FIT TO FIGHT
fn “oeal jeaning of cisticuffsI” a contributing editor researches a term that’s frequently used in reference to mustachioed bare-knuckle fighters putting up their dukes but that has a much more colorful connection to the pastK
Fisticuffs — now there’s a word we’ve all heard. It conjures up visions of old-timey bare-knucklers going at it from upright long- guard poses while wearing tights and sporting waxed mustaches.
T hat image reveals the current connotation of the word: a synonym for boxing or an archaic word for fistfight. Originally, however, there was a bit more to it than that. To get to what that “more to it” was‚ we will have to digress into a short history of fashion.
TAKE A GANDER at woodcuts, paintings, lithographs or whatever medium from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that happens to move you. Don’t look for depictions of royals and courtiers lounging and feasting and dallying. Look for images of soldiers, of the working class. I want you to look at — surprise — men’s cuffs.
With the middle class and the aristocracy, you’ll find frilled cuffs, lace cuffs and loose, billowy cuffs. If you look hard enough at the lower and working classes, you’ll see that these men more often than not sported short sleeves, and if they were sleeved, there was a greater likelihood of tighter cuffs.
Why? Well, because they were working men and loose, billowy fabric tended to get in the way of manual labor. It also tended to impair one’s safety when working with moving parts — mills, turnstiles and the like.
If we continue our contemplation of men’s cuffs, we begin to notice that these same working men sported varieties of leather cuffs, brass bracelets and, in some cases, two or three bangles on each wrist.
Now, when we see this, are we seeing fashion or utility? It’s actually a little of both.
LEATHER OR METAL cuffs were standard wear in many cultures and nations. We see them in Americanfrontier Western wear in the form of leather “cowboy cuffs‚” which protected the arms against brush, winding rope, branding irons and other hazards. Cowboy cuffs were essentially for the forearms what chaps were for the legs.
It was for these same protective reasons that leather and metal cuffs appeared in other societies from those of shepherds in Catalonia and herders in Sicily to those of whalers near the Grand Banks and archers in Burgundy. But just as with the shoes that protect our feet, we didn’t mind a little dash or splash of fashion.
Cowboy cuffs often featured intricate designs. Leather wristbands often had gorgeous engravings or at least an ornamental buckle or two, and metal bracelets or bangles provided glints of light in their reflections. OK, utility and fashion. Got it. But what does this have to do with hurting people?
Have a look at studded leather wristbands, the kind you might picture in your mind’s eye when you think of a stereotypical biker. Now, time-machine that studded wristband backward to the Five Points gangs of the 19th century. Look at the metal bracelets of some mercenary soldiers in Old Spain. Study the bangles in images of Gypsies in their caravans.
Fashion, utility and, as it turns out, augmentation of the human weapon.
I’VE ALREADY noted that wristbands were used as protection in one martial pursuit — archery — but there are more than a few mentions of wrist protection being vital in blade cultures before the use of personal firearms became widespread. And we must not forget that knife and sword dueling was rampant in the past. Protecting the wrists was vital.
When one has a look at the studded wristbands of some Five Points gang members, the “toughs” of the waterfronts of New Orleans, it requires no stretch of the imagination to see the importance of such protection in rough-and- tumble, down-and-dirty fighting, which explains why it was used.
Over time, the reinforced wrist became active as both a defensive weapon and a striking weapon, and an often-used one at that. To get a better idea of this, imagine what a well-studded, or well-buckled, wristband might add to your clinch and grappling game.
Even if modern martial artists decide not to reintroduce such “fisticuffs” into their training program, it’s nice to know how this bit of oldschool meanness came about. It’s also a way to view the word — and wristbands, cowboy cuffs and bangles — with more appreciative eyes.