This article is an exclusive Cageside Features Guest Column by: John S. Nash
"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.
Q: "What's Battle Royale? C'mon, don't tell me you don't know that!? Why bother coming to a pro wrestling match, huh?"
A: "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[Editor's Note: Addt'l 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".
Battle royals did not die out though.
Instead, they immigrated to the American colonies, or more specifically the Antebellum Southern States. There they would continue being practiced, not by those of British ancestry, but by the large slave population of African descent. (Who were most likely introduced to it by the large number Irish and Scottish settlers to that region.)
During what few holidays the slaves were afforded, they would often gather for music, dancing, and sport. Ball playing, foot races, wrestling, and boxing were all exhibited during this "leisure" time. (Frederick Douglass described such sporting distractions, along with whiskey, as being "among the most effective in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.")
The "free-for-all" was another popular sporting event. Reading the description given by two former slaves leaves little doubt that this was but another name for...
...the battle royal:[EN4]
[A] ring was drawn on the ground which ranged from about 15 ft. to 30 ft. in diameter depending on the number of contestants who engaged in the combat. Each participant was given a kind of bag that was stuffed with cotton and rags into a very compact mass. When so stuffed, the bags would weigh on an average of 10 pounds, and was used by the contestants in striking their antagonist.
Each combatant picked whichever opponent he desired and attempted to subdue him by pounding him over the head with the bag, which he used as his weapon of defense. And which was used as an offending weapon.
The contest was continued in this manner till every combatant was counted out, and a hero of the contest proclaimed. Sometimes two contestants were adjudged heroes, and it was necessary to run a contest between the two combatants before a final hero could be proclaimed.
Then the two antagonist would stage a battle royal and would continue in the conflict till one was proclaimed victorious. Sometimes these Free-For-All battles were carried on with a kind of improvised pair of boxing gloves, and the contests were carried on in the same manner as previously described.
Very often, as many as 30 darkies of the most husky type were engaged in these battles, and the contests were generally attended by large audiences. Being staged during the period of favorable weather, and mostly on Saturday afternoon; these physical exhibitions were the scenes of much controversial conflict, gambling, excessive inebriation and hilarity.
After the American Civil War
the battle royal would not survive, but rather enter its most popular - and shameful - era. But, that story will have to wait for part two of "Wrestling with the Past: The Bizarre Origins of the Battle Royal." Check back here tomorrow (Sun., Mar. 10) for the conclusion of our journey.
"The Bruiser Bruis'd" via www.westminster.gov.uk
"A Political Battle Royal Design'd for Broughton's" by Anonymous © The Trustees of the British Museum
"The Sabbath Amongst Slaves" via docsouth.unc.edu
EN 1:It is commonly thought that the battle royal grew out of the medieval mélée: a contest that was little more than an organized battle involving large numbers - sometimes even hundreds or thousands - of armored knights. Participants were usually divided between two sides, although some mélée were true free-for-alls where the last one standing or mounted was awarded a prize.
There is also another possible source, perhaps even a more likely one, although not nearly as romantic. According to Johann Beckman, in his 1823 book A Concise History or Ancient Institutions, Inventions, and Discoveries in Science and Mechanic Art by Johann Beckman, medieval cockfighting may be the true originator: "a battle royal consists in letting loose a certain number of cocks, which fight until only one is left to claim the victory."
EN 2: James Figg may also have been a major influence on what became the modern style of wrestling. According to Robert Griffin in his 1937 book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, when "Toots" Mondt, a member of the Gold Dust Trio, was looking to come up with a more exciting version of "worked" professional wrestling in the 1920s, he turned to James Figg and "Figg's Fighting" for inspiration.
He recalled the history of an early bare knuckle fighter, one James Figg, who dated back to 1716. Mondt dug around in a library until he unearthed printed proof of Figg's fame and went to Sandow with his data. Sandow read the information with interest.
He learned that Figg had been famed throughout England as a swordsman, wrestler and all around athlete from his boyhood. Figg had also gained fame in the British Isles as a fighter. His method was unique.
Instead of confining himself to pure and undiluted grappling, Figg would bang a rival with his fist in the clinches whenever it was possible. This helped him to gain victory. Later he slugged in the open and, as a pugilist, depending mainly upon his fists, beat some good wrestlers by the simple process of first knocking them out and then pinning their shoulders.
Eventually, Figg's style became known as "Figg's Fighting." 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 Bang Western Style Wrestling," Mondt said.
- "Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce" by Marcus Griffin, 1937
For more on how James Figg may not only be the father of boxing, but also of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts, please see "James Figg & the Lost Origins of the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts".
EN 3: The "NOTED Buckhorse," who's real name was John Smith, was a popular boxer whose career lasted at least a decade (1732-1742), spanning the reigns of James Figg and Jack Broughton. He participated in both singles matches ("bye-battles") and battle royals, where he gained his fame for his "great muscular powers" and his rather unforgettable features. As described by Beverly Stark:
The modern ring has not been without its freaks of nature, but it is doubtful if it has produced a curiosity equal to Buckhorse. Buckhorse was, in appearance, a Hogarthian nightmare. He was so ugly that he had no face to spoil, and for this reason allowed himself to be knocked down for half a crown by any one who wished to try his strength. By pounding his chin with his own fist Buckhorse was capable of producing a variety of popular tunes and by this strange talent he supported himself when his days of usefulness in the ring were over.
According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Buckhorse's appearance inspired a common expression:
"As ugly as Buckhorse" was a phrase in London about the middle of the eighteenth century. The unfortunate prize fighter was not a beauty by nature, but as he was in the habit, on payment of a trifling fee of allowing any one to knock him down who wished to try the strength of his arm it can be imagined that his appearance at last became hardly human.
As ugly as Buckhorse may have been, according to Pierce Eagan in his Boxiana, he was also famed for his "extraordinary volubility of speech," as well as "his numerous amours with the gay nymphs of town."
EN 4: The often cited stories of antebellum slave gladiator fights, or Mandigo fights as shown in the film Django Unchained (and the film Mandigo), does not appear to have any basis in historical reality. While there may have been some slaves who boxed at the behest of their masters, Tom Molineaux is often given as an example, it does not seem to be a common practice. The simple reason would be a matter of finances: slaves were too valuable as "property" to risk damaging them through such activities.
Slaves did take part in boxing, wrestling, and "free-for-alls" contests, but these seem to have been done for their own amusement. And while violent, an interesting comparison can be made between their games and the much more brutal "rough-and-tumble" contests engaged in by the lower class whites of the same region. For more on "rough-and-tumble" see Elliot J. Gorn's "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch".
In addition to delving into wrestling's past exclusively for Cageside Seats, our CSS Features Guest Columnist, Mr. John S. Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts exclusively for our fellow SBNation Blog: BloodyElbow.com, where original drafts of articles cross-posted on this site also appear. Cageside Seats is proud to present his entire archive of articles in this exclusive guest columnist section for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content. Thank you for reading! - CSS Assistant General Managing Editor: June M. Williams