Boxing is among the most popular sports in the world today, and is definitely the most popular combat sport. It has emerged from humble beginnings to become the multi-million dollar industry it is today, providing employment and entertainment for countless people associated with the sport. Boxing has created legends that millions of people look up to every day for inspiration, and it also has spawned controversial anti-heroes that we love to hate. It has inspired numerous books and movies due to the many rags-to-riches stories that have become characteristic of the sport. It flourishes all over the world at amateur and professional levels. So how did it all begin?
The roots of boxing go as deep as civilization itself. Ancient Sumerian, one of the oldest known civilizations, created relief carvings that depicted boxers fighting bare-knuckled as far back as 3000 BC. Similar depictions can be seen in ancient Egyptian remains, dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. Other ancient societies that once engaged in fist fighting are those of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite peoples. It’s unclear what role such contests played in these cultures, but they are often thought to have been religious or ceremonial bouts.
One of the most important moments in the history of boxing occurred in the year 688 BC, when the ancient Greeks decided to include it in the Olympics. It seems to have caught on as a sporting contest in which warriors measured their mettle against one another, a tradition that continues until this day. Boxing carried over into the Roman Empire when it took over from the Greeks, and it was the Romans who brought the sport to the British Isles, where it would eventually take firm root.
The popularity of boxing seemed to decline after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as dueling with fists was replaced by dueling with weapons, primarily swords, knives and, later, firearms. However, by the 17th century, as personal weapons became more and more scarce, boxing began to re-emerge with a vengeance and this time it was here to stay.
Fist fighting was already a very popular way to settle disputes among the working class of the British Isles and, as it rose in popularity, the wealthier classes and even royalty began to get involved. An influx of money resulted in the introduction of cash prizes, construction of professional arenas, and the development of formal training schools. Boxing’s popularity exploded with the advent of its first recognized champion, James Figg, who won the first ever “title” in 1719, which he held until 1730. The lure of quick money, fame and reputations for being among the toughest individuals in the country attracted more and more participants. At this point, organization was at a bare minimum, with fights resembling street fights more than professional sporting contests. The fights were more or less no-holds-barred contests, and fighters often fought surrounded by a ring of spectators, hence the name “ring” was applied to the boxing arena.
The level of organization improved a great deal with Figg’s successor, Jack Broughton, who came up with his own set of rules under which he would fight. These rules became more or less universally accepted as the “Broughton Rules” and were formalized in 1743. These rules eliminated some of the grislier aspects prevalent in the sport—like hitting below the belt, which up until then had been perfectly legal—and replaced the ring of spectators with a proper squared-off area. The Broughton Rules governed what is known today as the “bare-knuckled era”.
Daniel Mendoza later made a major contribution to boxing when he brought an element of intelligence and finesse to the sport. Prior to his rise, boxers relied primarily on size and brute strength. Mendoza introduced more strategic concepts, such as guarding, sidestepping, and the now ubiquitous straight left jab. He also relied more on speed and agility, adding new aspects to a sport that had been brutally one-dimensional prior to his arrival. His revolutionary and unorthodox approach won him the title in 1791, and other pugilists began to adopt his tactics.
The Modern Era
The modern era of boxing began in 1866 when the Marquess of Queensbury supported the adoption of a new set of rules that became known as the “Marquess Rules”. They limited the number of 3-minute rounds, outlawed gouging and wrestling, and made gloves mandatory. This was a watershed moment in the history of boxing and the sport became far more organized as a result. Also it migrated across the Atlantic to America, where it exploded in popularity and spawned many of the most well known names in the sport. Another key development was the introduction of weight classes, with world championships being conducted for each class. Today the different weight classes in which a fighter may compete are flyweight (up to 112 lb/50.8 kg), bantamweight (118 lb/53.5 kg), featherweight (126 lb/57.2 kg), lightweight (135 lb/61.2 kg), welterweight (147 lb/66.7 kg), middleweight (160 lb/72.6 kg), light heavyweight (175 lb/79.4 kg), and heavyweight (unlimited).
With the introduction of proper equipment and heavy bags, modernization improved fitness levels and reduced the frequency of injuries incurred during training. Better construction of punching bags and other training equipment allows modern boxers to push their technique development to the limit. Fitness training has grown to include methods like long-distance running, weight training and endurance training, and has become more well rounded compared to the one-dimensional methods of the early days of boxing, The top fighters in the world today train with overall fitness and strength in mind.
The modern era has created several superstars, including Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Gene Tunney, and Sugar Ray Robinson. In more recent times, the likes of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Floyd Mayweather have benefited greatly in terms of income and popularity due to advent of television.
Modern era legends such as Muhammad Ali, who won fights, titles and fans’ hearts with his speed and intelligence, have become synonymous with achieving the very highest levels of success. Footballer Thierry Henry has even been called the “Muhammad Ali of Football” to explain his level of skill and success. This is a testament to the level of respectability that boxing has attained in the modern era. Fighters like Mike Tyson have become household names, both due to their abilities in the ring and to their larger-than-life personas outside of it.
Over the years, boxing as a sport has come a long way. From gritty beginnings it has grown to be one of the most popular combat sports in the world, spawning a multi-million dollar industry that supports and entertains millions of people. It has overcome accusations of controversy and brutality to gain an Olympic level of respectability. Even at the amateur level it is deeply followed by thousands of young men across the world, helping them realize their dreams of success and helping some to find their directions in life.