History of Boxing

The boxing matches we enjoy today are a far cry from the gory origins this beloved sport has. It’s best to start by understanding that boxing is a combat sport involving two opponents. You must follow the rules as set and wear the required protective gear. That is the only way to take part in this game. Far from the ring, you can engage in boxing as a pass time or for fitness. There is nothing like taking out your frustrations or stress on the ring with a live opponent now is there?

Boxing matches involving the top players in the field engage millions of fans around the world. Nothing gets boxing enthusiasts excited like a highly advertised match involving Floyd Mayweather. People from all across the world tune in to watch which only goes to show how important this combat sport has become to the world of sports. There are over 6.5 million boxers in the US ranging from young children to adults. 

Every professional boxing match requires the presence of a referee and judges that determine the outcome. Every round you engage in lasts for at least 3 minutes and there are a total of 12 rounds. In case you engage your opponent for the complete 12 rounds the judges determine the outcome. Still, a winner can be declared before the rounds are complete in case one is knocked out or violates certain rules. The two forms of boxing you come across are amateur and professional. 

A draw is reached when all the rounds are done and the opponents have equal scores according to the judges. Some instances like the Olympics don’t permit draws and technical criteria must be used to declare a winner. The exact moment boxing or hand to hand combat started is not known. But human beings have engaged in this form of fighting for centuries. 

In the Beginning

At the earliest recorded evidence of hand to hand combat, it was mainly used for warfare before it became a sport. It’s at the times of the ancient Sumerians that the earliest evidence of boxing is depicted. This was at the 3rd millennium BC (1350BC) which was the time of the Sumerian Relief. An Egyptian sculpture displays spectators and two boxers. This was a contest that involved bear hand to hand combat and only simple bandaging of the hands. Gloves made their first appearance in 1500BC at the time of the Minoan Crete. The boxers of this period in time wore gloves, helmets and stiff plates to protect their chests. 

The Greeks were the first boxers to come up with rules for the sport. Still, their crudeness continued for there was no rest. You fought your opponent continuously without any rounds. Only when you were unable to continue or held a finger up was the match stopped indicating your defeat. All boxing matches at the time of the ancient Greeks were held in arenas out in the open. It made the game more challenging with the elements playing an important role. Only the strongest endured the crude conditions of these ancient duels. 

Boxing matches in ancient Greek times involved players from all walks of life. At the start, it was a preserve of the wealthiest and most powerful in the land. Later the game was open to more people despite their social standing. The crudeness of the sport was not lost to all involved in it. Blood was a common factor and serious injury. According to Greek literature, the sport was one of the major causes of disfigurement and cost many players their lives. In one instance noted on the Iliad, Homer recounts one of the bloodiest bouts fought in 675 BCE. 

The ancient Greeks were known to use gloves only when practicing. On the day of the match, no one fought with them. It was the ancient Romans who developed the first glove used for boxing purposes but still not for contests. The Roman glove was called caestus and is prominent in many mosaics from these ancient times. The purpose of the glove was to toughen opponents up before the actual match. It was made using crude items such as spikes or metal lumps that are sewn into the leather. 

One of the most renowned boxing matches of this period is the one between Entellus and Dares. It was fought in the 1st century BC and is detailed on the pages of the pugilism article. This was the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Romans were vested in boxing for both warfare and leisure purposes. You could head to the arena to watch a match between opponents but gladiators used it to prepare for battle. It featured heavily on the training for Roman soldiers who engaged in hand to hand combat. 

Roman gladiators fought to the death. The only way the game ended was for one opponent to kill another. This was largely done away with the decline of Roman influence. The rise of Christianity in this region played a large role too. The sport declined in popularity as many people turned away from its crude nature. 

Return of Boxing

In 1681 the first formal boxing match is recorded after a long time in Britain. It was the brainchild of the second Duke of Albemarle known as Christopher Monck. He organized for his butler and butcher to engage in a boxing match with a prize for the winner. The butcher won. Later more matches were organized at the Royal Theatre of London in 1698. Many boxers were in it for the enticing purses agreed for each match. Bets were a common occurrence with many onlookers placing bets depending on who their favorite boxer was. 

At this time, the matches were still fought without any gloves on and no rules had been formed. Nothing like weight divisions existed among many other rules of modern-day boxing. All that mattered was the champion who emerged from each match. The only notable similarity to modern boxing was the rounds. Other than that you had to fight until a winner was declared. Boxing at the time was combined with bits of wrestling and one could still keep hitting the other even when down. It’s important to note that many of these matches were done in some form of secrecy as boxing was not legal at the time. 

The most popular fighter of this era was James Figg who won the hearts of many boxing enthusiasts. He managed to hold on to the title of English Champion for 15 years. He had many pupils that he trained and one of them made great strides in making boxing an acceptable sport in England. His name was Jack Broughton who became a formidable athlete. He is credited with the first set of rules which he came up with in 1743. He came up with the rules after an opponent died as a result of fight related injuries. These rules guided boxing until 1838 when the London Prize Ring rules came into effect. 

The sport so far before the rules by Broughton was brutal and resulted in many unnecessary injuries. Fighters used more than just their fists and he was the first to define the sport by fists only. Some wrestling aspects like holds were permitted but no one could grab the other below the waist. A round lasted as long as both opponents remained standing. He was declared beaten if 30 seconds ended without getting up to face the opponent. No fighter was allowed to hit an opponent who was down. 

These rules changed the game immensely and won Broughton the title of ‘Father of Boxing’. To make the sport more attractive to pupils, simple versions of the modern-day gloves were introduces. They were called mufflers and protected the fighters’ faces and hands. The only problem with mufflers was they resulted in many more injuries than boxing with bare knuckles. Boxers hit each other harder and aim for the face with gloves on than when they didn’t have them on. Even now there is an ongoing debate when it comes to boxing with or without gloves. 

In 1750, Jack Slack beat Broughton ending his dominance of the championship. This also marked the beginning of a tough time for the sport. Match-fixing became a common occurrence even though some amazing fighters did emerge at this time. The exceptions were Gentleman John Jackson and Daniel Mendoza who were great fighters in the late 1700s. Mendoza was known for his skillful prowess on the ring with lightning speed. It came in handy considering he only weighed 160 pounds. 

The British royals became interested in boxing due largely to the championship of Gentleman Jackson who defeated Mendoza. The game was transformed from an image of savagery to one of respect by his championship. With this came rising interest and popularity with many people getting involved thanks to the aristocracy of the time. It resulted in many champion fighters from 1800 to around 1850 like Jem Mace, Tom Cribb, Jem Belcher among others. They were the ultimate symbol of manliness in all of England. 

The London Prize Rules took over from those introduced by Broughton in 1838 under the British Pugilists’ Protective Association. The rules were not only for English fighters but for boxers in the US. The first match to use these new rules was fought in 1839 which involved William Thompson and James Burke. William defeated Burke emerging as the new champion. The match was fought in a specific ring that measured 24 feet on all sides in the shape of a square. 

Each round as per the new rules came to an end when the player was down. They were picked up and led to a corner for 30 seconds after which the next round would start. The boxers got back to the middle of the ring without any help after half a minute. In case one boxer was unable to make it then he forfeited the match. This happened after 8 seconds were added to their time. Fouls came into effect with the new rules. Every player had to toe the line or get kicked out. You could forget about biting, low blows, or head butts. 

World championships became a common occurrence in the Regency Era and fighting without gloves was still the order of the day. Britain and the US were constant rivals. It was at the time of the new rules that boxing in the US had grown in popularity despite being introduced back in the 1700s. Many of the fighters in the US at the time (1800s) were immigrants from Ireland and Britain. Not many fighters at the time were born in the US. 

The Queensberry Rules

The London Prize rules made a lot of changes in boxing but that was not enough to engage many of the upper class. The brutality of the game kept many away from the sport which meant more changes had to be made. In 1867, John Graham Chambers came up with yet another set of rules for boxing. He was head of the Amateur Athletic Club. His focus was more on technique and skill involved in boxing. The new guidelines were known as the Queensberry rules thanks to the marquess of Queensberry who lent Chambers his name. 

The new rules had major differences from the London Prize rules. For one, opponents had to wear gloves when engaged in fighting for the first time in the history of boxing. The gloves were padded to add more protection. This was the first time a round was timed to only last 3 minutes. After every round, there was a rest period that lasted for 1 whole minute. Wrestling was no longer permitted as part of boxing and led to a direct foul. Any fighter who went down only had 10 seconds to get back up without any assistance. Failure to do so led to defeat. Weight divisions were introduced to categorize fighters according to how much they weighed. 

The older professional fighters were not amused by the new rules and considered them to cushy for boxing. Only the younger fighters showed an interest in implementing the Queensberry rules. Professionals continued to engage the London Prize rules. One champion who contributed to the Queensberry rules rise and acceptance was James Mace. He preferred fighting with padded gloves on rather than bare knuckles. American fighters began making a name for themselves and defeated many British fighters. Two former slaves that game America its championships were Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond. 

The two American champions fought against the then British top boxers including Tom Cribb. It became a common occurrence of British champions visiting America to engage in championship bouts. British boxers felt the decline of the sport in England and engaged more in international matches in the US. At the time there was a wave Evangelical religion among the middle class. Many viewed the sport had many sinful attributes and refrained from it. Most people engaged in drinking and gambling whenever they went to view a match. Violent outbursts were common in these games involving the spectators. 

In the US, this was not a concern of the thousands of immigrants who had left the stricter life of Europe. Boxing bouts were a preferred pastime with many matches organized. Ethnicity was promoted between Irish and British immigrant fighters. It led to many fights between onlookers from the two ethnicities which turned brutal. The most famous fighters from this era included John Heenan, Yankee Sullivan, and Tom Hyer. The reign of British born boxers came to an end when John L. Sullivan won the championship in 1882. 

Sullivan was an American born fighter and many fighters after him for over a century were from the US. He was the first fighter to ensure many fighters implemented the Queensberry rules. His first title was won under the London Prize rules and later in 1889 defended his title. He fought Jake Kilrain in what was the last gloveless match to be fought in the boxing championship. After that boxing without gloves on was made illegal in the US, in 1892 Sullivan fought his first gloved match against James J. Corbett. 

The Legality of Boxing

For the longest time boxing in Britain was illegal. The rules that governed the sport took this into effect. It was tough to reconcile an activity that was barbaric with a civilized society. The main courts of England at the time viewed it as a backward stance not a practice for civilized minds. Despite their best endeavor, the sport grew in popularity. It became legal and was widely accepted as a sport enjoyed by many. 

The legal lines of boxing in the US were different as compared to those in Britain.  The judiciary was kept at its toes due to the high prevalence of unlawful acts and puritan beliefs. Prize fights became ever more popular across the country leading to laws enacted that outlawed fistfights. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that boxing brought more harm than good to society. It served no great purpose and only brought more disruption to society in terms of prize fights. 

As a result of the ruling, boxing became some-what illegal in the country but rising popularity and profitability made many states reconsider. The heavyweight champion at the time was considered a symbol of American might and dominance. 

20th Century Boxing

By the 20th century, boxing had become one of the most popular sports in the US and made many fighters rich as a result. Many fighters had amassed fortunes from the sport despite their race or ethnicity. The 20th century was the time professional boxing became a part of the US sports calendar. Many immigrants flooded the country and it was growing immensely in terms of its economy. By 1905, the sport was majorly dominated by the Irish who had fled Ireland due to drought and famine. 

Terry MacGovern, Mike Sullivan, Jack O’Brien, and Jimmy Clabby were the greatest professional boxers of their time. All were Irish. Later top fighters from other areas including Germany, Jewish, and Scandinavian countries emerged. At a time where racial profiling of Black Americans was high in the US, black fighters were forces to reckon with. The best included George Dixon, Sam Langford, and Peter Jackson. In 1908 Joe Jackson became the first black American fighter to emerge as heavyweight champion. Many of the black fighters had difficulty taking part in professional bouts as white fighters refused to face them in the ring. 

Famous white fighters such as John L. Sullivan refused to face any African American fighter and so did his pupil Jim Corbett. When Jackson was the heavyweight champion, he was forced to leave the US due to relentless hounding by white boxing fans. This, however, never extinguished the fire of black fighters who continued to pursue championships during the Great Depression. 1936 saw a match against the US and Germany with the US represented by black American fighter Joe Louis. His opponent was German Max Schmeling who won the match after the 12th round. 

1937 saw Louis emerge as the heavyweight champion but never accepted the title of champion. He stated he would accept it only after another match with Schmeling. The match was fought in 1938 and largely represented the rising conflict between the US and Germany. Louis won the match at the 1st round and cemented victory of democracy at a time when Adolf Hitler ruled Germany with an iron fist.  Race was the last thing in many Americans’ minds at this time. 

Other great African American boxers of the 20th century included Joe Fraizier, Mohammed Ali, Sonny Liston, Ezzard Charles, Bob Foster among others. African American boxers became a symbol of boxing by the turn of the 21st century with the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Junior, Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Thomas Hearnes, Mike Tyson among others. 


Boxing has come a long way from the time it was considered a barbaric sport and illegal. Many professional boxers are symbols of excellence and power across the world. To be honest, boxing has a bloody history but has made strides to be more civilized. The introduction and revision of rules made this possible. Now many people enjoy it as a pass time and even children engage in active boxing.