I occasionally get requests from high school students doing research material on the history of boxing, instead of writing out several long replies a year I have made this page as an information resource for a student to build on.---Monte
It would be sufficient to say that the sport of boxing has its origins in the forms of hand to hand combat derived from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The earliest forms of pugilism arrived on the British Isles when the Romans conquered them in the first century. The first recorded history of boxing as a public spectacle began in 18th century England. The typical early boxing matches were fought bare knuckles and were no holds barred contests that included wrestling. A circle of spectators formed the “ring”. There was no referee, no rounds, and no time limit. It was a brutal affair with the object to fight until one man was finished, unable to continue he would give up. Bouts routinely lasted for hours and NO tactic was forbidden including, gouging, choking, throwing, and kicking. For many decades no consideration was given to the weight of opponents and there was no official recognition of champions or challengers.
Fisticuffs as a sport began primarily amongst the working class in the British Isles sometimes as a way to settle a dispute. But as the bare knuckle fights gained in popularity the upper classes and even royalty took notice. Wealthy patrons sponsored fighters with cash prizes, built small arenas, and opened schools were the "noble art of self defense" was taught. The ring soon became a square permanently enclosed with wooden rails or a heavy rope.
Boxing's first recognized champion was James Figg who built his Amphitheatre and became the first recognized "boxing champion" in 1719. Figg is largely responsible for the popularity of the sport, as he traveled around England giving sparring exhibitions. Figg died in 1740 and George Taylor one of his pupils succeeded his championship. Jack Broughton, who is the father of “boxing rules”, succeeded Taylor. In 1734 he formed the first boxing code, which forbid eye gouging and hitting a fallen opponent when he was down, but left wide latitude for wrestling and rough and tumble fighting. "Broughton's Rules" governed boxing from 1734 until 1838, under the reformed named "London Prize Ring Rules", which stated that a round ended when one fighter went down or his knee touched the ground. Broughton also introduced the idea of blocking and some defense to the sport.
When Broughton passed out of the picture, boxing suffered because it had lost the man who was recognized as "The Father of the English School of Boxing." Shortly after the death of Broughton "crookedness" crept into the sport. It became known as the period of "the Double Crosses." The popularity of the sport waned until the appearance of Daniel Mendoza.
Daniel Mendoza was the first Jewish fighter to gain a championship. He was very intelligent and made many contributions to the development of boxing as an art form. Prior to Mendoza success in pugilism relied primarily on brute strength and endurance, rather than scientific finesse. Mendoza devised a system of guarding, sidestepping, and effective use of a straight left jab. His new tactics were extremely successful and he captured the imagination of the British public with his skill. Relying on superior agility and speed he won the British Championship in 1791. His concentration on defense revolutionized boxing.
The next major figure is Tom Cribb who was one of England’s most celebrated champions and won national prominence from his pugilistic feats. He was born on July 8, 1781. He won the British Championship in 1807 by defeating Jim Belcher in 41 rounds. When he defeated Belcher again in 31 rounds in 1809 he was awarded a championship belt.
For many years after prize fighting flourished in England the white man reigned supreme, and it was seldom that a principal with black skin dare fortune in the ring. The first black pugilist of renown was Bill Richmond, the son of a Georgia born slave who drifted North as the property of John Charlton, and the first to cross the Atlantic and display in British Rings the boxing he had learned while fighting on plantations in the south. During 1777, while New York was held by British troops, Richmond by whipping in succession three British soldiers in a tavern attracted the attention of General Earl Percy, who afterwards became the Duke of Northumberland. The British General took Richmond to his homeland, and under his patronage the Negro, who was only a middleweight, defeated several top heavyweights. With a number of victories under his belt, and receiving fame as "the Black Terror", Richmond challenged top British fighter Tom Cribb but was knocked out by Cribb in 1805.
The next top black fighter of mention is Tom Molineaux, a heavyweight weighing 185 pounds, enjoyed great success in the British prize ring and twice challenged Tom Cribb, losing in consecutive years in 1810 and 1811. In the first match Molineaux was carried out of the ring in the 33rd round and in the second in Cribb knocked him out in 11 rounds. He was the first American to challenge for the British title.
The first "American Champion" was Tom Hyer, whose father Jacob Hyer participated in the first public boxing match under the English prize ring rules in America. The first American championship match was between Tom Hyer and "Yankee" Sullivan for a $5,000 side bet and the championship of America. It took place on Feb 7, 1849, with Hyer the victor in 16 rounds.
The first "World's Championship took place at Farnsborough, England on April 17, 1860 between the British Champion Tom Sayers and the American champion John C. Heenan. It was the first real "sporting event" to attract celebrity from all parts of England and France, there were members of British parliament present at the match, officers from the Navy and Army, and literary giants such as William Thackeray and Charles Dickens. Special correspondents from America such as the “Police Gazette”, “Leslie’s weekly” and other American newspapers covered it.
The battle was a grueling encounter that lasted 2 hours and 20 minutes. After 37 rounds Sayers began to tire and Heenan rushed Sayers to the ropes. Heenan forced Sayers neck over the top strand of rope and pressed down on his throat with his arms. The partisan of Sayers supporters went wild and stormed the ring and cut the rope. The referee fled the ring and the bout was eventually declared a draw to the dismay of the American Heenan who thought he was winning. Sayers soon retired and Heenan was recognized as "World Boxing Champion."
Britain's 1861 "anti-prize fight" act made it a felony to so much as transport persons to the scene of a prohected prizefight. Since this meant that anyone from railroad engineers to men who booked boats on the Thames river could face long jail terms, it ended boxing in the United Kingdom for some time.
Most leading British fighters including Jem Mace, emigrated to the United States or Australia, where Larry Foley became Mace's most successful student. It was Foley who established boxing, first bare-knuckle then Queensbury rules in Australia. Foley's own star pupil was the "Black Prince" Peter Jackson. In the U.S. British fighters such as Mike McCoole, Tom Allen and Joe Goss helped to establish boxing firmly in America.
In England, prize ring devotee John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marquees of Queensbury, agreed to sponsor a set of rules, written by Arthur Graham Chambers, to cover gloved contests. These new rules were first put into practice in 1867 in the first "Queensbury Amateur Tournament" and since no prize money was involved it was not subject to the "anti-prize fight" statute. Soon after "tournaments" offering cash prizes for contestants sprang up in the 1870's.
By the time John L. Sullivan rose to prominence boxing was the most popular sport in the free world. Sullivan, "The Boston Strong Boy" won the World Heavyweight Championship, at least in American eyes, on a 9th round knockout of Paddy Ryan on Feb 7, 1882 in Mississippi City, MS. On May 14, 1883 he faced the British champion Charley Mitchell in New York, at Madison Square Garden and stopped him in the third. The police stopped the fight to keep the battered Mitchell from absorbing more punishment. Even though the victory was convincing and earned Sullivan universal recognition as "World Champion" it had surprised Sullivan's followers when Mitchell was able to knock down the powerful American in the first round.
Sullivan reigned as bare knuckle heavyweight champion for ten long years and became America's first true sports hero. Sullivan often remarked, "I can lick any son of a bitch in the house." America was proud of him and a famous saying of the day was, "I shook the hand, that shook the hand of the mighty John L." He reportedly earned over $900,000 in his career as a prizefighter, sparring exhibitions and on stage.
James J. Corbett, know as "Gentleman Jim", upset Sullivan for the World Heavyweight Championship on Sept 7, 1892 in New Orleans, La. The bout was fought under the "Marquis of Queensbury Rules" which stated that bouts must be fought with gloves, a round was to last 3 minutes in length, and it forbid the use of wrestling. Corbett showed that innovative footwork and boxing skills could overcome the raw power and strength of Sullivan when he knocked out the defending champion in the 21st round. Thus began the modern era of boxing.