An Extraordinary History of Boxing & Fisticuffs
SPEAKER: Clive Noble
The first recorded history of boxing was found in Mesopotamia in the Tigris Euphrates Valley. A terracotta relief of 2 bare fisted boxers was found in the Ninto temple dated about 3000 BCE. This was in what is now Iraq. Other boxing reliefs were also found there.
A relief showing boxers was found in Thebes dated around 1350 BCE.
Much more pictorial and writing evidence was found in Greece. A fresco from Santorini dated 1600 BCE shows a boxer wearing a single glove but much of the boxing in ancient Greece appears to be bare-fisted. The Greeks introduced the first hand protection in boxing. This was in the form of a leather strip which was about 4 meters long, made of soft leather and was wound around the boxer’s hands and wrists. They were called thongs or “Himanates”. They were first used in the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete about 1500-900 BCE.
“Sharp Thongs” were first brought into boxing about the 3rd century BCE. They were in effect primitive “knuckle Dusters” and were called Myrmikes or ants. They were lacerative weapons to add to the brutality of boxing but were banned in the 4th century as being too dangerous.
The ancient Greeks held boxing as a game played by the gods on Mount Olympus and therefore of great importance. Boxing was allowed in the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BCE. There is evidence in the Greek literature of disfigurement and even death resulting from boxing.
There were no weight divisions nor were their rounds. Scratching, biting and clinching were not allowed. In some forms of boxing wrestling was allowed. They were allowed to punch when the opponent was down. They often fought in a softened dirt pit called a skamma. The referee carried a forked stick to beat the boxer if he broke the rules. The fight was terminated when the boxer could not continue or there was a one-finger surrender.
Boxing in ancient Greece was certainly not gentlemanly. They fought for glory and immortality. They were not thugs but highly trained, well-conditioned, and extremely skilful athletes.
Boxing was also very popular in ancient Rome. Here, however, it became a gladiator sport, where the idea was to fight to the death. To assist in this, they introduced the caestus. This was a boxing glove with hardened leather over the knuckles. It often had spikes to do more damage.
Very little is known about boxing in the Middle Ages, but the first documented boxing match in England took place in 1881 when the Duke of Albermarle organised a fight between his butler and his butcher. In the early days there were no rules, no gloves, no weight divisions, and only one champion. Wrestling was allowed and you could hit a man when he was down. This was similar to what is known as “cage fighting” today.
Jack Broughton became the father of modern boxing when he introduced the first set of rules in 1743. This was after he killed an opponent in 1741 and he introduced “mufflers”, which were the precursors of the modern boxing glove.
A round continued until a man went down. You were not allowed to hit an opponent when he was down and after 30 seconds he had to be one yard from his opponent in the centre of the ring or the opponent would be declared the winner.
These rules held until 1838.
London Prize Ring Rules
These were more detailed than Broughton’s rules. Kicking, biting and low blows were all declared fouls. Known as “the mark”a line was scratched in the centre of the ring and – after a knockdown – the boxer had 30 seconds to get to themark.
The ring was actually 24-ft square and had two ropes supported bystakes.The prize money was often put on one of these. From these rules arose many modern English idioms, such as –
- “to come up to scratch” – to meet the qualification
- “to start from scratch” – to begin again
- “not up to the mark” – not up to the necessary level
- “a draw” – stakes were drawn out of the ground to drop the ropes to stop a fight when there was no decisive winner
- “stakes” – the money for the fight which was put on one of the stakes
- “against the ropes” – battling against adversity
- “knockout blow” – a telling point in an argument
- “a knockout” – a beautiful girl who has you down on your knees
The Marquis of Queensbury Rules
John Graham Chambers of the Amateur Athletic Club devised a new set of rules in1867. Having enjoyed the patronage of the Marquis of Queensbury, the following rules were observed:
- differing weight divisions
- padded gloves
- three-minute rounds with one minute rest in between.
- wrestling was declared illegal
- a fighter who was knocked down had to get up unaided or be declared knocked out.
Boxing gloves were initially scorned by boxers as being unmanly. Many people still believe that bare-fist boxing is safer than with boxing gloves. This is because bare fists are so hard they are less likely to b used against the head of the opponent. Boxers today also have methods of strengthening their hands so that they can hit the opponent’s head without fear of damage. There are no accurate statistics to assess death or severe injury in the ring in the bare-fist days.
The last bare-fist boxing match took place in the USA in 1889 between John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. Sullivan, who became the heavyweight champion, was the first American to do so in 1882. In 1889 when he fought James J. Corbett it was under the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Bare-fist boxing initially took place only in Great Britain, but later became popular in the USA, owing to immigration. Its popularity in Great Britain had its ups and downs which were dependent on religious views and the influence of the aristocracy. On a number of occasions they tried to ban boxing but failed.
Boxing among African-Americans
Initially,it was extremely difficult for black boxers in the USA because white boxers, such as John L Sullivan and Jack Dempsey, simply refused to fight them. Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, but a great change took place when the black US champion Joe Louis fought the German Max Schmelling in 1936 and 1938.
The first gloves for boxing contained horse hair and were covered by leather and the thumb was only attached at its base. The problem with using horse hair or similar fibre alone is that the fibre can compress and disperse from the impact area of the knuckles. This means that in a boxing match the cushioning in the glove may be adequate in the beginning but will rapidly deteriorate as the fight continues. So in the last 30 years changes in the cushioning of the boxing glove have been made largely to make boxing safer. Closed-cell foams are now used to prevent the deterioration during a fight. Most boxing gloves today have the thumb portion of the glove fully attached to the rest of the glove to prevent eye gouging.
Deaths in Boxing
The main reason that the changes in the cushioning have taken place is to prevent death or serious brain damage in the ring. It has been scientifically shown that brain damage is caused by rotation acceleration to the brain as a result of the force of the punch. By reducing the force of the punch with better cushioning in the glove the chance of brain damage and death will be reduced.
Recent Changes in the Rules
To reduce the possibility of severe brain damage changes in the rules have taken place. Championship fights have been reduced from 15 to 12 rounds and m medical supervision has been given far greater importance so that the fight can be stopped sooner than later. Better medical facilities have also been enforced so that, if treatment is needed, this can be introduced immediately.