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Origins of Boxing

By: Monte Cox

No one knows for sure how old the sport of boxing is, some estimate that it has been around for 5,000 years in various forms. Boxing as an organized practice predates the arrival of Bodhidharma and the formation of Shaolin Kung Fu by a nearly a millennia. Boxing as a contest of strength, endurance, durability and skill began in Ancient Greece. The fighters wore hand wraps made of soft ox-hide called himantes. The fingertips and thumb were left uncovered and the knuckle portion had layers of hard leather to add impact to the blows. Boxing became an Olympic sport in 688 B.C. but was abolished in 394 A.D.

Boxing resurfaced in Western Europe in the 17th century as a part of fencing training. Unarmed combat, like in Asian martial arts, was a back up to the use of swordplay. Fencing instructors would train their students in various forms of combat including concepts of unarmed fighting. Fighters trained with swords, bucklers, daggers, sticks, quarterstaffs and bare knuckle fighting.

James Figg was considered the first formal boxing champion of Britain in 1719. He never lost a fight. Figg was largely responsible for the rise in popularity in boxing as a sport. At a fair in London in September 1730 it was advertised on a handbill that “At Figg’s Great Tiled Booth on the Bowling Green, Southwark” there would be a demonstration of “the manly arts of foil play, backsword, cudgeling and boxing.”

During the earliest Prize Fights the ‘boxers’ agreed on which weapons would be used during the rounds. On the 6th of June 1727, Figg fought the Gravesend pipe-maker, Ned Sutton. The first round was with swords, the second round was fist fighting that included throws and grappling, while the third round was with cudgels during which Figg shattered Sutton's knee to win the match.

Fencing largely influenced boxing because of its roots. Boxing in its early days was taught as "fencing with the fists" thus creating an "integrated" system, intended for both sport and personal defense and covering both armed and unarmed defense. It was thought that the best way to attack in boxing was with straight punches. Jabs and crosses being straight but were thrown with vertical fists out of the “rolly-polly” hand positioning of bare knuckle fighting. They had adopted the fencing concept of the straight thrust being more efficient than the round or hooking blows, which brought about the term 'Scientific Method' into boxing training.

Bare knuckle boxing in the early days was vastly different from the boxing that we see today. Along with hitting with the fists, a boxer could gouge, bite, headbutt and grapple and throw his opponent. One was also allowed to hit an opponent when he was down.

Boxing took steps in advancement with the appearance of the smart Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza who devised a system of guarding, sidestepping, and effective use of a straight mobile left jab. His tactics were extremely successful, relying on superior agility and speed he won the British Championship in 1791.

John Jackson was the man who beat Mendoza in 1795 by use of some dirty tactics. Jackson was able to hold Mendoza in place by grabbing hold of his hair thereby nullifying Mendoza's tactics. Jackson unmercifully battered Mendoza’s face with uppercuts. When Mendoza demonstrated to the referee the apparent foul, he was told there was no rule against holding one’s opponent by the hair and “it was a darn shame, wasn’t it?”

The guard known as 'Barring' in boxing is the method of using the forearm to protect one’s stomach area. The boxer on the left can be seen barring, holding his rear hand close to his abdomen.

There were a number of good technical fighters before the days of modern gloved boxing such as Daniel Mendoza previously mentioned as well as Jem Mace and others.

Elements of bare knuckle boxing survived into modern boxing including feinting, ducking, sidestepping, rushing, countering, body punching, and clinching.

The famous author Louis L'Amour, who won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer, was of the opinion that boxing was more of an art before gloves were introduced, because the bare fist is quicker and harder to block. He also felt that the extra weight of the boxing glove led to more "punch drunkenness" and ultimately, brain damage, than bare-knuckle fighters had experienced.

In 1743 John Broughton formulated a standardized set of rules for boxing. The new rules eliminated such practices as eye gouging, hitting opponents when they were down and seizing opponents by the hair. Broughton's rules governed boxing until 1838, when the Original London Prize Ring rules, based on those of Broughton, were devised. Modifications known as the Revised London Prize Ring rules were drawn up in 1853, and they controlled the sport until the end of the 19th century, when the Queensbury rules came into use. These rules were drafted in 1857 by a boxer, John Graham Chambers, under the auspices of John Sholto Douglas, 8th marquis of Queensbury. Variations of the Queensbury rules are still in effect today.