept his knees in his enemy's body; fixing his claws in his hair, and his thumbs on his eyes, gave them an instantaneous start from their sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint. The citizens again shouted with joy. Doubts were no longer entertained and bets of three to one were offered on the Virginian. "

The crowd roared its approval as the fight continued. The Kentuckian grabbed his smaller opponent and held him in a tight bear hug, forcing the Virginian to relinquish his facial grip. Over and over the two rolled, until, getting the Virginian under him, the big man "snapt off his nose so close to his face that no manner of projection remained." The Virginian quickly recovered, seized the Kentuckian's lower lip in his teeth, and ripped it down over his enemy's chin. This was enough: "The Kentuckyan at length gave out, on which the people carried off the victor, and he preferring a triumph to a doctor, who came to cicatrize his face, suffered himself to be chaired round the ground as the champion of the times, and the first rougher-and-tumbler. The poor wretch, whose eyes were started from their spheres, and whose lip refused its office, returned to the town, to hide his impotence, and get his countenance repaired."

"Rough and tumble" was also commonly referred to as "no-holds-barred" or "tear and render". It was a brutal sport for hard people in a harsh land. One where the skill with which a fighter could pluck out the eyeball of an opponent was as celebrated by spectators as any knockout artist or submission expert was today. The skill was so desired that exercises were devised to help practice the craft and many of the best gougers "fired their fingernails hard, honed them sharp, and oiled them slick". In fact the technique became so widespread that the "rough and tumble" also became known as "gouging".

"We found the combatants' fast clinched by the hair, and their thumbs endeavoring to force a passage into each other's eyes; while several of the bystanders were betting upon the first eye to be turned out of its socket. For some time the combatants avoided the thumb stroke with dexterity. At length they fell to the ground, and in an instant the uppermost sprung up with his antagonist's eye in his hand!!! The savage crowd applauded, while, sick with horror, we galloped away from the infernal scene. The name of the sufferer was John Butler, a Carolinian, who, it seems, had been dared to the combat by a Georgian; and the first eye was for the honor of the state to which they respectively belonged. "

- Charles William Janson-Janson, The Stranger in America, 1793-1806 (1807; reprint edn., New York, 1935),

Eventually the most brutal aspects of the sport gave away to some sort of rules preventing the plucking of eyeballs or the rendering of flesh. In many parts of the country the sport of "boxing" was banned, but still it persisted, eventually evolving into what would became known as catch-as-catch-can wrestling, catch wrestling, or no-holds-barred.  In post Civil War America it would become the nation’s pastime and a common sight amongst carnies or fairs would be a traveling wrestler taking on all challengers in no-holds-barred matches. It would prove to be fertile ground for these professional wrestlers, as the many folk wrestling styles of Europe came together in the melting pot of the states to merge into the new art of American catch wrestling.  The true master of this discipline became known as "hookers", for their ability to quickly "hook" (submit) an opponent. Also, amongst the ranks of these wrestlers were those referred to as "combination men". These were skilled combatants in both wrestling and boxing and could therefore choose the style of combat that played into their strength. No-holds-barred was the perfect sport for these offspring of Figg.



This Americanized professional wrestling or no holds fighting would soon migrate back to Europe where contests in dancehalls and fairs became extremely popular during the Belle Époque. One such participate in these matches was a Japanese judoka who wrestled under the moniker Count Combat - or Conde Koma in Portuguese. He is perhaps better known today by his real name Mitsuyo Maeda. Eventually, in the early 20th century, these no-holds-bared matches made their way to the carnivals of Brazil, bringing Maeda with them. These fights would go on to be known as Vale Tudo in Portuguese, which translates to no rules, and Matsuyo Maeda would go on to meet and introduce the Gracie clan to the art of jiu-jitsu.  And the rest is - as they say - history,

Coming soon: The Lost Golden Age of Mixed Martial Arts.

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