SOUTHWARK Fair, wrote Pierce Egan, “was an uncommon scene of attraction to the inhabitants in and contiguous to London.” Granted to the city by royal decree in 1462, it marked the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was held annually from September 7-9. By the early 18th century, it had become a raucous event lasting two weeks. There were jugglers and magicians, drummer girls and giants, puppeteers, pimps, pickpockets, and peep shows. There was James Figg. Advertisements were handed out in the crowd announcing the time and place where he would demonstrate his skill as a crippler and face-mangler. He established an amphitheatre just across the Thames to teach “the noble art of defence” though in his day, boxing was an unruly affair consisting of not only bare-knuckle brawling, but throws, submission holds, hair-pulling, and eye-gouging. You could, literally, kick a man when he was down.
The only man ever to defeat Figg was Ned Sutton. After a return match in 1727, Sutton may have wished none was ever had. The first round was fought with cutlasses, the second with bare fists (after both men finished off a bottle of port), and the third with clubs. It ended when Figg bashed Sutton’s knee in.
Figg died in 1734. His star student killed an opponent in 1741 and from that tragedy came Jack Broughton’s Rules in 1743, which sought as a stated purpose to “lesson the brutality of boxing.” Among the rules was one that better reflected British manners: “no person is to hit his adversary when he is down.” Broughton also introduced the forerunners to modern boxing gloves, called “mufflers,” to protect the hands and minimize cuts during sparring and exhibition matches.