Boxing. The Noble Art. The sweet Science. It has a long history, and has generated thousands of stars, often rags to riches stories of the poorest people fighting their way to fame and fortune. It would be easy to write a book on the history of boxing, but I’m going to try and cover the important parts in this article.
The earliest known depiction of boxing comes from a relic found in Iraq that has been dated at over 5000 years old, so people have been punching each other in the face for a hell of a long time. In 688 BC the Ancient Greeks included boxing in the Olympic games, and it was always a popular sport. However it looked very different to sport we know today. Hands were wrapped with leather straps, and there were no rounds – the fight continued until one contender was unable to continue. There were no weight classes, so typically heavyweights came out on top. Oh yeah, and they would have been naked. Which adds a whole new element to the sport.
The Romans also enjoyed boxing, but took it to a whole new level. Over time the leather straps wrapped around the hands were made harder and harder, then sometimes had metal studs added. Fights were held in amphitheatres and initially were to the death, though as fighters became more popular and money was spent training slaves specifically for boxing they became more prized, and so their lives were often spared. A circle was normally drawn on the floor to mark the fighting area, and this is where we get the term ‘ring’ from. The Romans eventually decided boxing was getting out of hand and in 393 AD, during the height of the gladiator period, boxing was banned for being too brutal.
Then that was it for a long time, until about the 17th century, when bare knuckle prize fighting became popular in London, with the first bare knuckle champion, James Figg, being crowned in 1719. Figg has been described as the father of modern boxing, but still these early boxing fights would be unrecognised by today’s standards – no rounds, no referees, no weight classes and reports of headbutts, eye gouging, chokes and throws being common.
The first rules were introduced by Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters after some deaths in the ring. They prohibited grabbing your opponent below the waist, punching a downed opponent and if a fighter was downed he had 30 seconds to recover before the fight was stopped – however this was often considered unmanly. Broughton also encouraged the wearing of mufflers, a kind of padded bandage/mitten which was normally worn in training, during competitions.
In 1867 the Marquess of Queensberry rules were introduced, again after some deaths at fights, and this is where we start to see modern boxing emerging. The aim of the rules was to make fair, stand up boxing matches and here were 12 rules in total, which decreed that fights would be in a 24 foot square ring, with 3 minutes rounds broken up by 1 minutes rest, a 10 second count for a downed fighter and a ban on all wrestling. Fighters also had to wear gloves, which lead to a change in tactics as fighters could block punches with the gloves, leading to more bobbing and weaving, and a more modern boxing stance, as opposed to the one arm extended, one arm drawn back stance seen in bare knuckle fights.
Despite these structured rules throughout the end of the 19th century and early 20th century boxing bouts were still outlawed in England and much of the US, meaning that the fights often took place in gambling gyms and were regularly broken up by the police. Brawling and wrestling were still common, as were riots at prizefight venues. It was a court ruling in 1882 that decided that two boxers were committing ‘assault occasioning actual bodily harm’, even though both fighters consenting, that put an end to most public boxing bouts. However there were a number of champions that emerged during this time, fighting in states where boxing was legal, including ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett who became the first world heavyweight champ under the Queensberry rules in 1892.
The work of major promoters such as Tex Rickard and the popularity of champions like John L. Sullivan at the start of the 20th century, coupled with the legalisation of boxing in different states, lead to a rise in the popularity of boxing, which has becoming an insanely big sport today, with fighters competing huge purse and becoming household names, and the sport becoming the modern version we know today.