While there is proof that boxing existed for thousands of years prior to its appearance in Ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy provides the first formal example of the sport. It was made an official part of the Olympiad in 688 B.C., but it was a far more brutal sport than boxing today. Although padded gloves were used to practice, actual matches involved either bare fists or “sharp thongs,” which were strips of hard leather worn over the knuckles so as to cause lacerations in the opponent. The Romans created an even more punishing glove called the caestus with jagged chunks of metal or spikes sewn into the leather.
Boxing wasn’t just a sport, however. Roman soldiers often boxed for hand-to-hand combat training, and gladiators often boxed in arenas, though the matches usually only ended when one of the boxers died. With Christianity establishing itself as the dominant religion in Rome and different morals prevailing, boxing came to be seen as a particularly barbarian sport that had no place in civilized society, and so it largely disappeared as a public spectator sport by 400 A.D.
The British Resurgence
Undoubtedly, boxing matches never actually stopped taking place between the establishment of Christian Rome and the early modern era, but the next formal, verified bout took place in London in 1681. By the end of the century, matches were taking place all around the country, with boxers touring and taking on challengers for a set number of rounds, usually for large cash prizes awarded to anyone left standing.
The sport was still technically illegal, but it attained greater respectability when Jack Broughton, a renowned bare-knuckle boxer, introduced the first set of rules in 1743. Among them were rules barring grabbing an opponent below the waist and forbidding boxers to hit downed opponents.
The Queensbury Rules
The London Prize Ring rules were adopted in 1838 and established many of the standards followed in modern boxing today, such as the roped boxing “ring,” a knockdown ending a round, and moves like gouging, kicking and below-the-waist hits being banned.
Still, the sport retained its poor reputation. In 1867, the Amateur Athletic Club enlisted the aid of a respected nobleman to lend the sport some much-needed upper class respectability. John Sholto Dougless, the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry, elaborated on the London Prize Ring rules and added that contestants must wear padded gloves during the match itself, not just for practice; wrestling was completely banned; a round went for three minutes and was followed by a minute of rest; and a boxer who was knocked down had to get up — without aid — within 10 seconds, or else he was considered knocked out and would lose the bout. The Queensbury rules, as they came to be known, eventually became the dominant guidelines by which the modern sport would define itself.
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Griffiths, Andrew. “The History of Boxing.” The History of Fighting. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.historyoffighting.com/boxing.php.
Collins, Nigel, Ron Olver, Arthur Krystal, Michael Poliakoff, Thomas Hauser, and Jeffrey Thomas Sammons. “Boxing.” Encyclopædia Britannica. October 11, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/sports/boxing.