The Complete History of Boxing

We think of boxing as having been around since forever, but in fact, the way we see it today is a much more modern phenomenon. With an intriguing backstory and origins covering most of the largest empires on earth, boxing is one sport that has a history with a capital ‘H’. Beginning in Africa, the early art of boxing crossed borders to other civilisations such as India, Greece and finally Rome. There it remained until the English adopted the techniques and added its own set of rules, creating a sport that could be watched, paid for and betted on by thousands. From there, boxing grew exponentially into the juggernaut we see today.

The Origin Story

Surely using your hands as fists to fight off enemies, is as old as time itself? The chances are very high. Neanderthals were probably punching out other cave-dwellers whilst learning how to fashion tools from flint.

Minoan Early Boxing - BCE 1650

However, I was somewhat surprised to discover that boxing as a competition has existed globally since antiquity too. When we talk about its origin, we go back to the year 6000 BC (which is recorded) in the area of ​​present-day Ethiopia, from where it first spread to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. From Egypt, it then stepped into the Minoan civilization in Crete and from Mesopotamia spread to India.

Spanning Civilisations

In ancient Greece, Homer himself referred to boxing in his famous epic poem “Iliad”, in the eighth century BC.

In 688 BC the boxing was included in the original Olympic games, where the first champion was Onomastus of Smyrna. Already in ancient Greece, it is known that practitioners of this sport were trained with sandbags called korykos and used leather straps called himates that covered their hands and wrists, leaving their fingers free.

Dares Vs Entellus - Ancient Greek Boxing

This sport also began to be practised in ancient Rome but was quickly banned and eliminated as an activity throughout Europe with the appearance of Christianity. However, as far as the Asian continent is concerned, boxing was very well received. For all you MMA fans, it is estimated that at the beginning of the Christian era, Muay Boran - ancestral boxing in Southeast Asia - appeared.

Another form that appeared in Asia at the hands of Bodhidharma (a Buddhist monk who lived in the fifth century) was Shaolin boxing or Chinese boxing - named for his residence in a Shaolin monastery. The definitive forms of Shaolin boxing were created by Chueh-Yuan, Pai-Yu-Feng and Li-Ch'ing, during the Ming Dynasty. In the thirteenth century, Muay Thay or Thai boxing appeared in Siam, which eventually became a professional sport in the seventeenth century.

Made in England

Modern boxing was born in the early eighteenth century, and did so in England, under the government of William of Orange. In this time, they begin to practise fist fights but already began adopting the position of guard and other techniques in terms of the blows dealt out. Believe it or not, these would be the precursors of what is nowadays represented in modern pugilistic fights.

In 1681, a review of a fight for money already appeared in a London gazette - although it seems to be an isolated act that cannot be considered as the origin of this sport. It says that: "Yesterday, a boxing match was held before the Duke of Albermarle between his baker and his butcher; winning the latter the prize.”

Bare Knucle Fighting - Early 19th Century

Money soon constituted the prime motivation for this more civilised form of fighting. Gambling on fighters took hold and so the thirst for more organised boxing matches - particularly in London - began for both punters and fighters.

The Father of Boxing

Ever heard of James Figgs? No? Well, he could well be considered as the true "father of boxing". Born in 1695 in Thames Village, Oxfordshire, to a humble family, he became a great boxing teacher, the first known of its kind. He abandoned other occupations (he was a teacher of other disciplines, such as fencing and various martial arts also) to devote himself to pugilism completely.

Weighing 84 kilos and 1.83 cm tall, Figgs was not just an innovative coach, but also the first great figure of boxing full stop. He stayed unbeaten for eleven years, between 1719 and 1730, in which he fought approximately 300 times. As an interesting side note, his boxing style was similar to that of a fencing competitor, according to the chroniclers of the time.

James Figg - Prize Pugilist

With the retirement of Figgs in 1730 (he would die of pneumonia in 1734) his disciple George Taylor, succeeded him. However, the reign of Taylor did not last long. In 1733, the second major figure of the sport emerged, Jack Broughton, and it was he who retained the title until 1750.

Until this time, the noble art, still linked to the lower classes, was used to negotiate quarrels - legally - for money. In this regard, practically anything was allowed, except for kicks, blows below the waist and blows once the opponent was on the ground. The preparation of the boxers was reduced to a few rudimentary exercises with weights and some race to improve their resistance.

Broughton would end up changing everything.

The Broughton Rules

The chances are, you’ve heard the name Jack Broughton somewhere. That’s because he developed the first rules of boxing and introduced the gloves, called "mufflers", to prevent accidents and which soon become an indispensable element in boxing. However, during the first hundred years, they were only used during training. The combat was carried out without them, and even prior to a fight, the contestants bathed their hands in a soda solution to harden them and make them more resistant.

The aforementioned first rules of boxing (known as Broughton rules), were established on August 10, 1743. There were only seven but were groundbreaking enough to revolutionise the sport and bring it into a new era of regulation.

John Broughton - Champion Pugilist

The 7 rules of John Broughton

1. Retreat to your corner of the ring after the fall of the opponent

2. Half a minute is counted after a knockdown in the centre of the ring, to then either return to combat or be recognised as the "defeated man"

3. Only fighters and their seconds could get into the ring

4. It is forbidden to pre-arrange the distribution of money among boxers

5. The election of umpires to resolve disputes between boxers

6. It is forbidden to hit the opponent when he is on the canvas

7. The blows can only be made above the waist

The idea of ​​raising the ring six feet off the ground was also from Broughton and was motivated by the fact that, each time a boxer fell to the ground, his supporters entered the ring to help him. Likewise, Broughton introduced a square painted with chalk in the centre of the ring, from which the contestants had to step on the opposite end before starting an attack.

The movement of legs in boxing is introduced a few years later by Hunt, one of the disciples of Broughton. This served to increase the chances of small boxers, supplementing their lack of stature with greater mobility.

A Bitesize History of Boxing Terms

Beat Someone to the Punch (1913)
This term originates from the notion of successfully landing a punch prior to your opponent doing so.

Below the Belt (1889)
Below the belt came from the prohibited and underhand boxing manoeuvre of throwing punches to somebody in the groin area.

Blow by Blow (the early 1920s)
This term meaning a very thorough narrative was first used as a way of describing prize-fight radio broadcasts.

Glutton for Punishment (mid 1800s)
This phrase, meaning one who doesn’t give up in a losing or hopeless situation, was first used in terms of boxing in the mid-1800s.

Killer Instinct (early 1930s)
Killer instinct was originally used as a description of American heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. The phrase means one has an intense will to win at all costs.

Pluck (late 1800s)
In early boxing slang, a fighter who had pluck was seen as very brave. This could often be referring to a courageous loser in the ring.

Punch Drunk
This phrase refers to a dazed state and finds its origins in boxing when describing a fighter stunned after too many landed blows to the head.

Roll with the Punches
This term, meaning to adjust easily to hostile conditions, comes from the fighting manoeuvre of feinting and rolling your head and body, to limit the impact caused by a blow.

Saved by the Bell
Saved by the bell means to be saved at the last moment from a risky situation. In a literal sense, it refers to a losing fighter being “saved” by a bell that is rung at the end of each round.

Throw in the Towel (early 1900s)
To throw in the towel, or give up, originated from the boxing practice of flinging a white towel inside the ring when declaring defeat. This idea stems from even earlier days when the second in charge would throw in a sponge to concede defeat.

New Eras, New Champions

Practically at the same time boxing arrived in the inner city slums of America, over in England, straight out of Bethnal Green, Daniel Mendoza began to rule the ring.

He introduced boxing as a finer art, in both defence and attack, inventing new punches, leg movements and demonstrated that feints and dodges were much more profitable than simply slugging with the fists.

Thanks to this new style, Mendoza, with a height of 1.70 cm. and a weight of 75 kg was able to defeat much larger rivals. Heavyweight champion between 1792 and 1795, he was to date, the only man of average weight capable of winning the World Heavyweight Championship.

Mendoza Vs Humphreys -  1788  Odiham, England

In 1789 he opened his own boxing academy and came to publish a book, entitled The Art of Boxing, of great influence on boxing in the following years.

To get an idea of ​​what boxing was still like at this time, it can be noted that in the fight for Mendoza's title against Jackson in 1795, he would lose the title after being held by the hair with Jackson’s one hand and then pummelled in the head with his stronger hand.

Queensbury and the Next Great Leaps

It is in 1838 when certain legal aspects of boxing are regulated, especially with regard to betting, by means of the so-called "London Prize Ring Rules" that included a total of 29 rules.

Then onto the second great modification of the rules of modern boxing, brought about by John Solton Douglas, the Marquis of Queensberry. In 1867, he introduced a new code of twelve rules that, with very few modifications, have remarkably survived to this day.

Among them, the most prominent was the use of padded gloves, a canvas on the floor and the rounds of three minutes with a break of one minute between them. He also regulated the possibility of winning the fight by points, and the falls, during which the opponent could not be attacked because he was considered temporarily out of action.

Lord Byron's Boxing Gloves - Early 19th Century

With the gradual acceptance of the rules of the Marquis of Queensberry, two clear branches of boxing, the professional and the amateur, have emerged, each of which has produced its own local, national and international regulatory bodies, with its own variations of the rules.

James John Corbett

Finally, it is with James John Corbett that the concept of style in boxing begins to be developed, in contrast to the figure of the predominant static puncher until then. Hailing from San Francisco, he introduced the left hook and was the first to play a police-protected fight, between John L. Sullivan for the World Championship of all weights on September 7, 1892.

James John Corbett - Boxing World Champion 1892

Corbett would also be the first to participate in a filmed fight - in 1894, against Pete Courtney - with the then brand-new Edison kinetoscope.

In 1904, boxing was introduced in the Olympic Games of Saint Louis in the USA. This fact already marks the inclusion of boxing in the history of modern sport as a completely regulated and universally extended speciality. Any new modifications as of that moment would be minor, as most of the contemporary regulations were set in place and have not altered much since.

A Meteoric Rise to The Present

The first half of the 20th century is seen as a golden age of boxing, out of which came hurtling heroes such as Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo. The fights were rarely short and often brutal, visceral affairs where no quarter was given. Attendance records began to be broken for each new world title bout and boxing had truly reached epic proportions.

From there in the 1920s, boxing never looked back. Each new decade brought about its own legends of the sport. Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman & Sonny Liston. The names themselves stir memories or emotions - Tyson, Holyfield, Hearns, Hagler. 20th-century icons were made; history telling us that these individuals should be remembered and embraced and spoken about with reverence.

James Lamotta - The raging bull

Many criticise boxing nowadays, saying that it has lost some of its magic, yet viewing figures, attendances and boxing club memberships say that is not the case. New stars are always born in any sport, and for as long as that remains true, boxing will always have its place.