Boxing has an amazingly rich history dating back thousands of years. One of the biggest sports in the world that creates millionaire superstars has some very modest beginnings. In this article, we take a look at boxings humble past all the way to its popular present.
When people think of boxing today, we think of shirtless men in a pair of shorts and thick gloves, trading jabs and punches for twelve rounds until either one ends up passing out or the referee declares a winner.
Some of these events are broadcast nationally or internationally, to audiences well into the millions.
This sport makes billions of dollars in revenue each year, as evidenced by the Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather fight, which had a combined payout of over three hundred million dollars.
Boxing, however, had much more humble beginnings than you might be lead to believe by what it has become today. To put it bluntly, people have been punching each other for sport since ancient times.
The Very Beginnings
The first written record of a fist-fighting competition shows up in Ancient Sumeria, around 3000 BCE.
We do not have much in the way of details in regards to how this competition was held, but it is generally thought that these would have been less of a “boxing” match and more of a “beat the brakes off each other through whatever means you can” match.
The first spiritual ancestor to boxing as we know it showed up in Egypt around the same time frame. This was also a bare-knuckles type of match, but with more structure and some basic rules set in place. The images found depict wrist bands being used instead of full-hand gloves.
Gloves seem to be first introduced into the sport by the ancient Greeks sometime between 1500 BC and 700 BC. These gloves were primitive, of course, and were essentially leather wraps tied around the hand and wrist to provide support and protection during the match.
The Greeks were also the first to formally set rules in a boxing match when they brought boxing into the Olympic Games. In these matches, there were no weight classes and no rounds. Boxers were expected to fight until one surrendered, passed out, or was killed.
Boxing got a firm hold on the Roman Empire some time after the fall of the Greek civilization. As the Romans did with many things they discovered, they found ways to make the sport even more brutal and bloodthirsty.
The first known innovation in Roman boxing was known as the “cestus.” This was a hand covering similar in many ways to the leather wraps the Greeks were using – except the cestus had sharp metal studs embedded into the leather.
This innovation helped move boxing from a quiet blood sport to the large, public environment of the amphitheatre.
Roman boxers were usually slaves who trained to box, similar to their contemporary gladiators. This was also the beginning of the boxing ring, created by drawing a circle in the sand that the boxers had to stay inside while competing.
As the Roman Empire began to fall, many countries in Europe outlawed boxing. The way the Romans had morphed boxing had turned into a deadly sport, and most rulers did not want their people killing each other in a sport.
Some time between 1500 and 1600, boxing began to resurface in back-alley bars and taverns. Because the boxers were competing for prize money or trinkets, it came to be known as “prizefighting.”
The first documented prizefighting match was held by the second Duke of Albemarle, Christopher Monck. He had his butcher and his butler fight, with the butcher taking the win.
Prizefighting matches went back to bare-knuckle boxing with very few rules. Because of this, even without the spiked leather wraps of the Roman era, prizefights were often primal and brutal affairs, with lots of gouging and biting.
In essence, these were not-quite-legal street fights with a paid winner. As in Greece, there were no weight classes or round divisions, so in essence it came down to the same rules – whoever can not continue the fight is declared the loser.
Adding Rules to the Fight
In 1743, a renowned bare-knuckle boxer named Jack Broughton introduced the first-ever ruleset to the sport. He introduced these, he stated, to defend the health and safety of the fighters.
Broughton’s ruleset still forms the basis for many of the modern-day boxing rules. This includes things like a thirty-second knockdown count, a limit on the types of strikes you could throw (for instance, eye-gouging was no longer allowed in a boxing match). However, this does not mean his ruleset could not be improved upon.
Some time in the middle of the nineteenth century, the rules that govern modern boxing were born. They were developed by a man named John Chambers with the blessing of the Marquess of Queensberry.
These rules stated that the match should take place standing up, in a square boxing ring twenty-four feet across. Bouts were to consist of three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest between rounds. The knockdown count was also changed from thirty seconds to ten seconds.
It was also around this time that boxing gloves were introduced. These changed the sport entirely and made the bouts safer. It also made a way for fighters to focus on defence and strategy just as much as offence. It introduced bobbing, weaving, and counterpunching which are all traits we expect to see in a modern boxing match.
You can see more origins of boxing rules here.
Boxing has created a number of sports legends, including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather. It took millennia to go from bare-knuckle brawls with no rules to the elegant sport we recognize as modern boxing.
Boxing has also found its way into the pop culture scene, with more movies made about boxing than any other sport. Between the Rocky Series, the newer Southpaw move, and a host of others, no other sport captures the imagination of the audience quite like the combat sport of boxing does.
Ultimately, boxing today is more popular than it has ever been. It is no longer something people do in a seedy back-alley bar to earn a little money. In the modern-day, boxing is practised in hundreds of nations across the world. Many of the people who practice it see it not just as a sport or a hobby, but as a way of life. To these fighters, the goal is to be the next big legend.
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