Ever since the first angry man struck another with his fist, humans have been aware of the power of the punch. Being a perfectly designed bony, yet flat, surface, and driven by the momentum of a whole body, the fist has been the preferred method of doling out punishment since deep into pre-history. It is no wonder then that in every single culture throughout the world, the test of a man’s mettle would be his ability to fight off an enemy. Boxing has its roots somewhere in this deep past, when men (or women), even friends, would challenge each other to non-lethal combat as an exercise for true warfare. Paintings have been found on walls and pottery from Sumer (3rd mill. BC) and Egypt (2nd mill. BC) which depict people fist-fighting; some even include spectators.
Most of what we know about ancient boxing comes from the Greeks, however. Homer’s Iliad, dated to the 8th century BC, includes perhaps the oldest record of a boxing match ever found. The competition perhaps reached its full acceptance as a sport when it was included in the Greek Olympics of 688 BC. Competitors in these fights would train much as modern boxers do, using leather knuckle straps and punching bags. The Olympics, a festival dedicated to Zeus, was the first major sporting spectacle of the ancient world, beginning in 776 BC. In 393 AD, however, it was permanently canceled (in its ancient form at least) by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, who sought to remove all vestiges of pagan religion in the Christianized empire. From this time on, little is known about boxing as a formal sporting event. The records we do have come from Italy and ancient Russia where recreational fist-fighting was a fairly common type of game, but there is no substantial evidence that the fights included an audience.
Boxing re-emerged in the West as the practice of wearing swords waned in favor of an interest in “fencing with fists.” The renewed interest in martial arts stirred up a flurry of fist-fights in England (where the sport was often called “prizefighting”). One of these fights was the first to make the papers when it was detailed in the pages of the London Protestant Mercury in 1681. Apparently a Duke organized a fight between his butler and his butcher. Does it even need to be said who won? The butcher!
By 1719, England had a national champ, James Figg, who held the title for 11 years! As the chaotic sport grew, and several men died brutally in the ring, a champion fighter named Jack Broughton organized a new set of rules, such as: the 30-second rule, no hitting below the belt, and no hitting a man while he’s down. These rules were codified in the London Prize Ring Rules (1838), and then supplanted by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules (1867) which were the first to mention gloves at all! Boxing as we know it today emerged from these humble, but ancient, beginnings and still rests on the rules developed by the Marquess of Queensberry.