A Brief History of Boxing
The word pugilism is said to derive from the the Latin pugil, a boxer, from pugnus, fist, and pugnare, to fight with the fist. The term ‘boxing’ probably arises from clenching the fist to form a ‘box’.
A form of boxing was practiced in ancient Greece, and was included for the first time in the Olympic Games of 688 BC. The boxers wore soft leather wrappings to protect their hands and forearms. In 393 AD the Olympic Games were terminated and boxing as a spectacle all but disappeared.
It is generally accepted that boxing as we know it originated in England, sometimes called the ‘Cradle of Pugilism’ in the 17th century, where it was often taught as a form of self defence by masters of the backsword and quarterstaff.
One such master was Oxfordshire born James Figg, who is often credited with the re-birth of boxing, and is generally acknowledged as the first champion of the bare knuckle era. In 1719 he opened an academy off Tottenham Court Road in London, where he instructed the gentry in the art of self defence. He became close friends with the painter William Hogarth, who completed a portrait of the fighter and produced illustrated publicity leaflets for him.
Another great champion of the bare knuckle era was Jack Broughton. Born in Gloucestershire in 1704, he defeated George Taylor to claim the championship and began to revolutionize the art of boxing. He drafted a set of rules that were published in 1743 that did much to improve the sport, and ‘Broughton’s Rules’ remained in force for nearly 100 years. During his reign as champion he was much favoured by the aristocracy including the Duke of Cumberland. When he died at the age of 85, a memorial stone was laid for him in Westminster Abbey.
Prizefighting was fought in a ‘ring’ formed by spectators often holding a rope. As it’s popularity grew, stakes were used, around which the rope was wound. Often the fighters purses would be tied to the stakes so that no-one could make off with their cash whilst they fought! This is how the term ‘stake money’ came into being. A line was scratched across the centre of the ring and at the start of the contest the fighters would meet in the middle to ‘toe the line’. When a fighter was knocked down, it usually signaled the end of the round, and the boxer was expected to ‘toe the line’ again, or ‘come up to scratch’ within a specified time limit. Failure to do so would result in the loss of the contest.
Such was the popularity of boxing that King George I set up a boxing ring in Hyde Park London in 1723, where it remained for close to 100 years before being pulled down in 1821.
A new era of bare knuckle fighting began when Daniel Mendoza, a Jew from Aldgate, London, became champion in 1794. Mendoza was regarded as the most scientific boxer of his time, attempting to cultivate the art of defence as opposed to just developing strength and endurance. He toured Ireland where he opened a boxing academy, and helped to make boxing fashionable abroad.
Prizefighting had been declared illegal in England since 1750, but due to it’s popularity with the gentry, the authorities often turned a blind eye to contests. Travelling fairs often had a boxing ‘booth’, where locals would be invited to ‘throw their hat’ into the ring, or accept the challenge to last a few rounds against a fairground boxer. One such fighter who toured with the fairs was future champion Jem Mace, born in Beeston, Norfolk. In later years he travelled extensively across America, and helped set up boxing academies in New Zealand and Australia. Whilst in New Zealand, he met and tutored the Cornish born fighter Bob Fitzsimmons, and is credited for pursuading the future champion to turn professional. Many fighters such as Mace travelled overseas, and together with migration from Britain and Ireland, boxing became well established in America, Australia, New Zealand and many Empire countries of the day.
From 1838 contests were fought under London Prize Ring Rules, which had been adapted from Broughton’s Rules of 1743. Probably the biggest strides towards modern boxing as we know it today was the publication of the Queensbury Rules in 1867. It is generally accepted that the majority of the Rules were drawn up by John Chambers, a student of Cambridge University. As the Queensbury name would be invaluable in publishing the Rules, he sought the patronage of the 8th Marquess of Queensbury, under who’s name the Rules were published. The new Rules established that gloves must be worn, and rounds should last three minutes. The first World Heavyweight Championship bout to be fought under Queensbury Rules took place in 1892 between John L Sullivan and James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett.
Another step towards modern boxing came with the formation in London of the National Sporting Club (NSC) in 1891. This helped signal the way towards contests being held indoors, and although still illegal, bouts fought under Queensbury Rules were largely tolerated by authorities. The NSC established fixed weight catagories in 1909, which were accepted throughout the boxing world. The NSC President, the Fifth Earl of Lonsdale lent his name to belts that would be awarded to the British champion at each weight.
In 1929 the Board of Control (formed in 1918), was reconstituted as the British Boxing Board of Control. The majority of the Board were senior members of the National Sporting Club, and the NSC were given a permanent seat on the new Board of Control until 1937.
From 1929, the BBBC maintained the Lonsdale tradition, and took over the administration and regulation of the sport in Britain.
In 1920 the National Boxing Association was formed in America. Despite having limited influence in the States, in 1962 the organization bacame the World Boxing Association (WBA).
The other major influence within the history of American boxing has been the New York State Athletic Commision. (NYAC).
In 1963, the World Boxing Council (WBC) was formed. It comprised the British Boxing Board of Control, the European Boxing Union, authorities of Asian, Commonwealth and Caribbean countries, as well as American States not affiliated to the WBA. It also had the support of the NYAC, therefore it is fair to say that the WBA and WBC represent the old NBA and NYAC.
The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was formed in 1984, having sanctioned at least two ‘world’ title fights in 1983 under it’s previous name of the United States Boxing Association (USBA).
In the 1950’s there were around eight world champions at any one time, now there are closer to fifty in at least seventeen weight classes.