In Bridgerton, dukes and countesses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with boxers and bruisers. The popular Netflix show presents the violent underbelly of the Regency era through its depiction of boxing history. By giving a boxer a minor arc and staging boxing matches that attract high society, Bridgerton rightly shows just how popular boxing was in the Regency period.
Though boxing's origin dates back thousands of years, the modern boxing history timeline in Great Britain really begins in the 18th century during the so-called Georgian era. Commonly referred to as "pugilism," boxing attracted fans from the highest and lowest levels of society - princes and paupers alike marveled at a good fight. Bare-knuckle boxing history reached its height in the Regency period (1811-1820), when some pugilists became international stars who gained wealth, appeared in media, and commanded the respect of royalty.
So, what exactly was the sport like in the 18th and early 19th centuries? And what aspects of its history does the show bring to light? From the sheer diversity of the boxing world to the sport's reputation as a fashionable entertainment, Bridgerton draws from the actual history of pugilism in the Georgian era to depict boxing as lively and dramatic as the society that obsessed over it.
Many Believed That Boxing Bolstered The Nation's Fighting Spirit
The Napoleonic Wars are firmly off-stage in Bridgerton, but Great Britain in 1813 was still a wartime society, one in which violent sports strengthened the nation's fighting spirit.
Combat sports like boxing had long claimed to be a training ground in which men could prepare for war. The direct link between boxing and war had waned by the 1700s, however.
Though boxing in the Georgian era was no longer explicitly about combat prep, many positioned it as a sport that cultivated warlike virtues, such as manly strength, fearlessness, and valor. These virtues were supposed to define the British nation against its continental rivals, especially since many argued that the no-frills character of bare-knuckle boxing exemplified a distinctly British martial spirit. In the 1740s when Britain was entangled in the War of the Austrian Succession, boxer Jack Broughton urged his countrymen to take up the sport for the sake of national identity:
Britons then who boast themselves Inheritors of Greek and Roman Virtues, should follow their example, and by encouraging Conflicts of this Magnanimous Kind, endeavour to eradicate that foreign Effeminacy which has so fatally insinuated itself amongst us, and almost destroyed that glorious spirit of British Championism, which was wont to be once the Terror and Disgrace of our enemies.
The association between sport and nation was still true decades later when Britain was engaged in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Fans argued that boxing helped build a nation of strong, resilient men who could fend off a combatant like France. Even after the wars had ended, writer Pierce Egan agreed that sports like boxing preserved "the English character" by preventing "the thorough-bred bulldog" from turning into "the whining pup."
There Were No Formal Rules For Pugilists Until The Mid-18th Century
As boxing became more popular throughout the 18th century, it became more formalized. Boxer and entrepreneur Jack Broughton set forth "Broughton's Rules," which are widely considered to be the first rules for boxing. As historian Mike Cronin recounts, Broughton had voluntarily left the sport in 1741 after one of his fights led to his opponent's demise. However, Cronin continues:
Broughton was convinced to return to the ring in 1743, but only on the condition that rules be introduced to boxing that would make the fights safer for the boxers. Broughton's Rules disallowed blows below the belt or when a man was on the ground, broke the fight into rounds which allowed the fighters a 30-second rest, and started each new round with the two boxers coming to a mark in the centre of the ring.
Though the rules sought to create an even playing field for boxers, they didn't "define legal or illegal blows."
The next round of rules for boxing didn't arrive until nearly a century later, when the London Prize Ring Rules further regulated the sport in 1838.
Tom Molineaux Was Called 'Black Ajax' And Bill Richmond Was Dubbed 'The Black Terror' - Racism Impacted Their Careers
The world of boxing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was relatively diverse, as Black boxers competed alongside white ones. Two of the most notable Black fighters were Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux, and racism impacted their careers. They were given nicknames that sensationalized the color of their skin: Bill Richmond was known as the "Black Terror," while Tom Molineaux was the "Black Ajax."
Both men also faced more violent forms of racism. Tom Molineaux fought white boxer Tom Cribb in a high-profile match in 1810 before an unruly crowd. When Molineaux was getting the better of Cribb, outraged spectators mobbed the ring in the middle of the fight and broke Molineaux's fingers. He lost the match. Regency-era sportswriter Pierce Egan claimed the violent spectators intervened because they didn't want a white man to lose to a boxer of color: "colour alone prevented [Molineaux] from becoming the hero of that fight."
Though generally celebrated and admired throughout society, Bill Richmond also dealt with prejudice and harassment in Great Britain, especially when he courted and married his wife Mary, a white Englishwoman, in Yorkshire.
Bridgerton may depict a diverse, inclusive world, but it virtually ignores the racism that undeniably existed in the Regency.
Bill Richmond Was So Popular That He Attended King George IV's Coronation In 1821
Bill Richmond - who inspired the character of Bill Mondrich in Bridgerton - was one of the Regency's most celebrated pugilists. In fact, biographer Luke Williams has described him as "the first Black sportsman of national fame and international significance."
Richmond wasn't just renowned for his excellent performance in the ring - he was also considered to be educated, well-mannered, and respectable. As Regency-era sportswriter Pierce Egan explained, Richmond was "intelligent, communicative, and well-behaved" and "not so completely absorbed with fighting as to be incapable of discoursing upon any other subject."
Richmond's skill and personality won him admirers - including royal ones. When King George IV had his coronation in 1821, Richmond attended him as an usher.