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Science, Art, or Brutality: What Is The American Fighting Form?

I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.

Bandit's Roost, hang out of the many violent New York gangs of the 1800s.

Bandit's Roost, hang out of the many violent New York gangs of the 1800s.

The martial arts of Asia are world famous, from Kung Fu to Karate, Muay Thai Kick Boxing, Judo and Jiu Jitsu, Aikido, Ninjitsu, Eskrima, and Penjak Silat; there are martial arts going back at least 4000 years ago to Egypt, displayed in hieroglyphics in ancient tombs. Europe developed boxing, fencing, Savate, Pankration, and Greco-Roman wrestling, scientific approaches to fighting, with their own grace and effectiveness.

But what of America? Certainly there's a plethora of martial arts schools and methods practiced across America, including all of those previously mentioned: But is there a fighting art that is uniquely American?

Turns out there was a form of fighting developed in America, which wasn't exactly a scientific approach and had no particular set of techniques. This form of fighting has been referred to as "Rough and Tumble" or "Gouging".

1800s gang, The Short Tail Gang, precursor to the notorious New York Eastman Gang, one of many rough and tumble, brutal New York City gangs of the time.

1800s gang, The Short Tail Gang, precursor to the notorious New York Eastman Gang, one of many rough and tumble, brutal New York City gangs of the time.

Rough and Tumble or Gouging

Those who study martial arts examine practical techniques for self defense, learn how to properly use angles, and even delve into a scientific approach in understanding how to generate power through the body through principles of physics and kinetics. But fighting is also not so much training and lessons as much as it takes grit and guts.

Imagine you are watching a pro-wrestling match, you watch a big behemoth tossing his opponent around, scratching his eyes, biting his nose, punching him furiously and stomping him when he's down. Well, you've witnessed an imitation of an old form of fighting from the southern backwoods of America.

The Exchange

Words had been exchanged between two strapping southern men in the deep woods, an exchange which one considered a serious breach of social etiquette, an insult, and great dishonor; though an on-looker from out of town might not see the significance of it. However, a date and time has been established to settle this dispute, and all interested in spectating are duly notified.

The day has arrived, both bruisers have consumed a hefty amount of alcohol and are more than ready for a tumble.

The question is asked whether the participants would like to fight fair by the English gentlemen's Broughton Rules or if they'd rather fight Rough and Tumble. Rough and Tumble, it is! No ring, no parameters, no rules, anything goes. Both men are eager to sever a nose, a digit, an ear off his adversary and take his enemy's eye-ball home as a trophy.

They swat at each other with jabs and boxing technique, but soon close in and clinch and take it to the ground; one sinks his teeth into the other one's nose; the victim struggles with pain to break free of the grip and reaches up for a handful of hair and pulls decisively, sinking his thumb into his tormenter's eye socket.

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Such was a typical event in the Deep South of the US as far back as 1735. It was an environment of struggle mixed with a fear of poverty, the looming dread and degradation of exploitation, and a constant vying for position and status so highly regarded; men were toughened to prepare themselves for the realities of their environments.

Such fighting was a shock to outsiders, but, nonetheless, became popular and eventually spread north and west.


Part of the culture of America is crude and aggressive self-assertion, built by the battle to survive and the quest for pride and position.

It is no wonder, on into the early and mid-1800s, gangs formed up north, in New York City: Mass groups of Rough-and-Tumblers like Bill "The Butcher" Poole, making their way into places of wealth and prestige through ruthless violence, ambition, and competitiveness with no regard for life, limb, body, or soul.

Individualistic, competitive, ambitious, and fighting odds against a backdrop of imminent poverty, exploitation, and fear, American fighting was just such an enterprise.

© 2012 Nathan Bernardo


Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on May 08, 2015:

Thanks, CatchDude. I agree.

CatchDude on May 08, 2015:

Fantastic. There needs to be more of this.

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