A Cutman’s History
To try and recreate an accurate picture for the readers, I had to go back to the very essence of the sport that created the second/corner men/cutmen. The history of the cutman is almost an untold story, as there are no, or very few, written records, other than personal or word of mouth accounts of where the profession actually originated from. However, what we can do is try to piece together some, if not most, of its history through written and verbal accounts. First, though, let’s look at the very origins of the sport that gave birth to the profession.
An Early History of Fist Fighting
Since the 2nd millennium BC, there have been depictions of fist fighting from ancient Egyptian Mesopotamian nations: Hittite, Minoan Crete in 1500-900 BC, and Sardinia (Prama mountains) in 2000-1000 BC. However, these depictions were not of fist fighting as we would know it today. There were elements of wrestling and grappling and sometimes weaponry.
In fact, it is thought that the true acceptance of the sport was its inclusion by the ancient Greeks in the Olympic Games in 688 BC. Later, the Romans in AD 393 became big fans of the sport and drew circles in amphitheatres on the sand to enforce a perimeter, hence where the name “ring” comes from.
Leather thongs where worn around the fists. Studs were eventually added to the thongs, called cestus, and eventually short blades were added to make it a weapon called the myrmex (‘limb piercer’). The sport was so brutal that even the Romans grew a distaste for it and the growing interest and love of the gladiators replaced the sport.
Fist fighting was recorded as a sport in Russian culture dating back as early as 1274. It mostly took place on holidays and special occasions. The sport had different rules from region to region i.e. sleeves pulled down over fists (sometimes metal rods hid under sleeves), or bare arms only allowed during combat. The combatants would stand toe-to-toe and take it in turns to throw a punch at each other, or slip a punch (if they were quick enough), and then return the favour.
Play it forward to the 16-18th Century and bare knuckle, or fist fighting, resurfaced, this time by the name of “prize fighting”. The sport was multi-discipline at that time, as fist fighting, wrestling, single stick, quarter staff and sword play were permitted as part of a match.
Bare Knuckle Boxing/Prize Fighting
James Figgs (1695 – 7 December 1734) ‘the father of modern boxing’ (as described by Jack Dempsey) opened his school for fighters in England in 1719 and became one of the first recognised trainers of boxers.
He trained fighters in many disciplines, as a typical bout may include elements of single stick (also known as cudgels), boxing, wrestling and fencing. From his stable, one of his protégée’s, Jack Broughton, became one of the most accomplished fighters of his time.
Rules and Regulations
Broughton introduced the first rules of boxing in 1743 called “the Broughton rules”. This evolved into the London Prize Ring Rules. Under these rules, stand up, and wrestling/grappling were considered a part of the scoring system.
The Broughton Rules
Jack Broughton, described as the ‘’Father of the English School of Pugilism’’, drew up the first definite code of rules, which lasted almost a century. He also introduced boxing gloves, or ‘’mufflers’’, in the interest of the noblemen and gentlemen who were his pupils. The wearing of mufflers caught on at once for sparring, but the business of fighting in the ring continued to be bareknuckle far into the future.
A bare-knuckle round, according to Broughton’s rules, lasted until a man went down—and he could be thrown as well as knocked down, provided he was held above the middle. Half a minute was allowed between rounds, and a round could last anywhere from a few seconds to as much as half an hour.
Note: Prizefighting was introduced into the American colonies by British sailors during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). The sport at that time was considered distasteful or ‘vagabond’ like, so its popularity wasn’t great amongst autocracy. In fact, its popularity grew only in the less fortunate Irish-American communities, and it lacked acceptance amongst the general population for almost a century to come.
Gentleman John Jackson 1769 – 1845
John Jackson was instrumental in the forming of the Pugilistic Club in 1814, which became a watchdog for the signing of articles, judges, referees, settling of disputes and payments. Under the Pugilistic Club, official ropes and posts owned by the club were standard under the London Prize Ring Rules (LPRR). This may have been the very first real commission for matchmaking, as those fighters found not worthy, or not fit for an opponent, would not step through the ropes to fight.
Unfortunately, England had seen its last great days of pugilism during the 19th century and the sport declined dramatically. The US became a haven for fighters and the big stage, just as it is today.
Enter the Seconds
The London Prize Ring Rules, of which there were 29, in 1853 mentions the use of seconds throughout. It states the use of a second and a water bottle holder to accompany, or carry, their fighter back to his corner at the end of a round. The end of a round was determined by a fighter being knocked to the ground, in which case 30 seconds would be given for the combatant to regain his composure or quit.
America during the 19th century did not have the benefit of Jack Broughton, or John Jackson. American fights were shambolic at best. They were hole-and-corner pistol-toting gatherings where rule breaking was rampant, especially by the most dominant mob. The mobs were fans of both fighters, often separated on either side of the ring or gathering.
Irish Stand Down/Strap Fighting
This was a form of toe-to-toe combat in the 19th century and was similar to that of the earlier Russian version in the 13th century, where combatants would not manoeuvre around a ring and would stand toe-to-toe and take turns hitting each other. It was popular amongst the less fortunate. It was later replaced in the ghettos by the Irish-American community, in the form of bare knuckle boxing.
John L. Sullivan (1858 – 1918)
John L. Sullivan fought under the London Prize Ring Rules (PRR) to become the champion of the world. His career lasted from 1879 to 1892. What is interesting even in this period of supposed pugilism is the link between boxing and wrestling.
Stand up wrestling was within the rules, as the fighter could either push or grapple his opponent to the ground and it would be counted as a knockdown. Although illegal, fighters would use knees, elbows, finger jab, or throttle his opponent.
Note: Interestingly, fighters were sometimes categorized by their favoured style of fighting i.e. striking, or grappling/wrestling.
John L. Sullivan employed the services of William Muldoon, a Greco-Roman wrestler who later became his trainer/manager to work on takedown defence in his training camps. Because being thrown down counted just as much as a knockdown under the PRR, Muldoon trained him for his greatest contest, a bout against Jake Kilrain that lasted two hours in the mid-day heat in Mississippi.
The First Boxing Champion of the World
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that prize fighting gained some respect. The fight between Paddy Ryan and the late great John. L. Sullivan grabbed public attention and took it from the ghettos and back streets into the light of day. But this was the end of an era for prize fighting after a 173 year history. As the first Heavyweight Champion of the World under the new Marquess of Queensbury rules (which now included wearing gloves), Sullivan defended his title against Jim Corbett.
Corbett was crowned champion.
The Queensbury Rules
The Marquess of Queensbury rules were introduced in 1867, which did not include stand up wrestling, grappling or throws being permitted. Realistically, this is where the purist element of the sport of boxing was born. The rules also permitted a predetermined number of rounds if required, and the use of gloves was mandatory.
It also introduced a rest period of 1 minute between rounds (3 minute duration of boxing). So seconds could go to work on an injured or exhausted fighter. Believe it or not, the Queensbury rules are generally the litmus test for boxing rules to date.