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The Pugilist 2: Nate Diaz, Tom Johnson, and the Manly Art of Self Defence

Cageside Guest Columnist John S. Nash, brings us yet another fascinating article from his archives. This time we explore some comparisons between MMA fighter Nate Diaz's boxing style, with those of one scientific boxer of the past, Mr. Tom Johnson.

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"Caunt made a feint with his left, and then delivered a tremendous round handed blow on the base of Ward's ribs. The blow was too high, or it might have ended fearfully. Nick let go his left, and Caunt jumped back, but again coming to the charge, Ward retreated, Caunt following him up, again seizing him with an herculean grip round the neck, lifted him clean off the ground, threw, and then fell squash upon him."

Some might be surprised to learn that the fight described above is not a mixed martial arts contest, or even a pro wrestling match, or a street fight, but instead, one between two boxers which took place over a century and a half ago. (The full account can be found in the 1855 book Fights for the Championship and Celebrated Prize Battles by Frank L. Dowling.)

The unusual image of boxers strangling and throwing each other to the ground, legally no less, serves to remind us that boxing was at one time a very different sport... one that just might offer some clues as to why the Diaz brothers have found such success in the cage.

With Nate Diaz appearing in a match, I thought it the perfect time to revisit an article I wrote a year ago entitled, "The Pugilist: Nick Diaz, Daniel Mendoza, and the Sweet Science of Bruising" (which, if you haven't read, you may want to peruse before continuing with this article).

A second look at the Diaz's boxing abilities would provide me the opportunity to not only look at some of the techniques and tactics exhibited by Nate that I had failed to mention in the previous piece, but would also give me the chance to address some misconceptions I may have unfortunately given readers when I used Daniel Mendoza as my original model.

We have no visual recordings of Mendoza boxing, or any other boxer for that matter, up until the late 19th century; so we have no way of knowing exactly what he looked like when fighting (with the exception of recreations, such as the one above from the 1934 film. The Scarlet Pimpernel).

Nevertheless, based on written eyewitness accounts, we can assume he fought nothing like Nick Diaz: he was famous for his defensive style, an outside fighter who carefully picked his openings, instead of overwhelming his opponent.

So why use him for our comparison?

Two reasons, the first being his temperament. He was famed for being quick to anger, fighting more often away from the ring than in it. This includes an infamous skirmish with his mentor and rival pugilist Richard Humphries, at the Cock Tavern in Epping Forrest, where the two decided to settle it "out back", but were interrupted by the police. In this regard, I think the resemblance between Mr. Mendoza and Mr.Diaz is obvious.

The second reason, was that he literally wrote the book on how to box under Broughton's rules for prize-fighting when he penned his 1790 manual, The Modern Art of Boxing. In those pages, Mendoza presented several lessons and recommendations for early pugilists, including those for one's stance, advancing, and their defense, lessons and recommendations which I noticed Nick - intentionally or unintentionally - using inside the Octagon.

Thus, while we could say that Diaz uses many of Mendoza's methods, it would be stretch to say the two fought even remotely alike. Of course, very few, and none before, fought like Mendoza, which is why he was such a revelation. Therefore, while Mr. Mendoza might not have been the most apt comparison to Diaz, he was the one who wrote the best treaty for boxing under Broughton's rules - a treaty that somehow the Diaz brothers have taken to heart.

So why should Nick's, and Nate's as we'll see, boxing, resemble the style of their old 18th and 19th century pugilistic predecessors? The answer to that question is probably best found by looking at the evolution of the sport of boxing.


While a form of boxing was practiced as far back as the Babylonians and the Ancient Greeks, most evidence suggests that what would eventually become our modern sport appeared in England in the 16th and 17th century, where it was taught alongside swordsplay at the London schools of defense. This "gentlemanly art" of boxing quickly "degenerated", as pugilism migrated from the master's classrooms onto the London stages... for the entertainment of a paying public.

The boxing, as fought by these early prizefighters, bears little resemblance to its later progeny. The very earliest professional prize matches were often divided into three rounds: one for dueling with swords, one for battle with cudgels, and one round for unarmed combat. But even after the gladiatorial rounds with weapons were discarded and it became a solely unarmed hand-to-hand combative sport (under the guidance of James Figg in the early 18th century), it would still be very hard for modern fans to recognize it as "boxing".

"[T]raditional peasant pugilism seemed to be a combination of cockfighting and wrestling. Contestants pummeled and tugged each other, hit below the belt, gouged with the thumbs, and kicked each other with nailed shoes. Cunning and brute strength determined the winner.

- "Sports in the Western World" by William Joseph Baker (1982)

To modern fans, it might be hard to conceive of a time when, "a prize-fight was a rough-and-tumble scrimmage, in which the men might choke each other, wrestle, butt with the head, trip, and strike a man on his knees." According to the anonymous author of the Fistiana, an early 19th century history book on the sport, they did all that, and more.

"The inhuman practices of uncivilized periods have subsisted to a disgraceful extent, and hence we have heard of gouging, purring, kicking a man with nailed shoes as he lies on the ground, striking him in vital parts below the waistband, seizing him when on his knees, and administering punishment till life be extinct, and a variety of other savage expedients by which revenge or passion has been gratified. In Lancashire, even to this day, when a man is got down he is kept down and punished until incapable of motion - a mode of fighting which is permitted with impunity, unless, indeed, the death of the victim lead to the apprehension and trial of the survivor."

To understand how different this "sport" was from what was practiced by later generations, one only has to look at the various laws passed in the American colonies during the 18th century, as they attempted to regulate it:

In 1746, four deaths prompted the governor of North Carolina to ask for legislation against "the barbarous and inhuman manner of boxing which so much prevails among the lower sort of people." The colonial assembly responded by making it a felony "to cut out the Tongue or pull out the eyes of the King's Liege People." Five years later the assembly added slitting, biting, and cutting off noses to the list of offenses. Virginia passed similar legislation in 1748 and revised these statutes in 1772 explicitly to discourage men from "gouging, plucking, or putting out an eye, biting or kicking or stomping upon" quiet peaceable citizens. By 1786 South Carolina had made premeditated mayhem a capital offense, defining the crime as severing another's bodily parts.

- "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch" by Elliot J. Gorn

Eventually, in the Americas, the name "boxing" would give way to the more aptly descriptive "rough-and-tumble" or "gouging". While back in Britain, the first official codified rules were added to the sport in 1746 by the champion Jack Broughton (rules which would be known as "fighting fair" to practitioners of "rough-and-tumble").

Broughton's claim to the title of "the father of scientific boxing" began by way of a tragic accident. In a fierce fight in 1741, he and his opponent shoved, grappled, and struck each other for an interminably long session. Both were exhausted nearly to the point of collapse when Broughton finally finished with a blow below the heart. It was a fatal blow.

- "Sports in the Western World" by William Joseph Baker (1982)

Broughton Rules were "produced for the better regulation of the amphitheatre, approved by the gentlemen, and agreed to by the pugilist, Aug. 1743." These rules, only seven in number, were as follows:

I. That a square of a yard be chalked in the middle of the stage, and on every fresh set-to after a fall, or being parted form the rails, each Second is to bring his Man to the side of the square, and place him opposite to the other, and till they are fairly set-to at the Lines, it shall not be lawful for one to strike at the other.

II. That, in order to prevent any Disputes, the time a Man lies after a fall, if the Second does not bring his Man to the side of the square, within the space of half a minute, he shall be deemed a beaten Man.

III. That in every main Battle, no person whatever shall be upon the Stage, except the Principals and their Seconds, the same rule to be observed in bye-battles, except that in the latter, Mr. Broughton is allowed to be upon the Stage to keep decorum, and to assist Gentlemen in getting to their places, provided always he does not interfere in the Battle; and whoever pretends to infringe these Rules to be turned immediately out of the house. Every body is to quit the Stage as soon as the Champions are stripped, before the set-to.

IV. That no Champion be deemed beaten, unless he fails coming up to the line in the limited time, or that his own Second declares him beaten. No Second is to be allowed to ask his man's Adversary any questions, or advise him to give out.

V. That in bye-battles, the winning man to have two-thirds of the Money given, which shall be publicly divided upon the Stage, notwithstanding any private agreements to the contrary.

VI. That to prevent Disputes, in every main Battle the Principals shall, on coming on the Stage, choose from among the gentlemen present two Umpires, who shall absolutely decide all Disputes that may arise about the Battle; and if the two Umpires cannot agree, the said Umpires to choose a third, who is to determine it.

VII. That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down.

- "Athletics and Manly Sport" by John Boyle O'Reilly (1890)

Of the rules, only the last pertains to what tactics were allowed in the ring. Thus, while ground-fighting was banned (except in the incidence of when an opponent attacked while he was already deemed "down") many of the more "barbaric" offenses were still allowed, or at least not officially banned.

Such ungentlemanly tactics which persisted under Broughton's rules, included all manner of Greco-Roman style grappling and throws, as well as head butts, elbows, purring, kicks and knees to the belly, and the grabbing of hair. In fact, years after fighters such as Figg and Broughton had shaved their heads to defend against opponents grabbing their hair, Daniel Mendoza famously lost -- when his glorious mane was seized by "Gentleman" John Jackson with one hand, and pounded in the head with his other, for a full ten minutes before Mendoza submitted. After this, boxers would always remember to shave their heads before a match.


Matches contested under the new Broughton Rules would be competed for an indeterminate number of rounds. Every time one of the contestants went to the ground, a round would be declared over, no matter if its duration was 15 seconds or 15 minutes. Thereafter, a fighter would have 30 seconds to "come to scratch" at the center of the ring for the start of the next round, failure to do so, would mean a forfeit of the match. Thus, a match could be anywhere from a handful of matches, to as many as a hundred or more.

Under these newly written rules, the sport was now not only an (almost) exclusively standup combative sport, but also focused on some grappling along with striking with the fist. With such rules, fights could easily turn into marathon affairs that lasted hours, with one, man more often than not, quitting from exhaustion rather than any particular blow.

Fighters became prized for possessing GAME, or BOTTOM which was defined in The Art and Practice of Boxing as being:

"The power of bearing blows, or what is generally called bottom, quickness of eye, and wind, are requisites of great importance, and may all be improved by constant practice. There are men who seem peculiarly formed for the bottom."

It would be easy to classify both Diaz brothers as being "game" or possessing "bottom".

One of the first noticeable changes wrought after the introduction of Broughton's rules, was the development of what was known as "attitude", or the stance of a boxer. Where before, when boxing would sometimes incorporate ground fighting, brute strength had led the way to victory. Now, the best of the fighters began to experiment with new and improved striking techniques, along with means to better defend themselves.

"The condition of the science at this time may be judged from the fact that there were few crystallized principles of attack or defence. Every man had his own way for doing everything. Every man had his own way for doing everything. For instance the guard of Mendoza was to hold his hands pretty close together directly opposite his mouth the back of the hand toward his opponent while another famous boxer named Johnson came on guard by planting his legs square with his arms held in almost a semi circular direction before his head."

- "Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport" by John Boyle Reilly (1888)


A great example in two different "attitudes" from the era, is provided in the image of Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza in the photo above. Further illustrating the importance of this development and how it completely transformed boxing, is an article from Famous Fight No. 10 (1901) titled "Hands Up!'

"Position and attitude, in a pugilist are the most essential points necessary in boxing, both for offensive and defensive tactics.

"Strength is undoubtedly, what a boxer should possess, but without position and science, he will certainly fail. In the days of old, when Figg, Broughton, Perrins, Slack, Cribb, and Jem Ward flourished, the positions of the pugilists were not only curious but also grotesque. The majority of these early champions were not possessed of the science, art, and tactics now displayed by the champions of the present day. They trusted to their strength and great muscular power to carry them to victory.


"A very good example of the awkward attitude assumed by some of the old-timers is furnished in the accompanying picture of Isaac Perrins.

"Standing with the weight of his body thrown on his left leg, instead of his right, with his left arm doubled back at the elbow, instead of extended well to the front, and with his right ready to strike, instead of being in a position to guard a blow... he presents perhaps the most ungainly and unscientific attitude of any of the old-time pugilists.

"Opposed to a latter-day boxer, his gigantic strength, plainly evidenced by his immense shoulders, and muscular arms, would be of very little service, and in all probability one round would see him knocked out of time."


To offset the advantage these strongmen possessed, superior boxing "attitudes" were developed. An example of which can be seen depicted above, with Tom Johnson confronting the giant ruffian Isaac Perrins. Thomas Fewtrell credited Johnson as having one of the three best "guards" or "attitudes" (how one stood, their stance) in the sport, alongside Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza.

"... Johnson's attitude consists of the fist held before the head, the arms nearly extended, the legs almost square, the body much bent with the breast forwards. This has little elegance or manhood in its appearance, and is practiced by very few. The body is protected by this more than any other guard; but the head is exposed."

Johnson, as well as Mendoza and Humphries "attitudes" allowed them to compete and defeat much bigger and stronger men. The logic behind it, was that the extended arms could be used to force opponents to strike from a greater distance, with the incoming blows being directed between their outstretched arms, making it easier to block or parry. If their opponent attempted to rush them, their already extended arms and forward lean could be used to keep the attacker at bay, or initiate their own clinch if it was to their advantage.


With their opponents advantages in size and strength negated, Johnson and his compatriots could now take advantage of their superior speed and striking to pick apart their opponents. The era of the "scientific boxer" had begun.

Eventually, even more specific rules were introduced in 1838, with the London Prize Ring Rules. These rules offered even more regulation with regard to what was permitted on the field:

12. That it shall be "a fair stand-up fight," and if either man shall willfully throw himself down without receiving a blow, whether blows shall have previously been exchanged or not, he shall be deemed to have lost the battle; but that this rule shall not apply to a man who in a close slips down from the grasp of his opponent to avoid punishment, or from obvious accident or weakness.

13. That butting with the head shall be deemed foul, and the party resorting to this practice shall be deemed to have lost the battle.

14. That a blow struck when a man is thrown or down, shall be deemed foul. That a man with one knee and one hand on the ground, or with both knees on the ground, shall be deemed down; and a blow given in either of those positions shall be considered foul, providing always, that when in such position, the man so down shall not himself strike or attempt to strike.

15. That a blow struck below the waistband shall be deemed foul, and that, in a close, seizing an antagonist below the waist, by the thigh, or otherwise, shall be deemed foul.

16. That all attempts to inflict injury by gouging, or tearing the flesh with the fingers or nails, and biting, shall be deemed foul.

17. That kicking, or deliberately falling on an antagonist, with the knees or otherwise when down, shall be deemed a foul.

The London Prize Ring Rules, while seemingly very minor changes, still had the affect of making boxing an even more fist-centric sport. Striking became more refined, as boxers had to worry less about shin kicks and other troublesome tactics, and more about better striking techniques and controlling distances. (Especially important since grappling from the waist up was still allowed.)

"After Cribb's era, a great improvement was noticed in the attitude and style adopted by pugilists. While strength remained a great factor in the winning of battles, a tremendous amount of attention was given to scientific sparring. Pugilists, especially champions, contended in the arena according to a regular system, known as Prize Ring tactics. Generalship was considered one of the pugilist's greatest resources, and a cool head and good judgment won many a battle in the 24-foot ring against bull-dog pluck and stamina."

It is under London Prize Ring Rules that the iconic bareknuckle stance comes into prominence: head back, hands low and milling.

With attacks to the lower portions now all but illegal, the boxer could lean his head back where it was - hopefully - out of range of his opponent's fists. Hands also no longer had to be extended so far forward to intercede against an onrushing opponent. Grappling had not been removed, but instead had become an aspect of "in-fighting".

London Prize Ring Rules (which were revised in 1853) dictated professional boxing for the next half century, until they were eventually supplanted by the more familiar ones of The Marquis of Queensbury. These new rules introduced mandatory gloves, a set number of 3-minute rounds (originally unlimited - but followed by 45, then 20, then 15, until the modern 12 rounds maximum), and, perhaps most importantly, the simple command that "no wrestling or hugging be allowed."

For all practical purposes, modern boxing had arrived, and it would bring with it the greatest advancements in striking ever seen.

With grappling no longer permitted, boxers now had the luxury to work on perfecting the art of striking. With gloves protecting the hand from breaking, an emphasis could be put on developing the most powerful punches known. With the sport now one exclusively of punching, geometric studies in distances and microscopic adjustments in defense were undertaken.

Quickly, boxing evolved to be the greatest punching martial art ever known. What was lost, was the ability for a boxer to fight in those situations when punching was not an option.

So why then should the Diaz brothers' "attitudes" so resemble an extinct sport and fighting style? I can only surmise, but it seems likely to me that the answer lies with the fact that it plays to their strengths in boxing and standup grappling. (Notably Nick's background in sambo.)



In modern boxing, one is often taught to keep your hands high, the reason being that the large gloves assist in protecting the vulnerable head. In an MMA fight, with its much smaller 4 oz gloves, holding your hands high offers much less protection.

Much like modern MMA fighters, early prize-fighters had no such gloves for protection and the guards they developed, as we've seen, offered many advantages to a fighter. First, without the protection of the large gloves, extending ones arms allows the defender to try and parry the attack away, where it is easier to see. In addition, the extended arms make it easier to push away a rushing attacker, looking to grapple or initiate the clinch on their own terms.

For fighters such as the Diaz brothers, both who possess weak wrestling but strong grappling skills, it's easy to see why they prefer to keep their arms out in front of them. Not only does it not interfere with their boxing, but it has the added benefit of playing right into their grappling strengths...

Here is a video of Nick demonstrating some of his options when engaging in the clinch:

At this point, we should not be surprised to learn that nothing Nick demonstrates here would look out of place on the roped turf of 19th century Britain or America. The trips he uses were common tactics to classic prize-fighters and can be found in numerous period manuals.


As for the guillotine, the type seen in the video above, and attempted by Nate in his fight with Jim Miller, existed in the 19th century, where it was known variously as the "chancery", "stranglehold", or "hang."

"At any time that I was at close quarters with an antagonist, and had led off with the left,which having missed its mark, and my left arm going over the left shoulder of my adversary, I would avail myself of that opportunity to throw it backwards round his neck,at the same moment throwing the whole weight of my body upon him, till I brought hishead down to his left hip; then I would grasp my left arm at the wrist and lift my friend from the ground, making his head my fulcrum. Thus throwing the whole weight of myopponent upon his neck, which is the next thing to hanging a man."

- "The Science of Self Defence" by Edmund Price (1867)


The name "chancery" was not exclusive to standing guillotines, and instead signified any hold on the head and neck. In fact, another type of chancery, one that used to be quite common but only rarely seen today, has made its way into Nate Diaz's arsenal, seeing extensive use in his bout with Donald Cerrone:


As seen in the image, Nate is grabbing the back of Cerrone's head. A common method in classic boxing for controlling your opponent while also wearing them down from repeated strain. The hold also offers some offensive opportunities, as seen below and by Nate, in this gif:


The act of grabbing your opponent's head, and then striking them with the free arm, was also known as "fibbing", and was one of the most dangerous weapons in a prize-fighter's arsenal.

This is effected with one arm, or rather with both of your hands, and as a fanciful,although by no means elegant mode of punishment, is entitled to a pleasant considerationby

After securing his head in this position you may pound away upon it verypleasantly, with the other occasionally changing.It will be altogether needless to say that we are referring more particularly to yourpleasure, than that which your opponent may enjoy during the operation;

- "The Science of Self Defence, A Treatise on Sparring and Wrestling" by Edmud Price 1867

Nate made repeated use of the tactic, to the frustration of Donald Cerrone, all through their UFC 141 fight.

Another common prize-fighter technique that is a part of the Diaz repertoire, is the throw, or cross buttock, from the clinch. The move, which covers basically any hip toss including the harai goshi, was attempted by Nate against Cerrone. Although he failed in tossing Donald, it is pretty easy to see how such throws fit into a clinch game that includes chancery holds and fibbing.


These are but a few classic prize-fighting techniques that have been exhibited by Nate during his career, and may represent his complete repertoire, or but a small sampling.

Tonight's (Dec. 29, 2012) fight may go a long way to telling us which of these is correct.

Not intending to exaggerate the similarities, or influence, classic prize-fighting may have had with the fighting of the Diaz brothers, as they are fighting in a sport every bit as different from London Prize-Fighting, as from modern boxing... but still, one can not study the accounts, manuals, and illustrations of those bygone warriors and not see some resemblance shared by Nick and Nate Diaz.

Intentionally or not, their unique fighting style is the closest we've seen to anyone resurrecting the lost boxing of Mendoza, Humphries, and Johnson. At the very least, they are worthy heirs to their legacy.


† -- This revised article by our Cageside Features Guest Columnist , has been 'cross-posted' to today (Dec. 29, 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: 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.


All Images of Nick Diaz courtesy of Esther Lin

Sources for other images:

Ed James, The Complete Handbook of Boxing and Wrestling (1878)

"The Celebrated Pugilist", The Art and Practice of Boxing (1826)

Donald Walker, Defensive Exercises (1840)

James Edward Sullivan, A Manual Devoted to the Art of Self Defense (1883)

Daniel Mendoza, The Modern Art of Boxing (1790)

Edmund Price, The Science of Self Defence (1867)

Tom Johnson - Isaac Perrins Prizefight Banbury via

Famous Fight No. 10 (1901) titled "Hands Up!'

Recommended Reading:

Elliott J.Gorn's The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America

Kirk Lawson's Banned from Boxing, The Forgotten Grappling Techniques of Classic Pugilism

Bob Mee's Bare Fists: The History of Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting

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