For many professionals, boxing represents more than getting half-naked into the ring with only a pair of boxing shorts to wear and throwing punches in the air. It is a way of life that involves not only physical strength but also good control of the emotions, discipline, and thousands of hours of practice.
If you’re interested in this full-contact sport or simply want to learn more about its history, here is everything you need to know.
Just like many other sports, we cannot put a label on a single person that has come up with boxing. There isn’t one culture that developed the concept and exported it over the years, as there isn’t just one person who can be credited with its invention.
Boxing has existed since the earliest ages and was probably used by our ancestors as a form of defense when fighting for food, land or resources.
Although not considered a sport but simply a part of men’s life, boxing seems to have continued to evolve as natural as humankind. One of the first strong pieces of evidence of it is found in Mesopotamia and Egypt, approximately five thousand years ago, while the first mentioning of boxing as a “prize fight” is recorded in Homer’s “Iliad”.
Soon after, the sport increased in popularity and was included in the Panhellenic festivals and the Olympic games. However, we are still talking about its primitive form, where there weren’t any rest periods, rings, different weight classes or even rounds.
The point system wasn’t very specific either, as there were only wins by KOs. In fact, a fighter was considered the winner of the fight only when his opponent was on the ground, without being able to continue.
This sport was also amongst the most popular in Ancient Rome, especially in the gladiator fights. To cause more damage to their opponents, often enough, gladiators would wrap their hands in leather straps and filled them with metal shards or broken glass. Most of the gladiators also fought until death in the arenas, which gave boxing the title of the most dangerous sport in the world.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Many traditions and customs disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. As the years went by, people got further away from former traditions and the liberty that once governed Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Middle Ages were highly influenced by the Church, which caused censorship and the renouncement of everything that was once considered decadent.
Other medieval sports appeared and the aristocratic class mainly focused on more “dignified” activities like tournaments, hunting, and archery. The occasional fist fights were deemed as unworthy of the ruling class, thus were mainly popular amongst the peasants and the working class.
During the Renaissance years or the great Age of Enlightenment, Europeans fought hard to recover the lost interest in ancient traditions and knowledge. People became interested again in science, fine arts, and lost sports, including boxing. Therefore, the latter increased in popularity and saw a comeback as a modern sport in 18th century England.
The 18th century
As we previously mentioned, the decades between 1730 and 1760 are considered the most important in the modern history of boxing as this is when the first rules were imposed. The first rules became active in 1743 and stated that it was illegal to hit a player who was already on the ground.
Furthermore, a former champion, John Broughton, was the one who tried to impose these rules and brought boxing into prominence once more. The Englishman marketed boxing as the “noble science of self-defense”, trying to increase the interest of people in this activity.
However, Broughton was also the one who pushed boxing as a fine art that would preserve Britain’s manhood and pure identity. Back in the ages, a woman’s role in society was mainly based on her duties as a mother and a wife, so any type of activity that was deemed as “manly” was strictly forbidden and condemned by the society.
The first Golden Age of modern boxing
The following years at the end of the 18th century saw a great interest of the aristocratic class in this sport, which also led to the first modern Golden Age of boxing. More and more fights were organized and supported by gentlemen clubs and other social gatherings.
England’s war with France also determined men to become more nationalist and try to find new ways to support their cultural identity, and this included turning boxing into a national sport. The so-called real “British art” was perfected throughout the years by many other players, all trying to preserve some of England’s most valuable traits.
The Queensberry Rules
Deep in the Victorian Age, Britain began sinking once again into high morality standards. Therefore, any activity that would harm the image of the perfect dandy was considered immoral and dangerous to the wellbeing of society. Violence in any form, together with gambling and boxing, were labeled as grotesque and demoralizing and couldn’t find a way inside the world of a true gentleman.
In the 1860s, the Queensberry Rules were published, setting new grounds for modern boxing. One of the most important rules was that pugilists must wear gloves at all times while fighting. However, this also drastically changed the structure of the game and imposed new rules that ought to be followed for a “clean” fight.
These rules turned boxing into a safer sport, and it also helped increase its popularity and made a true brand out of it that was soon exported to the United States.
The 19th century and the move to the United States
What started in Great Britain, specifically England, was bound to soon travel across the ocean and make it into the new land of all possibilities, the United States of America. At the beginning of the 18th century, boxing was barely considered a sport of interest around here, but this changed as its popularity increased back home in Europe.
With so many new pugilists fighting for their way up, Great Britain had no choice but to send them overseas, seeking new fighting possibilities and trying to make a living out of it. Here, it continued to increase in popularity throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Boxing – between prohibition and segregation
The first decades of the 1900s weren’t the brightest in human history. In the uncertain years after World War I, boxing bounced back and forth between being legal and illegal. In some states, it was strictly prohibited due to its ties to gambling and corruption.
In order to return to its former glory, boxing started being promoted based on ethnicity and race hatred. Often enough, matches solely relied on racial differences to attract new supporters from all social categories. The actual people fighting in the ring were considered less interesting than the true battle between whites and blacks, which only deepened the racial war and caused new conflicts. This eventually changed, but left a big mark on the sport.