Friday, May 29, 2009

A Review of “The Bare-Knuckle Boxer’s Companion” by David Lindholm and Ulf Karlsson
reviewed by C. Allen Reed

available from Paladin Press
$20.00 retail

As an enthusiast of historical English martial arts – and in particular Bartitsu, which uses bare-knuckle boxing as one of its major tenets – I have been looking for a good book to recommend to those wanting to learn more about the style. Unfortunately, this book isn’t it.

The authors start out well with the first chapter being a review of the history of pugilism. They start with the Ancient Greeks and progress up to the beginning of the 20th century, when the use of gloves pretty much ended bare-knuckle boxing.

In the second chapter, the authors set out to describe and show the basic techniques of bare-knuckle boxing. To do this, they first refer to various examples of historic boxers and their guard positions. There are several problems with how they go about doing this. The first is that in all the photographs in the book the authors are wearing baggy work-out pants, so it is hard to see their weight shifts, which is very important to any martial art, much less bare-knuckle boxing. I am also bothered that in all of the photos the authors are barefoot. This is an art which traditionally is fought in some sort of footwear, and since the authors also argue it is still valid to learn as a modern form of self-defense, it seems to me that the authors should wear modern footwear when representing the system.

More importantly, at least in one major instance the authors show a different stance than is portrayed in the historic artwork. In two of the pictures Mendoza, a well-known English pugilism champion from the 18th century, is shown with his fists held horizontally in front of his face, but the authors chose to show a version of his stance with the fists held vertically.

Then the authors demonstrate how to strike in bare-knuckle boxing. Again, they start out well by showing how to make a proper fist, but then make what I consider a dangerous error by advocating that a boxer should cant his fist upwards to strike with the bottom two knuckles. To my mind this will likely lead to a boxer doing damage to his wrist, as the torque on the wrist when punching will force the hand backwards.

Then the authors move on to footwork. Yet no mention is made of the major use or the lunge or deep forward step that was used by most historical pugilists when punching with the left or forward hand. Indeed, when demonstrating target areas in the next section, the authors are shown using their right or rear hand, in most instances, instead of the left, which was the primary hand for initial offensive attacks in many historic styles of boxing.

In the third chapter, the authors set out to show the strikes, throws and basic defenses used in bare-knuckle boxing.

In the first series of photographs Karlsson demonstrates a series of basic punches. Yet again no mention is made of the lunge step for the lead hand punch.

Also, in most of the photos Karlsson has the heel of his rear foot off the floor. Dempsey advocates doing this in his book but most of the 19th century sources I have looked at want you to keep the rear foot flat. If the authors are mixing Dempsey with 19th century texts it would be nice if they mentioned it.

Then the authors talk about the hook. They state that there is no good discussion of how to use the hook in most of the historic texts. This may well be because, at least according to Allanson-Winn in his book from 1897, the hook is not a punch that should be used. However, Lindholm and Karlsson completely leave out what Allanson-Winn calls his “contracted arm” hit, which is a hook to the body.

Then the authors move on to the throws used in bare-knuckle boxing. The first throw the authors show they call a trip, but they refer you to Allanson-Winn who uses the term Back-Heel – so why not keep this terminology? The second throw the authors show is what they call the hip throw but I just don’t believe that the way they show the front hip will work. Also, they again completely ignore the cross-buttock throw that is shown in Allanson-Winn.

Next the authors show some basic defenses. The stance they are using is from the late 19th century, yet they do not demonstrate a major part of many of theses defenses, which is shifting your weight onto your back foot.

The authors then mention kicking, which they infer may have been used at some point, since rules were made against its use. However, instead of going back to medieval German sources for kicks, why not use kicks form arts current when bare-knuckle boxing was practiced? Kicks such as those from French savate or from Welsh purring, a style of Welsh wrestling, would make more sense.

The authors finish this third chapter by demonstrating some blocks and counters. These techniques are well demonstrated in the photos provided.

With the fourth chapter, the authors set out to show a set of partnered sets to practice different combinations. In the opening introduction to this chapter, they state they are taking these drills from Mendoza, but then tell you not to follow Mendoza too closely. I would suggest instead that until you are very advanced, you should follow any such drills exactly the way the original author tells you to do so. After all, he was the professional boxer, while all the rest of us are amateurs by comparison.

In the first set of photos in this chapter, there is conflict between what the captions say to do and what is shown in the photos. This is all too common in historic texts from before photography was developed, but now with modern digital cameras you would think the photos would match exactly what the text is telling you to do.

In the next series of photos, Lindholm is seen lifting the heel of his back foot off the floor again, negating the power he should be getting from these punches.

In the fifth chapter, the authors discuss physical conditioning and show various examples of body weight exercises that can be used to build strength and endurance. Remember, before you start any of these exercises you should have a physical exam to make sure you are healthy enough to do them.

The sixth chapter of the book finds the authors referring to self-defense texts from before bare-knuckle boxing became well known in modern Europe. I am not sure why this material is mentioned in this book, except the authors are fond of German medieval fighting books.

The seventh chapter in the book discusses self-defense and how to consider using self-defense moves. This is material that can be found in many other books. The authors tell you up front they have compiled this information from other sources, so again I am not sure why it needs to appear in a book on bare-knuckle boxing.

The eighth chapter continues the emphasis on self-defense training by listing a series of self-defense scenarios to help train yourself in dealing with fighting on the street. I like many of these training scenarios and use many similar scenarios when I teach self-defense. However, just listing the suggested scenarios really doesn’t prepare you to use bare-knuckle boxing on the street.

The ninth and last chapter of the book is a recommended reading list for training in self-defense. I am sure many of them are valuable sources of information; the ones I have read certainly are. But again, I don’t think this is the place for such a book list.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I was looking for a good book to use as a modern reference for historic bare-knuckle boxing. At first the use of large format, simple photographs and plain text made it seem like it was a good book to recommend to others also interested in this martial art. However, as I delved deeper into what Lindholm and Karlsson offered, I was disappointed.

Instead of using this book, I would recommend anyone interested in learning bare-knuckle boxing take a look at the bibliography and track down the actual historic texts that are referenced and use the originals instead of this book.