The History of Boxing: Gory Gladiatorial Origins, Back Street Venues, and Big Money
Boxing is the most popular spectator combat sport in the modern world and its champions earn more than most other professional sportsmen. The defining fight of this big money era was the 2015 Mayweather Vs Pacquiao event that earned Mayweather an estimated $120 million and Pacquiao around $80 million, but to understand the history of boxing we must go back not hundreds, but thousands of years in human history, to a much more primal and blood thirstier time.
Virgil's ‘Aeneid‘, Book 5, when the aging Sicilian champion Entellus defeats the young Trojan Dares, blood spurting from his injured head. Both wear caestūs. Mosaic floor from a Gallo-Roman villa in Villelaure, France, ca. 175 AD. (Marshall Astor/CC BY SA 2.0)
Ancient Boxing in Art
Humans have fought in hand-to-hand combat to the death since living in caves, but the earliest recorded evidence of fist-fighting competitions, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was found on “Ancient Sumerian reliefs discovered in modern-day Iraq which were created in the 3rd millennium BC in the Mesopotamian nations of Assyria and Babylonia, and in Hittite art from Asia Minor.”
In 1350 BC, a relief sculpture made in Thebes, modern Egypt, depicts two boxers among spectators and both this and the Middle-Eastern depictions show ‘bare-fisted’ fighters, or ancient boxers sometimes wearing a band supporting the wrist. The earliest evidence of fist fighting with gloves was found on Minoan Crete and dates to between 1500 -1400 BC. The first formalized boxing rules appeared at the 23rd Olympiad of 688 BC.
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One of the earliest depictions of boxing gloves showing a pair of Minoan youths fighting. Akrotiri fresco circa 1500 BC. (Public Domain)
Boxing in Ancient Greece and Rome
In Ancient Greece, where no weight categories existed and boxers fought until one of the opponents either acknowledged defeat by submitting or was beaten so badly that he couldn’t continue or died, leather thongs were wound around the hands and wrists. The boxers generally fought with a left leg stance while holding the left arm semi-extended over it as a guard and for jabbing. The right arm was generally held back, cocked and ready to deliver that elusive knockout blow to the opponents head.
Boxing later found a firm foothold in Rome, where hard leather hand thongs were imbedded with sharp metal studs to make the 'cestus'. This brought boxing out of the lowly realms of blood sports and turned it into a death match of the amphitheaters.
Leather hand and wrist wraps represented in bronze. From Ancient Greece, first century BC. (RickyBennison/CC BY SA 4.0)
Highly-trained slaves were sometimes pitted against one another in circles marked on the sand; the origin of the term ‘boxing ring.’ In 393 AD, at the height of the Roman gladiatorial period, boxing regularly resulted in competitors jaws hanging off and other such brutalities, so the sport was abolished in different areas across Europe.
The History of Boxing Turns to ‘Prizefighting’
However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire the wearing of fist mounted weapons became very popular again, especially in Italy between the 12th and 17th centuries. The sport resurfaced in London in the early 16th century where ‘bare-knuckle boxing’ became known as ‘prizefighting.’
The first documented bare-knuckle fight in England was recorded in the London Protestant Mercury; on January 6, 1681 when Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, “refereed a fight between his butler and his butcher,” with the latter winning. And while the metal spikes of the Greek hand bindings had been removed, in the 17th century in England, the sport was much more primal than today’s sport. For example, there were no written rules or weight divisions, no round time limits or referees. What is more, an article on boxing published in Nottingham in 1713 by Sir Thomas Parkyns described the skills of “headbutting, punching, eye-gouging, chokes, and hard throws.”
Thomas Molineaux (1784 – 4 August 1818) was a famous African-American bare-knuckle boxer and former slave who won many fights in Britain and Ireland. (Public Domain)
The first recorded English prizefighting champion was James Figg in 1719 and the first official boxing rules, called ‘the Broughton's rules,’ were devised by prizefighter Jack Broughton in 1743 in an attempt to lower the number of fatalities coming out of the ring. A count of 30 seconds was given to downed fighters to give them an opportunity to recover and grasping below the waist was prohibited.
Boxing Rules Set In
In Robert Rodriguez’ 2009 expansive work on boxing titled The Regulation of Boxing, we learn that ‘The London Prize Ring Rules’ eventually “outlawed; butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, hitting a man while down, holding the ropes, and using resin, stones or hard objects in the hands, and biting.”
In 1867, the ‘Marquess of Queensberry Rules’ were prepared by John Chambers and published under the patronage of the Marquess of Queensberry “for amateur championships held at Lillie Bridge in London.”
1877 ‘Vanity Fair’ caricature of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. The caption reads "A good light weight.” (Public Domain)
These twelve new rules distinguished bouts for Lightweights, Middleweights, and Heavyweights and specified that fights should be "a fair stand-up boxing match" and all fights must be conducted in a “24-foot-square” ring with three minute rounds and a one-minute rest interval in between each.
The First Boxing Gloves
According to Encyclopedia Britannica the first gloves resembled “a bloated pair of mittens” and were designed to block strikes, which changed the nature of the sport from being almost solely attack focused to a more defensive game with dodging maneuvers such as "slipping, bobbing, countering and angling.”
Gloves also changed the ‘shape’ of the sport, in that the classic ‘forearms outwards’ with torso leaning backwards stance of the 19th century bare-knuckle boxer began to hunch over. Over the following years it developed into the modern boxer’s stance, where the torso leans forward with the hands much closer to the fighters face.
The First World Heavyweight Championship
The 19th century saw prizefighting outlawed in England and most of the United States, so like when alcohol was prohibited, prizefights occurred in underground gambling joints that were regularly raided by police. A seminal court case in England, R v. Coney 1882, ruled that a bare-knuckle fight was actually “an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants” and this brought about the end of public bare-knuckle contests.
The sport we know as boxing today was born in 1892, when the first world heavyweight championship was fought under the Queensberry Rules, a match recounted in Tracy Callis’ 2006 book James Corbett, in which ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett defeated John Lawrence Sullivan at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans.
John Lawrence Sullivan (1858 - 1918) AKA; Boston Strong Boy, was the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing from February 7, 1882 to 1892, and is generally recognized as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules. (Public Domain)
This fight raised the sport from being what was essentially a badly organized riot of outlawed prize fighting in illegal back street venues run by gangsters, to the multibillion-dollar sport we know today.
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Since its conception thousands of years ago, boxing has always attracted the young, and boxing scholar Louis Rubins tells us in his celebrated 2000 book The Manly art of Modified Mayhem: Dempsey and Others that “in Mexico, Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe… Young aspiring athletes wish to become the future of boxing.”
Even in the U.S., according to Rubin, “the inner cities of New York, and Chicago have given rise to promising young talent. Boxing lost its appeal with the American middle class, and most of who boxes in modern America come from the streets and are street fighters.”
This is as it has always been, and will always be.
Top Image: ‘Club Night (1907) by George Bellows. The history of boxing dates back thousands of years. Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie
Callis, Tracy, (2006), James Corbett. Cyberboxingzone.com. 18 February 1933.
IBHOF. (1999) “James Figg". Excerpting Roberts, James B.; Skutt, Alexander G. (2006). The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book (4th ed.). Ithaca, N.Y.: McBooks Press. ISBN 978-1-59013-121- 3. OCLC 819715339.
Parkyn, Thomas. (n.d.) “Sir Thomas Parkyn’s Inn-Play Wrestler.” Available at: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lx13m7QVfb1qa5yan.jpg
Poliakoff, Michael. (2018) "Boxing." Britannica.com. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/sports/boxing
Rodriguez, Robert G. (2009) The Regulation of Boxing: A History and Comparative Analysis of Policies Among American States. McFarland.
Rubin, Louis D. (2000) "The Manly art of Modified Mayhem: Dempsey and Others". The Sewanee Review. 108 (3): 412–432.