Want to find out how boxing has evolved into the sport we know and love today? Then read our (relatively) succinct guide, and take the first steps to becoming a boxing historian.
Disclaimer: History is subjective, and the epochs featured here are approximate periods. They’re useful categorisation of the time periods and major developments, nothing more, nothing less. With that said…enjoy.
Proper Olden Days
Fighting has probably existed since the dawn of time, with Neanderthal cavemen beating each other up with clubs or the hunting of wild animals for food being two obvious examples. In terms of which civilisation formalised acts of physical aggression, it’s hard to say but there is some evidence of “boxing” in ancient Egypt, as well as an instance of “prize fighting” in Homer’s epic poem Iliad, which indicates its existence in Greece. Irrespective of its exact origins, one thing that tends to be commonly agreed upon is that it was a very primitive form of combat i.e. no rounds, no rings, no gum shield, no gloves etc. In fact, the boxer was only declared the winner after he could no longer continue (Think Roman Gladiators).
The Age of Enlightenment
When the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations began to crumble during the middle ages, boxing initially declined in popularity, with Medieval pursuits such as jousting, sword fighting and archery effectively taking over. Eventually though, the upper-classes of British society began to take an interest in boxing, following on from the ostentatious pursuit of culture from bygone eras such as those discussed in the previous sections.
This trickled down to the lower classes, and John Broughton, the reigning champion from 1734 – 1758 helped cultivate “the noble science of self-defence” by setting up what were effectively boxing academies or schools, allowing the aristocracy who would typically bet on the outcome of fights, try their hand at pugilism themselves. As some of the clients were gentlemanly, the fighters wore a protype glove known as a “mufflers” which literally allowed combatants to “save face” when going about their everyday business.
The Regency Period and Queensberry Rules
The late 18th Century saw what many historian call the first golden age of boxing, due to the popularity of the sport across the United Kingdom, transcending class divisions, and its roots in British Nationalism following the war with France.
Perhaps even more “backwards” by today’s standards is was the then, fights and tradeoffs between ethnic rivalries such as the popular contests between Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza aka “the Jew”. The fighting was still very primitive, with fighters standing toe to toe and exchanging punches – no fancy footwork or movement – just good old fashion swinging.
The onset of Victorian England diminished the public’s affection for sweet science, with boxing seeing as “lowly” and “demoralising ” pursuit for the average respectable Gentleman. The answer to this was the development of the Queensberry Rules which helped lay the groundwork for modern boxing as we know it today, most notably through the requirements of Gloves for all sanctioned fights – not just for training like the early “mufflers” were for.
Early Boxing in America
Boxing began to register on the American cultural radar when British pugilists began to travel across the Atlantic in pursuit of opportunities to fight. Just like England had John Broughton to help popularise boxing in England, America had John L Sullivan who became bare knuckle boxing’s last champion and the first heavyweight champion under the British exported Queensberry rules. Famous sportswriter of the time Bert Sugar labelled him as “our first icon” (After George Washington)
By the 1920′s, prize fighting was going through a tough transitional period, as it was connected with gambling and corruption which resulted in it being legal and illegal in certain states. There was also serious underlying race issues, with white supremacists desperately seeking a “great white hope” to dethrone the black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. The fight billed as “the ultimate test of racial superiority” resulted in a Johnson win, which further increased racial animosity across the land in the form of riots.
The Golden age
The 1920′s are often believed to be the most sports-mad period in American history. Jack Dempseys bouts against Irish-American Gene Tunney broke all records. The first fight had an unheard of fight of 120,000 spectators, and simultaneously broke the record for the first $1 million gate and the first $2 million gate in sports history . Millions of Americans also tuned via the radio, which was an emerging broadcast technology.
Joe Louis was arguably the first example of a boxing who was able to fuse the boundaries between culture and sport when he fought Max Schmeling, a German fighter in the 1930s, who was touted by Goebbels and Hitler as a prime example of Aryan supremacy. Concurrently, Franklin D Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House before the fight, and spoke of a nation “depending on those muscles for America.” Joe’s strength knocked out “Hitler’s pet” within a round. For whites, the victory symbolized the supremacy of American democracy over authoritarian fascism, whereas for blacks, Louis was, like Jack Johnson before him, a hero of the race.
After radio technology, televsiion eventually began to bring the sweet science to a much wider audience (fight nights attracted 31% of the primetime audience), With free boxing being televised every night of the week, attendance at live fights dropped significantly, as did the business of boxing and gyms.
20th Century when they were kings
Although many believe that Sugar Ray Robinson is one of the greatest pound for pound boxers in history, at the time he was never as popular as previous champions Dempsey or Louis. It wasn’t until the prominence Cassius Clay, that boxing and the world has a true breakout star. Clay’s conversion to Islam, and his political stance on the Vietnam war made him a hero for the young generation of liberals everywhere, which was in direct contrast to his rival Joe Frazier, who courted a Conservative fan base.
Their first meeting was dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” and it certainly lived up to its billing, with Frazier knocking down Ali with a fierce hook in the final round. Throw George Foreman into the mix, and you had a third corner of the holy trinity of boxing’s heavyweight greatness, with each fighter trading the heavyweight title back and forth. An example of this was in 1973 which yielded one of boxing’s greatest upsets. Foreman knocked Frazier off of his feet with a wild uppercut during the Sunshine Showdown.
Foreman defended his title with two more knockouts before meeting Muhammad Ali for the legendary Rumble in the Jungle. The fight , staged in Zaire (Currently the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974 ,turned out to be another upset. Ali lured Foreman in with the “rope of dope” treatment, then, in the 8th round sent Foreman crashing to the canvas.
The legendary bouts of the seventies certainly didn’t end there. Frazier and Ali faced off in 1975 for their third meeting, dubbed the Thrilla in Manila. In intense heat, these rivals punched it out. Ali had been ruthlessly mocking Frazier for some time before the fight, and the bitterness between the men was evident as they fought for 14 tough rounds. In the 15th round, Frazier’s trainer effectively threw in the towel and didn’t allow his fighter to come out after the mid round break.
Unfortunately boxing isn’t as popular as it was during the heyday of Ali, or even Tyson, and is seen by some as a bit of a niche sport nowadays.
Some of the widely accepted reasons for this:
• Early Boxing didn’t have to compete with multiple sports and was on free to air TV.
• Boxers fight less regularly nowadays, which leads to a decline in interest and less routine watching – fights are “events now, rather than a part of the week.
• Multiple Governing bodies and the idea of “Alphabet Soup” and titles – It’s hard to know who the World Champion in that division is when there are at least four belts in circulation!
• Lack of breakout stars that have been able to capture the public’s imagination – Although people like De La Hoya, Mayweather and Pacquiaio have gotten pretty big, they’re still not the household names of the bygone era.
• Decline of the heavyweight division. This was traditionally seen as the most glamorous division with the biggest combatants. Currently it is dominated by the Klitckso brothers, and there isn’t an American contender.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Boxing is in dire straits, the sport still is pretty popular and despite a recent challenge from MMA, it still remains king of the combat sports and looks likely to remain as this for the foreseeable future. Don’t worry.
Well there it is, a very concise and selective history of boxing. Although we can’t claim it to be comprehensive, we hope that it was of some use.
We’ll be updating this eventually with a link to relevant books, and DVDs, should you wish to find out more.