Boxing is among the world's oldest and most popular sports. Its origins as a bare knuckled, toe-to-toe athletic contest for sport date back thousands of years. What began as rudimentary fist fighting in the Middle East some millennia ago later spawned a pretty brutal spectacle in Ancient Greece and Rome. This begat the more civilized “gentle art” of self defense in 18th Century England, which ultimately gave birth to the organized "sweet science" we know today with rules, a scoring system, and protective equipment.
The birth of modern boxing, sometime around the early 1700’s, was something more akin to today’s MMA, with fights that might include grappling and simple weapons while employing very few rules. These early matches could go on indefinitely without a break, there were no weight classes and someone like Bernard Hopkins, at age 50, would not be considered old for the sport. Many fighters suffered debilitating injuries, and it was not uncommon for a match to end in a fatality. Eventually the pens where the fighters engaged in battle started being lined by ropes in place of the wood beams that were commonly used prior. During this time, women were also getting involved in the sport and would even be pitted against men due to a scarcity of opponents. Although the brutality of the style and the lack of rules and protections seemed to favor men, these women held their own and were often victorious against the opposite sex.
James Figg, transformed the sport in the late 17th
Century by making boxing a primarily stand-up contest.
Figg became England’s first bareknuckle champion
and held the title for 11 years.
It was in the mid-1700’s that an English fighter named Jack Broughton brought about many pioneering changes that helped move boxing further along as a civilized sport. Broughton was ahead of his time with his technique, especially with the use of defensive tactics. Broughton would develop “mufflers,” the first modern boxing glove, which were skinned in leather and padded with lamb’s wool and horsehair. These were meant to limit injury for bare-knuckle fighters during sparring training and not intended for use in competition. In fact, boxing gloves would not be seen in competition for about another half century.
Broughton also developed the first rules for boxing, leading to the creation of the original London Prize Ring Rules, which likely influenced the Marquess of Queensberry rules, which in turn served as a blueprint for today’s various Boxing Commission rules and regulations. In a Broughton-style fight each round would last until one of the fighters got knocked down and then there would be 30 seconds of rest until the new round, assuming the fighter could continue. There were no ringside doctors, so rather it was up to the police to stop a fight if things got out of hand. You could say it was a start.
In the late 1700’s, British champion Daniel Mendoza emerged and brought about more updates to the sport. Mendoza, known as the first Jewish boxing champion, incorporated many revolutionary defensive moves that today are fundamental (ducking, blocking, rudimentary footwork). Mendoza would go on to publish an influential book on fighting style named the Art of Boxing, which was actually a new, more scientific look at the techniques of the sport. In 1790. Mendoza would go up against his major rival for a third time in the first fight to charge spectators an entry fee. Leading up to the fight Mendoza and his opponent staged some early promotional “trash talking” via letters to each other that were then published in the press.
By the mid 1800’s boxing remained fairly unpopular in the United States, and was even illegal in some regions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which included the mandatory use of gloves in competition and introduced weight classes for the first time, were becoming widely adopted. The adoption of gloves for competition, in particular, had a profound effect on the style of fighting. Now boxers could block their opponents’ punches and the default stance went from standing upright with the arms extended to leaning over with gloved hands protecting the head, comparable to what we’re familiar with today.
Late in the same century, John L. Sullivan came along and helped increase the sport’s popularity in the U.S. Sullivan holds the distinction of fighting in both the last heavyweight bare knuckle championship bout in 1889 and the first gloved heavyweight championship four years later. Sullivan is considered by many to be the first American sports star. He lost to Gentleman Jim Corbett in that later contest by knockout inside the 21st round. They were using five ounce gloves - half as much as those used by today’s heavyweights.
Jack Johnson is famed as the first African-American to go from Colored Heavyweight Champion to World Heavyweight Champion in 1908, but it was nearly two decades earlier when bantamweight Canadian, George “Little Chocolate” Dixon, became the very first black man to win a world boxing title. Dixon would often fight larger opponents and after he retained both the bantamweight and featherweight world titles, he became the first boxer to win belts in multiple weight classes.
The Sweet Science began to thrive as an amateur sport in the 20th Century. Boxing was introduced as an Olympic event in 1904 and even featured women, but only at an exhibition level. In 1923, the Golden Gloves tournament was born, giving young amateur fighters a broad showcase for their skills. Boxing was also a popular intercollegiate sport in the U.S., although it was banned for about a decade after a competition fatality and rampant cheating (amateur fighters posing as students). Since the mid-1970’s though, boxing has returned to a limited number of universities as a club sport.
Another change that occurred in the early part of
the 20th Century was the addition of mouthguards
as mandatory protection during fights. Up until about
1927 mouthguards were not allowed in boxing!
During the early to mid 20th Century, boxing reached its height of popularity in the United States, marked by many as the Golden Age of Boxing. Iconic fighters like Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney paved the way for even bigger names like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore and “Sugar” Ray Robinson. As television came along and became widespread in the mid century, more fans were drawn away from the live fights, which put many smaller venues out of business. With a continuing lineup of boxing stars, including the inimitable Muhammad Ali, there was a ton of enthusiasm for the sport, especially when it came to betting on bouts. Boxing’s popularity and profitability infamously drew the attention of organized crime, which brought about a lingering shadow of corruption.
Meanwhile, women’s boxing quietly existed throughout the 20th Century, quite popular in some places, controversial in others. But in the 21st Century, following many legal actions and social movements, women’s boxing finally began to be recognized as a legitimate sport and come out of the shadows to take it’s rightful place alongside men’s boxing. Over 100 years after men’s boxing debuted at the Olympics, women’s boxing was finally added as an official event in 2012, albeit in limited weight classes. In 2014 the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame was established.
The sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal sport of boxing has evolved significantly since its seminal days of disorganized violence, yet so much remains the same. Ultimately it is still a toe-to-toe, foe versus foe, stand-up, knockdown one ring circus! The popularity of the sport has waxed and waned. According to many, the sport is dying and on the way out, supplanted by MMA and other sports. And while there are certainly issues and struggles in the sport, boxing, in reality, still draws enormous viewership and is just as beloved as ever. While this article is just a taste of the extensive history of the sport, there’s still much to come and we expect boxing to continue to be written about 100 years from now.