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Boxing (sometimes also known as Western boxing or pugilism) is a combat sport where two participants, generally of similar weight, fight each other with their fists. Boxing is supervised by a referee and is typically engaged in during a series of one to three-minute intervals called rounds. Victory is achieved if the opponent is knocked down and unable to get up before the referee counts to ten seconds (a Knockout, or KO) or if the opponent is deemed too injured to continue (a Technical Knockout, or TKO). If there is no stoppage of the fight before an agreed number of rounds, a winner is determined either by the referee’s decision or by judges’ scorecards.
Although fighting with fists comes naturally to people, evidence of fist-fighting contests first appear on ancient Sumerian, Egyptian and Minoan reliefs. The ancient Greeks provide us our first historical records of boxing as a formal sport; they codified a set of rules and staged tournaments with professionals. The birth hour of boxing as a sport may be its acceptance as an Olympic game as early as 688 BC. Modern boxing evolved in Europe, particularly Great Britain.
In some countries with their own fighting sports, the sport is referred to as “English Boxing” (e.g. in France to contrast with French boxing, or in Burma with Burmese boxing and in Thailand with Thai boxing). There are numerous different styles of boxing practised around the world.
Fist fighting is depicted in Sumerian relief carvings from the 3rd millennium BC, while an ancient Egyptian relief from the 2nd millenium BC depicts both boxers and spectators. Both depictions show bare-fisted contests. In 1927 Dr. E. A. Speiser, an archaeologist, discovered a Mesopotamian stone tablet in Baghdad, Iraq depicting two men getting ready for a prize fight. The tablet is believed to be 7,000 years old. Fist-fighting or boxing is also described in several ancient Indian texts such as the Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Evidence was also found in excavations at the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjadaro and Harappa. The earliest evidence for fist fighting with a kind of gloves can be found on Minoan Crete (c. 1500-900 BC), and on Sardinia, if we consider the boxing statues of Prama mountains (c. 2000-1000 BC).
The lebo and the Etruscans called boxing pugilism (a term now synonymous with boxing). The Greeks and Etruscans were not the first to give rules to the sport, if we consider Mediterranean peoples who preceded them, such as the Shardana and the Egyptians. In the Mediterranean area while clinching was strictly forbidden, there were (unlike in modern boxing) no weight classes. Fights were not separated into rounds and had no time limit. They ended at a knockout, or at a fighter abandoning the fight, or sometimes at the death of one of the fighters. Although gloves were used in practice, in competition fighters wrapped their hands in strips of hardened leather which protected the fist and caused unpleasant injuries for the opponent.
Homer’s Iliad (ca. 675 BC) contains the first detailed account of a boxing fight (Book XXIII). According to the Iliad, Mycenaean warriors included boxing among their competitions honoring the fallen, though it is possible that the Homeric epics reflect later culture. Another legend holds that the heroic ruler Theseus, said to have lived around the 9th century BC, invented a form of boxing in which two men sat face to face and beat each other with their fists until one of them was killed. In time, the boxers began to fight while standing and wearing gloves (with spikes) and wrappings on their arms below the elbows, although otherwise they competed naked.
Boxing was first accepted as an Olympic sport in 688 BC, being called Pygme or Pygmachia. Participants trained on punching bags (called a korykos). Fighters wore leather straps (called himantes) over their hands, wrists, and sometimes breast, to protect them from injury. The straps left their fingers free. Legend had it that the Spartans were the first to box as a way to prepare for sword and shield fighting.
In ancient Rome, there were two forms of boxing both coming from Etruscan boxing. The athletic form of boxing remained popular throughout the Roman world. The other form of boxing was gladiatorial. Fighters were usually criminals and slaves who hoped to become champions and gain their freedom; however, free men, women, and even aristocrats also fought. Gladiators wore lead “cestae” over their knuckles and heavy leather straps on their forearms to protect against blows. The deeply scarred and cauliflower eared figure of the Boxer of Quirinal show what a brutal sport it could be (matches often ending in the death or maiming of an opponent).
Eventually, fist fighting became so popular that even emperors started fighting, and the practice was promoted by Caesar Neronis. A fight between the agile Dares and the towering Entellus is described at length in the Roman national epic Aeneid (1st century BC).
In 393 A.D., the Olympics were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius, and in 500 A.D., boxing was banned altogether by Theodoric the Great as being an insult to God because it disfigures the face, the image of God. However, this edict had little effect outside the major cities of the Eastern Empire. By this time, western Europe was no longer part of the Roman Empire. Boxing remained popular in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It should be noted that wrestling, fencing and racing (both chariot and foot) were never banned by the late Romans, as they did not cause disfigurement.
Records of Classical boxing activity disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, there are detailed records of various fist-fighting sports that were maintained in different cities and provinces of Italy between the 12th and 17th centuries. There was also a sport in ancient Rus called Fistfight. The sport would later resurface in England during the early 18th century in the form of bare-knuckle boxing sometimes referred to as prizefighting. The first documented account of a bare-knuckle fight in England appeared in 1681 in the London Protestant Mercury, and the first English bare-knuckle champion was James Figg in 1719. This is also the time when the word “boxing” first came to be used.