clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Martial Chronicles: James Figg & the Lost Origins of the Sport of MMA

Cageside Features Guest Columnist John S. Nash, brings us another feature edition of his fascinating series chronicling the origins of MMA. This time he explores the bizarre and little known story of how boxing, mixed martial arts, and even professional wrestling are all the offspring of James Figg, the first heavyweight champion of pugilism.

This is an edited version of an article which was originally cross-posted at our fellow SBNation Blog, Bloody by Cageside Features Guest Columnist John S. Nash, on Nov, 1, 2010 [†]

Tracing the lineage of mixed martial arts back to its point of origin is no simple task. Unlike its sister-sport, boxing, the evolutionary path of the sport of MMA was not beat in a direct line.

Whereas modern boxing can be traced back to the Marquis of Queensbury rules, which in turn are directly descended from London prize-fighting, which was directly descended from the boxing of Jack Boughton, who was directly descended (both figuratively and possibly literally) from James Figg, the first British boxing champion, who was also widely recognized as the father of boxing...

The parentage of modern MMA is not quite as easily discernible.

MMA is the child of two parents: One branch of the family tree reaches back to Japanese puroresu shoot matches and the mixed discipline fights of Antonio Inoki. While the other branch leads to Brazil, the Gracie clan and Vale Tudo.

Interestingly enough, if one were to go back even further, looking into the roots of each of these two branches of MMA, they would discover they both share a common ancestor. One, coincidentally, shared by boxing: James Figg.

Born in 1695, to a poor farming family in Thame, Oxfordshire, James Figg was the youngest of seven children, who grew to be a 6-foot tall, 185-pound athlete. From an early age, he was an expert fencer, having been renowned for his mastery of the broadsword, cudgel, singlestick and quarterstaff.

Later, he took up the study of a form of unarmed combat that had become popular in the late 1600s, referred to as "boxing". Figg himself referred to all of these martial arts as, "the manly art of self-defense".

The "boxing" practiced by Figg was a very different sport in the early 1700s from what it is today. These were no-holds-barred contests that would usually take place over three 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 weaponry skills, they also trained in a fist-fighting art that included eye gouging, hair pulling, spitting, head-butting, purring (shin-kicking), kicking and stomping on 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.

The best of these "prizefighters" was James Figg.

Figg had perfected a unique style for this 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 pugilistic 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 that became known as "Figg's Amphitheatre".

Figg's amphitheatre was a raised platform surrounded by railings so 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 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 one, to the pipe-maker Ned Sutton, after having previously beaten him.

A third, deciding match between the two took place on the sixth day 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 -- 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.

In 1743, Boughton, himself a student of Figg (and possibly his grandson) would be the first person to ever codify the rules of the sport, when he wrote down his seven rules for the bare-knuckled fighting popularized by Figg. These rules 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 waist 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 objects - stones, sticks, or resin - were now officially banned).

These ever-evolving rules in turn, gave birth to an even more regulated set of rules written by John Graham Chambers, in 1867. These newly revised 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 however, is not as 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 came directly from the rules that pro wrestling pretends to follow.

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. To help his wrestling promotion, he looked to develop a new style of fighting, so 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. He took his data directly to Billy Sandow (another member of the Gold Dust Trio, and manager of Ed "Strangler" Lewis). Sandow was interested in what he read, but it was Mondt however, who supplied the inspiration, stating:

"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'."

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

Thus, the Japanese 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 mostly into the hinterlands of the southern states and mountain regions, bringing with them their new sport of boxing. Before every match, combatants would be given the choice of "fighting fair" (Boughton rules) -- or -- agreeing to "rough and tumble".

Rough and tumble -- or - Figg's fighting, became the combat sport of the young New World. Befitting of those whom had left villages with murder rates which would shock even those from the most violent of inner city neighborhoods, they made it their own.


The Quaker Thomas Ashe, gave a detailed description of a mêlée 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 detail what can only truly be described as 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.

"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 "rough and ready", "tear and render", "anything goes" and later "no-holds-barred". It was a brutal sport for a hard people in a very 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 is today.

This skill actually 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, "The Stranger in America",

The Edinburgh Review (1807; Reprint Edn., New York, 1935)

Eventually, the most brutal aspects of the sport gave way, as laws were introduced forbidding the plucking of eyeballs or the rendering of flesh. In many parts of the country, the sport of "boxing" was banned, but 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.

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 masters of this discipline became known as "hookers", for their ability to quickly "hook" (submit) an opponent.

In addition, amongst the ranks of these wrestlers, were those referred to as "combination men". These were skilled combatants in both wrestling and boxing, who could therefore choose the style of combat which best played to their strengths. No-holds-barred was the perfect sport for Figg's offspring.


This Americanized professional wrestling, or "no holds fighting" would soon migrate back to Europe where contests in dance halls and fairs became extremely popular during the Belle Époque.

One such participant 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-barred 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". Matsuyo Maeda would go on to meet the Gracie clan, and subsequently introduce them to the art of jiu-jitsu.

And the rest - as they say - is history.


† -- This article by our Cageside Features Guest Columnist , has been 'crossposted' to today (Nov. 25, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, Mr. Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog:, where this article was also posted on Nov 1, 2010. Cageside Seats is proud to present the cross-posting of his entire archive of articles in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.



Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Cageside Seats Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your pro wrestling news from Cageside Seats