A History of Boxing

Boxing is a natural extension of the ancient sport and art of pankration. Since its invention, boxing has been used as an expression for political protest, religious fervor, class warfare, and even criminal activity. Today it is one of the most popular sports in the world with millions watching on TV each year.

The “history of boxing essay” is a history of the sport. It explains how it came to be and where it stands today.

“Boxing is the sport that all other sports want to be like.” George Foreman is a well-known chef in the United States.

All sports have the potential to become symbols of a culture’s and country’s mood, fears, conflicts, and dreams, in addition to being about athletics. Boxing, on the other hand, may be the sport that most lends itself to this sort of transformation. Because boxing is so pure, it has the appearance of a blank canvas; there is no playing field or additional equipment, and the rules are simple and straightforward. There are just two guys left, facing off with nowhere to go and nothing but their fists to determine their destiny. As a result, boxing is readily transformed into a metaphor for moral debates: good vs. evil, immigrant vs. nativist, bluster vs. humility, intelligence vs. sheer power.

The concept of manliness has been over-emphasized in boxing. Boxing’s attraction, according to Joyce Carol Oates (while it is a macho sport, some of the finest writings about it have been written by women), stems from the fact that it is “without a question… our most dramatically’masculine’ sport.” Indeed, the sweet science of bruising has been intricately linked with a culture’s vision and notion of masculinity throughout history.

Boxing has a tumultuous past because to its association with cultural ideas and masculinity. Boxing was enormously popular and considered as the iron required to bolster a pansified civilization at periods when society thought its manliness was waning. People have reacted angrily to boxing’s apparent cruelty in the past, seeing the sport as proof of a savagery at odds with their own opinion of themselves as too evolved for such pursuits. All of this adds up to a fascinating history and a topic that every guy should be familiar with.

Boxing in the Ancient World

Greek artwork from the first century B.C., The Terme Boxer

Boxing has most likely existed from the beginning of time. When battling another caveman over a bit of meat or the love of a cavelady, our prehistoric forefathers undoubtedly raised their dukes. The earliest concrete evidence of boxing may be discovered in Egypt and Mesopotamia around the third millennium BC. The earliest instance of a “prizefight” is mentioned in the Iliad at Patroklus’ funeral games. With its participation in the Olympics and other Panhellenic festivals, boxing transitioned from a ceremonial to a sporting event. Even still, this was boxing at its most basic level: there were no rounds, no ring, no weight divisions, no break periods, and no scoring systems. When his opponent could no longer continue and cried uncle, a boxer was deemed the winner. Boxing was also popular in Ancient Rome, both as a sport and as a component of Gladiator battles. Gladiators would fight it out, frequently to death, wearing leather bands over their wrists and forearms, occasionally studded with metal shards (the cestus).

In the Age of Enlightenment, boxing was popular.

Boxing was superseded by popular Medieval activities when the traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome faded into oblivion throughout the Middle Ages. The common people still got into fights now and again, but the aristocracy focused on hobbies like jousting, archery, and hunting. Boxing did not fully take off until the higher classes were interested in it in the early 18th century.

 

During the Age of Enlightenment, Europeans were particularly interested in resurrecting antiquity’s knowledge and practices. This sparked renewed interest in boxing, particularly in England, the actual origin of modern prizefighting. Wealthy customers backed their favorite pugilists and placed large bets on their battles. With such large amounts at stake, the necessity for procedures to resolve disputes quickly became apparent. The sport’s regulations were established in 1743. The regulations governed the conduct of umpires and seconds, and it was forbidden to strike a downed aircraft. When a second failed to return his combatant to a chalk square in the centre of the ring within 30 seconds, the bout was declared over.

From 1734 until 1758, reigning champion John Broughton did a lot to raise the profile and credibility of what was dubbed “the noble discipline of self-defense.” He was the one who initially established the preceding regulations. He did it at first only to keep track of the matches at the school he’d created. Broughton wanted high society gentlemen to participate in his program and make the transition from supporting fighters to becoming pugilists themselves. Gambling was prohibited at the school in order to attract “persons of class and reputation,” and the combatants were required to wear cushioned gloves, or “mufflers,” as they were called at the time. The gloves were created to save gentlemen from getting “black eyes, broken jaws, and bleeding noses” when courting. When it came to attracting gentlemanly clientele, Broughton used Enlightenment values as well. In his advertisements, he invoked the Aeneid and urged Britons who “boast themselves inheritors of the Greek and Roman qualities” to “follow their example in magnanimous wars.”

Boxing was also promoted by Broughton as a treatment for “foreign effeminacy.” To him, the sport was a “really British art” that would maintain British manliness and identity. This attitude was shared by many of Broughton’s contemporaries. Boxing, according to Pierre Jean-Grosely, is “a specific type of conflict” that is “inherent in English blood” rather than “merely agreeable to the English spirit.”

Boxing’s First Golden Age: The Regency Period

Vintage boxers fighting illustration. The first golden era of contemporary boxing began in the 1780s. The aristocracy’s enthusiasm for the sport, which had declined since Broughton’s prime, was reignited. And England’s struggle with France stoked nationalism and a yearning among males to learn this “really British craft.” A series of battles between Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza sparked worldwide interest in the sweet science. Because Mendoza was Jewish and was known simply as “The Jew,” these fights were among the first to capitalize on racial animosity. Mendoza’s fighting style had a significant impact on the sport. Previously, pugilists stood toe to toe and slugged each other back and forth. Fighters would block shots, but weaving, bobbing, and clever dancing were rare. There will be no fluttering like a butterfly, just stinging like a bee. Mendoza brought in the dancing and the defense, which made him a huge success, but also a target of ridicule. This nimble approach was deemed “ungentlemanly” by some onlookers. Even the most ardent detractors have to acknowledge that it was more entertaining to watch than a plain thrashing. The contests between Mendoza and Humphrey were hugely popular, spurred by boxing’s first war of words, in which each combatant submitted insulting letters and brags to the press before matches.

 

The popularity of boxing in the United Kingdom led to the establishment of several boxing schools and academies. Men were attracted to boxing because it promised athletes good health and “courage to the timid.” They sought self-defense training in order to be able to defend themselves when confronted by scumbags on London’s rough streets. Boxing was also promoted as a means of defending one’s honor without resorting to the lethal dueling practice. The sport also fit in well with the growing focus in equality during the Enlightenment. To compete, boxers simply needed their fists and their willpower, not any extra weapons. Boxing was consequently seen as a great leveler, allowing people of all social strata to participate on an equal basis.

The Queensberry Code of Conduct

The Victorian era snuffed off British enthusiasm for the sweet science. Pugilism’s aggression, both in the ring and behind the scenes, reports of thrown bouts, and link with gambling destined boxing to be dubbed “a sordid and depressing pursuit,” unsuited for the attention of a respectable gentleman, in a period distinguished by a yearning for all things moral and upright.

The British, on the other hand, were not through with their contribution to the sport. The Queensberry rules were introduced in 1867, prohibiting any wrestling motions and effectively laying the foundation for contemporary boxing. The most crucial of these new restrictions was that pugilists had to wear gloves. The introduction of gloves to the sport greatly altered the game’s dynamics. The bare-knuckled fisticuffer stood tall, leaned back slightly, and held his arms forth in front of him. The gloved fighter leans forward, his gloves protecting his face. While gloves made boxing less cruel in certain aspects, they also made it more hazardous and fatal since they allowed boxers to strike with significantly more force (the bare knuckled boxer had to mitigate the impact of his blows for fear of winding up with a broken hand). Because the bones in one’s skull are tougher than those in one’s hand, gloves aided the batter while injuring the batter. This hastened Mendoza’s development of a more defensive style of boxing, with a greater focus on bobbing, sliding, blocking, and so on. Nonetheless, the use of gloves increased the number of knockouts, and the hammering that boxers received often resulted in long-term brain damage and the so-called “punch-drunk” condition.

The Queensberry regulations made boxing more hazardous, but they also made it more exciting, allowing the sport to become more commercialized and popular.

Boxing Makes Its Debut in the United States

 

“The guys that participate in these battles are as tough as nails, and it is pointless to be emotional about them enduring punishment that they don’t mind.” Of course, the spectators should be permitted to stand up with or without the gloves; I have little patience for sportsmanship that consists only of admiring another’s accomplishments. –Washington, D.C.’s Theodore Roosevelt

 

As boxing’s popularity dwindled in the United Kingdom, the seeds for the sport’s next Golden Age were being sown in the United States. Boxing was scarcely on the cultural radar in the United States in the early nineteenth century. That started to alter in the 1830s, when British pugilists, desperate for fights at home, moved to the United States in search of new challenges. Showdowns between bare-knuckled Brits and Irish immigrants, or between American “natives” and the Irish, gradually piqued Yankee attention.

Boxing had supporters in the “muscular Christianity” movement in the second part of the nineteenth century, which considered athletics as a method to improve a man’s physical as well as spiritual strength. Many churches had their own gyms where fighters could train. Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of a hard life and a constant worry about American men losing their manliness, was also a strong supporter of the sweet science. “Powerful, energetic persons with great animal development must have some manner of venting their animal energies,” TR said. As New York City’s police commissioner, he urged his officers to learn the ars pugandi, and subsequently attempted to incorporate it into the YMCA’s character-building program and military training. He boxed as a young man, through college, and into his presidency, halting only after a pugilist’s strike removed his left retina, rendering him blind in that eye (not one to let something like blindness dampen his fun, TR then took up jujitsu). Roosevelt advocated the activity to city inhabitants who needed to increase their power and vitality but didn’t have much room.

The End of Bare Knuckle Boxing: Sullivan, John L.

John Sullivan boxer portrait.

John L. Sullivan

“Masculinity in our society is determined by a specific sort of strength, which is, of course, coupled with intellect and persistently acquired abilities. A man’s masculinity is defined by his use of his body, just as a boxer’s is defined by his physique. But it’s also his victory over someone else’s use of his body. The opponent is always male, and the opponent is the most completely and combatively realized version of one’s own masculinity…. Men battling men to define value (i.e., masculinity) entirely excludes women, just as delivery fully excludes men.” Joyce Carol Oates (Joyce Carol Oates)

John L. Sullivan was the guy who would actually shift the tide of American boxing interest. Sullivan, who was born in 1858, straddled the worlds of bare knuckle and gloved boxing, helping to ensure the latter’s long-term popularity. John L. Sullivan, also known as the Boston Strongboy and His Fistic-holiness, was the final bare-knuckle boxing champion and the first heavyweight champion under the new Queensberry rules.

Sullivan became the country’s first sports star because to his boxing skills and flamboyant attitude. Some saw him as a drunken thug, while others saw him as a macho, rough-and-tumble breath of fresh air amid the feminine and buttoned-up Victorian era. “Maybe after George Washington, he was our first icon: the largest thing we had in any area between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War,” sportswriter Bert Sugar stated. “He was a hero,” says the narrator.

 

While Sullivan is generally shown as a bare-knuckled fighter (as seen in the AoM header), he really fought with gloves for the great majority of his matches. His fondness for gloves reintroduced the sport to a new level of respect and appeal. Boxing was quickly legalized in places where it had previously been prohibited.

As the sport grew in popularity in the United States, it fell out of favor in England. Brits grew nostalgic about their Golden Age, and regarded boxing’s ascent in America as just another example of America’s strength and progress overtaking them. Arthur Doyle, like many Britons, associated his country’s loss of primacy in the sport with a perceived decline in manliness. “Why that topic of all subjects on earth?” Doyle was questioned by his publisher when he picked boxing as a central theme in his book Rodney Stone. “It’s better that our sports be a touch too brutal than that we risk effeminacy,” Doyle said. Indeed, Stone laments the passing of boxing’s golden period in the book:

“Ale drinking, rude good-fellowship, heartiness, laughter at discomforts, the desire to see the fight-all these may be dismissed as vulgar and trivial by those who despise them, but to me, listening to the distant and uncertain echoes of our distant past, they seem to have been the very bones upon which much that is most solid and virile in this ancient race was molded.”

Professional Boxing’s Ascension

Vintage Jack Johnson fighting with J Jeffries in boxing match.

In 1910, Jack Johnson goes up against James J. Jeffries.

“The psychologist Erik Erikson discovered that, while little girls liked to stack blocks as high as they could and then watch them fall down, little boys prefer to pile them up as high as they can and then watch them fall down: “the contemplation of ruins,” Erikson observes, “is a masculine specialty.” Regardless of a great boxing match’s captivating elegance and beauty, it is the disastrous finish for which everyone waits and hopes: the blocks raised as high as they can possible be placed, then brought dramatically down.” Joyce Carol Oates (Joyce Carol Oates)

Prizefighting was in a state of flux until 1920, with some states allowing it while others did not. The states were not concerned about the sport’s violence; rather, it was the sport’s association with gambling and corruption that had government authorities keeping it at bay.

Matches were often staged on islands and barges to avoid the restrictions, or in hurriedly established boxing “clubs” where one could pay to become a “member” and so see the fight. Saloons often funded these “clubs,” and bars quickly became the epicenters of the sport. The saloon was already well-known as a “place where men imagined they might escape from the narrowness of women’s influence into the big unfettered world of males,” according to Jack London. Boxing just contributed to the attractiveness of the sport.

To advertise bouts, early twentieth-century boxing contests often exploited ethnic and racial tensions. When Jack Johnson became the first black man to become the world heavyweight champion in 1908, this aspect of boxing helped propel him to renown. As soon as Johnson was elected, the United States launched a desperate quest for a “great white hope” to dethrone him. Before meeting unbeaten heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, Johnson eliminated numerous possible “hopes.” Jeffries said that he had returned from retirement “for the express purpose of demonstrating that a white guy is superior to a black man.” White nationalists had a bad day in the battle, which was billed as “the ultimate test of racial dominance.”

 

Johnson, who was victorious in the ring and provocative and flashy outside of it, was reviled by whites but adored by African-Americans, who hailed him as a national hero. He was one of the most well-known and notorious personalities of the period, and his high-profile career contributed to boxing’s growing popularity.

Listen to our podcast on the American heavyweight’s rise and fall: 

 

In the Golden Age of Sports, boxing was a popular sport.

Boxers fighting together over and one fallen over the crowd out of ring illustration.

Artist George Bellows painted Dempsey and Firpo in 1924.

The 1920s are typically referred to be America’s most sports-crazed decade. The frontier had closed and been eulogized by Frederick Jackson Turner decades previously, and Americans felt that the country’s hearty, tenacious pioneer culture was dying away. As a result, the playing field became a new “frontier” where Americans searched for tough people who could convince them that American grit was still alive and thriving.

This is where Jack Dempsey came in. Dempsey, who was born in Colorado and bred in poverty, was a traditional “self-made guy” with a ruthless, direct, and effective fighting style. Dempsey won the heavyweight championship by smashing Jess Willard, who had previously grabbed the belt from Johnson, after spending years defeating opponent after opponent.

But it was his fights with Irish-American Gene Tunney that would make him famous. Dempsey first faced Tunney in front of a 120,000-strong audience in 1926. Tunney was shown as an educated, clean-living Marine of “self-improving and self-controlling masculinity,” whereas Dempsey was seen as a rough-and-tumble symbol of “untameable virility and independence.” Tunney won the fight, and a rematch was scheduled for the following year in Chicago. The battle set records for the first $1 million gate and the first $2 million gate in the history of entertainment. The bout drew over 145,000 fans to Soldier Field, and new radios let millions of Americans to listen in when Tunney defeated Dempsey for the second time (but not without controversy over the “Long Count”).

Radio and the Brown Bomber

Vintage Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fighting in boxing match.

Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis, 1938

“A new technique of death punishment was implemented by one of the southern states some time ago. The gallows were replaced by poison gas. A microphone was first installed inside the sealed execution chamber so that scientific observers could hear the dying prisoner’s comments…. A young black man was the first to fall victim. “Save me, Joe Louis, Save me, Joe Louis, Save me, Joe Louis…” came over the microphone as the pellet fell into the container and gas curled upward.

Boxing fans believed that when Tunney retired in 1928, another of the sport’s great eras had come to an end. In the subsequent decade, the heavyweight champion title moved through numerous hands. The legendary reporter and boxing fan A.J. Leibling dubbed these years the “Dark Ages” of boxing. Joe Louis, boxing’s next major star, put an end to this short dark “period” in 1937. Louis took the moniker from James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man,” a Depression-era hero. Louis kept the title for the next 12 years.

 

The rise of radio gave boxing a great boost, attracting Brown Bomber followers from all across the nation. People would congregate in supermarkets, houses, and churches to listen to his battles over the radio. “We’d all be packed around the radio, eager to hear the announcer describe Joe knocking some mother****r out,” Miles Davis says. And the whole goddamn black community of East St. Louis would go insane if he did.”

The Brown Bomber’s fights are undoubtedly the finest illustrations of how boxing can go beyond being just a sport and take on wider cultural significance. In 1937, Louis confronted Primo Carnera after being photographed offering a fascist salute. Then, in 1938, he faced Max Schmeling, who had beaten him earlier. Schmeling was a German boxer who was praised by Goebbels and Hitler as a model of Aryan superiority. As a result, the conflict took on patriotic undertones. Before the combat, FDR brought Louis to the White House and told him, “Joe, we’re counting on those muscles for America.” In little over two minutes, Joe’s biceps took down “Hitler’s pet,” as Richard Wright termed him. The win marked the triumph of American democracy against authoritarian fascism for whites. For black people, Louis, like Jack Johnson before him, was a national icon. Louis was breaking both noses and racial boundaries a decade before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. 500,000 African-Americans went to the streets of Harlem after Schmeling’s triumph, dancing, rejoicing, and yelling “Heil Louis!”

Boxing in the Television Age

Vintage people watch boxing fight on tv.

Unlike baseball, which had a huge playing area, a large cast of people, and a little ball, boxing was a perfect medium for broadcasting. The action was simple to follow, and the two warring opponents were easily visible on the screen. Thus, boxing dominated this young medium in the late 1940s and 1950s, flashing on television screens practically every night of the week. Purists bemoaned television’s supposed drag on the sport, despite the fact that it introduced the sweet science to a far broader audience (fight nights drew 31% of primetime viewers). Pugilism’s beauty and force could not be sensed on a little screen for them. It was necessary to be ringside, smelling the fighters’ perspiration and experiencing the fervor of the audience. After all, watching from home stopped you from “telling the boxers what to do,” as A.J. Liebling put it. More than that, Liebling bemoaned the way broadcast boxing was eroding the live variety’s energy. Due to the availability of free boxing on television every night of the week, attendance in live bouts has decreased dramatically. “Hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youths might learn their profession and journeymen may grow their talents” were “put out of business.” Television’s’ frequent broadcasts required a constant stream of fresh boxers, dipping into a pool of pugilists who were not yet experienced enough to go toe to toe with a bruiser for 12 rounds. As a consequence, numerous boxers died in front of the cameras.

 

When Boxers Ruled the World

Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston in boxing ring.

In 1965, Muhammad Ali looks over a defeated Sonny Liston.

“Boxing is a sport for men, for men, and about men. “An ode to the lost religion of masculinity, made all the more poignant by its absence.” Carol Joyce Oates (Carol Joyce Oates)

Until his final championship victory in 1955, Sugar Ray Robinson, probably the finest pound-for-pound boxer in history, was the next competitor to fascinate boxing fans. Despite his copious output, Robinson never achieved the cultural status of Dempsey or Louis. After his career began to wane, boxing had another period of stagnation. Cassisus Clay, the “Poet and Pedagogue,” shattered the gloom. Clay was attractive, charming, and thrilling to watch in the ring, whether you liked him or not. Many a fan was enticed back into the boxing fold by his flair for bluster, prophecy, and poetry. Clay’s transition into Muhammad Ali, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and his refusal to serve in Vietnam made him a hero among both liberal blacks and whites. Meanwhile, conservative boxing fans flocked to Ali’s opponent, Joe Frazier.

The “Fight of the Century” between these two rivals took place in 1971, and it lived up to its reputation, with Frazier putting Ali out in the final round with a hard hook. These two pugilists were outstanding warriors, but they weren’t the only ones who alternated the championship. George Foreman completed the holy trinity of boxing brilliance of the period. With that much rivalry, no boxer would be able to keep the championship for very long. Thus, during the Sunshine Showdown in 1973, Foreman knocked out Frazier with an uppercut that knocked him off his feet, in one of boxing’s biggest shocks.

On his route to his second championship defense against Muhammad Ali, Foreman would pick up two more knockouts, increasing his total knockouts to 37. And the odds were substantially in this prolific puncher’s favor for 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. The historic match, which took place in Zaire in 1974, would prove to be yet another major upset. By giving Foreman the “rope of drugs” treatment, Ali drained him. He then dropped Foreman to the canvas in the eighth round.

The famed 1970s contests were still going strong. In 1975, Frazier and Ali fought for the third time in the Thrilla in Manila. These opponents battled it out in 100-degree heat. Ali had been baiting Frazier brutally for some time, and the enmity between the two men was palpable as they fought through 14 rounds. Frazier’s trainer refused to let him compete in the 15th round, and his corner threw up the sponge.

While Ali’s career was far from over, the Thrilla in Manila was unquestionably the pinnacle of pugilism at the time. With the arrival of boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson, boxing would experience a comeback, but the match marked the end of what many believe to be the sport’s finest and last golden era.

 

Today’s Boxing

I’m not sure whether the American public wants to cope with anything as raw as sweet science in this day and age. What seems to be simple, easy to understand, and master, like jazz music, isn’t. -Bob Margolis, jazz musician and amateur boxer

Boxing is no longer as popular as it was during Ali’s or Tyson’s eras. Several causes have diminished its status in popular culture. Throughout starters, boxing did not have to compete against many other sports for the most of its existence; even in the 1920s, baseball and football seasons were shorter, and there was no NASCAR or NBA. Today, boxing must fight against the rising popularity of MMA and the UFC, as well as carve out a space among these other sports. Boxers, unlike many other sports, do not compete for lengthy periods of time, fighting just a few times a year. Boxing’s several regulating bodies and “Alphabet championships” have further damaged the beautiful science. Because of the several categories, it’s difficult to declare one fighter the ultimate champion, and since Mike Tyson, there hasn’t been a true breakout star.

What has damaged boxing the most, and it has always been its Achilles heel, is a waning public understanding for the sport’s intricacy and lyricism. While it is sometimes portrayed as a simple and savage activity, nothing could be farther from the reality. It may include remnants of our primal instincts, but it has earned the title of “science” for good reason. While many people consider today’s fighters to be dimwits, history shows that its allure has drew men from all walks of life, from hoodlums to aristocrats and artists (the list of authors who have been drawn to writing about boxing but have also boxed is long: Hemingway, London, Eliot, and Doyle, to name a few). Boxing is a harsh sport for those who take the time to learn about it. It’s a chess game with a lot of strategy and elegance. As a result, we want to write more articles in the future to help you better comprehend the sweet science, in the hopes of helping to bring in yet another golden era of pugilism.

Sources:

Kasia Boddy’s Boxing: A Cultural History

Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing

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“Boxing history facts” is the term for a history of boxing. The sport has been around since ancient times, and it has evolved over time. Boxing was once a very popular sport in the United States, but it is not as popular anymore. Reference: boxing history facts.

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