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Boxers Of Yesteryear: James Figg

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James Figg

The "First Known" Heavyweight Champion


"Here I am Jemmy Figg from Thame, I will fight any man in England". Figg was the first recognised champion of England at fighting with bare fists. Also an expert at wrestling, swordplay, and fighting with cudgels, he became prominent as a pugilist about 1719 and claimed the title 'Champion of England' from then until 1730.

altJames Figg was born to a poor farming family in Thame, Oxfordshire, England in 1684 (or 1695, depending on the source) to Francis and Elizabeth Figg. He was the youngest of seven children and grew up tough, going to local fairs and challenging the prize fighters in the booths there. By the time he was a grown man he was 6 feet tall and around 185lbs, fit and fast, and travelled to fairs throughout the Midlands where he challenged all-comers from noon until sundown. He taught himself to fight with a short-sword, a staff and a club, and staged exhibitions of his skill at the fairs

Figg went on to become the first recognised British bare fist boxing champion and had become well versed in both armed and unarmed combat. History tells us that it was the Earl of Peterborough who first spotted Figg's potential after witnessing him giving a demonstration of boxing, fencing and the use of the quarter-staff on the village green.

The Earl took Figg down to London where he would fight all comers, teach his fighting methods and give demonstrations of his skills. Figg became a popular figure and many people wished to learn from him and watch him fight. In 1719, Figg opened a boxing academy, which held over 1000 people, where he and his students would teach and demonstrate their skills. Figg's business card for his academy declared him to be, "Master of the noble science of defence." Figg lost only one fight and was considered to be the champion of Great Britain when he retired in 1730.

As Figg's reputation grew, more and more "gentleman amateurs" took up boxing as a pastime and sought out Figg's tuition. One of Figg's students was a 'Captain Godfrey' who wrote,

"I have purchased my knowledge with many a broken head, and bruises in every part of me."

This statement emphasises the realistic, and sometimes harsh, nature of Figg's tuition. Figg also drew upon his extensive knowledge of fencing. The parries & ripostes of fencing had a large influence upon what became parries & counter-punches of modern boxing.

By 1720, he was openly acknowledged as London’s champion, and fought for money regularly, with the matches being advertised in the newspapers. There were three rounds in an organized prize-fight and it was also pretty brutal, with the bare-knuckle fight allowing slapping, kicking, biting and gouging.

Sometime before 1723, Figg let his Amphitheatre to another boxing master (It closed in 1743).and began to prize-fight on a regular basis at 'The Boarded House' behind Oxford Street, in Marylebone-Fields. It was not only men who fought there, but women and animals. Figg fought about once a month, and his opponents included Christopher Clarkson The Lancashire Soldier, Philip MacDonald The Dublin Carpenter, James Stokes Citizen of London (and husband of the famous lady-boxer Elizabeth Stokes). His most talented pupil, Jack Broughton continued to run his school and was instrumental in setting the first rules of boxing in 1743.

It should be noted, that this earliest form of modern boxing was very different. Contests in Figg's time, in addition to fistfighting, also contained fencing and cudgeling. Although hitting with fists was emphasised, a boxer could grapple and throw his opponent and then either hit him when he was down, or continue to grapple whilst on the ground. Indeed, it was not until 1743 - 13 years after Figg's retirement - that kicking an opponent whilst he was down ("purring" as it was called at the time) and gouging were banned from the 'sport'.

On the 6th of June 1727, James Figg fought with Ned Sutton - a pipe maker from Gravesend. The bout generated huge interest and amongst the audience were many important names of the time, including Sir Robert Walpole - the Prime Minister.

The first match was to be with swords! Which goes to illustrate that the use of weapons were also part of a boxer's training. The first thirty minutes of the bout were fairly uneventful until Sutton went on the attack, which resulted in Figg cutting his arm on his own sword. Under the rules this did not count, and hence the bout continued. It was in the sixth round that Figg cut Sutton's shoulder, which resulted in Figg being granted the first victory.

After a thirty-minute interval, the "Fist-Fighting" began. After eight minutes Sutton executed a throw which resulted in Figg being dumped at the umpire's feet. Figg immediately regained his feet and went onto to throw Sutton such that he required time to recover as the result of the bad and heavy landing. When the bout continued, Sutton landed a blow that was so powerful that Figg was knocked clean off the stage (ropes were not used at the time) and into the audience. Figg recovered and went onto punch Sutton to the floor, where he then grappled Sutton into submission.

The final bout was with Cudgels, during which Figg broke Sutton's knee and hence secured a three-nil victory. The description of Figg vs. Sutton bout shows how grappling, groundwork and weapons skills were as much a part of boxing as the punching for which the art is so revered today.

James Figg was 40 when he died (or around 50 depending on source of date of birth) and left a wife and many children, one of his grandsons also became a Boxing Champion some years later.

Figg may be regarded as the first boxing champion, but he was also the first boxing coach, manager and promoter. He also established an Boxing Ring at Oxford Circus which set the pattern for boxing as we know it today.

A ring was put in place with ropes around the sides and the floor was raised so the spectators could see the fight. This pit the sport onto a professional basis and anyone who had aspirations to become a boxer would show up at the Oxford Circus Amphitheatre as a participant or a spectator.

December, 1734 this notice (below) appeared in the newspapers: He is buried at St Marylebone cemetery in Finchley, north London.

Last Saturday there was a Trial of Skill between the unconquered Hero, Death, on the one side and till then the unconquered Hero Mr James Figg, the famous Prize-Fighter and Master of the Noble Science of Defence on the other: The Battle was most obstinately fought on both sides, but at last the former obtained an Entire Victory and the latter tho' he was obliged to submit to a Superior Foe yet fearless and with Disdain he retired and that Evening expired at his house in Oxford Road.

Figg was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992

Known Record of James Figg - the common belief is that Figg had a record of 269-1 in 270 fights. His only loss came when Ned Sutton beat him to claim the title. Figg demanded a rematch, which he won, and also went on to retire Sutton in a rubber match.

1719 - Sep 18 -Figg claimed the Championship of England and opened an amphitheatre on Oxford Road in London, England.

1720-1723 vs Timothy Buck in London, England -Won - Championship of England
vs Tom Stokes in London, England – Won - Championship of England
vs Bill Flanders in London, England - Won -Championship of England
vs Chris Clarkson in London, England - Won -Championship of England

1724 vs Ned Sutton in Gravesend, England - Lost -Some sources report Championship of England

1725 - May 31 vs Ned Sutton in London, England – Won -Some sources report Championship of England

May 23 Ned Sutton - London, England
May 30 Ned Sutton - London, England
June 06 Ned Sutton - London, England - Won Championship of England

1730 -Figg announced his retirement from the ring and
relinquished the Championship of England – Handed title over to George Taylor

1733 - May 6 Jack Broughton claimed title.




Upon a Trial of Skill

A Poem About James Figg


Long was the great Figg, by the prize-fighting swains,
Sole monarch acknowledged of Mary-bone plains,
To the towns, far and near, did his valour extend,
And swam down the river from Thame to Gravesend;
Where lived Mr. Sutton, pipe-maker by trade,
Who hearing that Figg was thought such a stout blade,
Resolved to put in for a share of his fame,
And so sent to challenge the champion of Thame.


With alternate advantage two rubbers had past,
When they fought out the rubbers on Wednesday last;
To see such a contest the house was so full,
There hardly was room left to thrust in your skull.
With a prelude of cudgells we first were saluted,
And two or three shoulders most handsomely fluted,
Till weary at last with inferior disasters,
All the company cry’d, come the masters, the masters.


Whereupon the bold Sutton first mounted the stage,
Made his honors as usual, and yearn’d to engage;
Then Figg, with a visage so fierce, yet sedate,
Came and entered the lists, with his fresh-shaven pate;
Their arms were encircled with armigers too,
With a red ribbon Sutton’s, and Figg’s with a blue;
Thus adorned the two heroes, betwixt shoulder and elbow,
Shook hands, and to’t, and the word it was bilboe.


Sure such a concern, in the eyes of spectators,
Was never yet seen in our amphitheatres;
Our commons and peers, from the. several places,
To half an inch distance all pointed their faces ;
While the rays of old Phoebus, that shot-thro’ the sky-light,
Seemed to make on the stage a new kind of twilight;
And the gods without doubt, if one could but have seen’em,
Were peeping there through, to do justice between ‘em.


Figg struck the first stroke, and with a vast fury,
That lie broke his huge weapon in twain I assure you;
And if his brave rival this blow had not warded,
His head from his shoulders had been quite discarded.
Figg armed him again, and they took t’other tilt,
And then Sutton’s blade ran away from its hilt;
The weapons were frighted, but as for the men,.
In truth they ne’er- minded, but at it again.


Such a force in their blows, you’d have thought it a wonder
Every stroke they received did not cleave ‘em asunder,
Yet so great was their courage, so equal their skill,
That they both seemed as safe as a thief in a mill;
While in doubtful attention Dame Victory stood,
And which side to take could not tell for her blood,
But remained like the ass ‘twixt the bundles of hay,
Without ever stirring an inch either way.


Till Jove to the Gods signified his intention,
In a speech that he made, too tedious to mention;
But the upshot on’t was, that at that very bout,
From a wound in Figg’s side the hot blood spouted out;
Her ladyship then seemed to think the case plain,
But Figg stepping forth, with a sullen disdain
Shew’d the gash, and appealed to the company round,
If his own broken sword had not given the wound.


That bruises and wounds a man’s spirit should touch,
With danger so little, with honor so much!
Well, they both took a drain, and returned to the battle,
And with a fresh fury they made their swords rattle;
While Sutton’s right arm was observed to bleed,
By a touch from his rival, so Jove had decreed;
Just enough for to; show that his blood was not icor,
But made up, like Figg’s, of the common red liquor.


Again they both rush’d with as equal a fire on,
Till the company, cried, hold enough of cold iron,
To the quarter-staff now lads. So first having dram’d it,
They took to their wood, and i’ faith never sham’d it.
The first bout they had was so fair and so handsome,
That to make a fair bargain, was worth a king’s ransom
And Sutton such bangs on his neighbour imparted,
Would have made any fibres, but Figg’s, to have smarted.


Then after that bout they went on to another,
Rut the matter must end on some fashion or other;
So Jove told the gods he had made a decree,
That Figg should hit Sutton a stroke on the knee.
Tho’ Sutton, disabled as soon as he hit him,
Would still have fought on, but Jove would not permit him;
‘Twas his fate, not his fault, that constrain’d him to yield,
And thus the great Figg became lord of the field.

James Byrom, 1726



History of the ring: James Figg