Bare Knuckle
Shutterstock / Sandra Matic

Instead of hearing “It’s time!” and “Fight!” — which we all know from having watched the UFC — you might want to get used to “Toe the line!” and “Knuckle up!”

Put up your dukes because history is repeating itself with another combat sport. Welcome to bare-knuckle fighting.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, bare-knuckle bouts were illegal but often held underground. Now, they’re legit and, thanks to the Philadelphia-based Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, they’re being televised.

David Feldman is president and founder of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. He’s also a former professional boxer. He used his background in the sweet science to create rules that are dramatically different from — and easier to understand than — the rules that were used centuries ago. The main difference is that the modern rule set is designed to protect the fighters’ safety.

London Rules

Jack Broughton was an English boxer who created the rules for bare-knuckle fighting in 1743. Bouts were contested under his rules well into the 1800s. Those regulations are now known as the London or Broughton Rules.

The Broughton Rules were simple. The ring was circular setup with ropes and posts. In the center was a scratch line. The scratch line was the starting point where the fighters would put their toes.

In the matches, it was knuckles only and endurance until the last drop. There were no time limits or round limits. It was all about whether the fighters could make it back to the scratch line.

They would begin, and when one of them was knocked down, that marked the end of the round. After the knockdown, a 30-second rest period was given. Then each fighter would have eight seconds to return to the scratch line. If one of them could not toe the line, the match was over.

A fight could last for hours. It didn’t matter if a combatant suffered a broken hand, an eye that was swollen shut, a laceration that was spewing blood or a wrist that was sprained. As long as he could stand at the scratch line, he could continue.

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship Rules

The rules for the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship are similar to the modern rules of the UFC with a couple of exceptions. BKFC bouts last two minutes each, rather than five minutes. And the BKFC follows a five-round format, in contrast to the UFC, which uses three rounds.

BKFC fighters can use tape to wrap their wrists, thumbs and mid-hands. However, it’s illegal to place gauze or tape within 1 inch of the knuckles.

To begin a bout, the referee instructs the fighters to “Toe the line.” Once they do so, the ref tells them to “Knuckle up,” which translates to “Fight!”

The scratch lines are just 3 feet apart, which means each participant can punch his opponent right from the get-go. They’re permitted to use only closed fists; there’s no other way to strike an opponent in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. There is no grappling, no jiu-jitsu, no kicks, no elbows and no knees.

If the fighters clinch, a three-second clinch rule comes into play. Afterward, the referee breaks them up to ensure the action continues and the stalling doesn’t.

When a fighter is knocked down in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship — just like in boxing — he has 10 seconds to stand back up, or a TKO will be declared. A fighter cannot hit his opponent once he’s down. If he does, the puncher will be disqualified.

BKFC matches typically have a lot of blood. Using bare knuckles tends to open cuts, often as a result of a single punch. Although there’s more blood than in boxing and MMA, the commission says it is safer to strike with knuckles than with gloved hands.

On the subject of blood, if it obstructs a fighter’s vision, the referee will call in the cut man. The cut man has 30 seconds to stop the bleeding. If the bleeding cannot be controlled, the referee will stop the match and that fighter will lose.

In the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, all fighters must wear a groin protector, a mouthpiece and boxing trunks. They have a choice to wear boxing shoes or wrestling shoes.

All participants must have professional experience in a combat sport such as boxing, MMA, kickboxing or muay Thai. The referees and judges also must have extensive experience in a relevant combat sport.

Bare-Knuckle Future

Professional bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in the United States until March 20, 2018. Wyoming became the first state to legalize the sport. Mississippi and New Hampshire followed. And now that other states are looking at legalizing it, the public can expect to see more of this fight sport in the future.

Go here to see some fights from past BKFC events.

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