Earliest evidence suggests that boxing was prevalent in North Africa during 4000 BC and the Mediterranean in 1500 BC.
A Greek ruler named Thesus, who ruled around 900 B.C., was entertained by men who would be seated in front of each other and beat another with their fists until one of them was killed. In time, the fighters fought on their feet and wore gloves (not padded) and wrappings on their arms below the elbows, but were otherwise naked when competing. First accepted as an Olympic sport (the ancient Greeks called it Pygme/ Pygmachia) in 688 BC, participants in the ancient games trained on punching bags (called a korykos). Keeping their fingers free, fighters then wore leather straps (called himantes) on their hands, wrists, and sometimes lower arms, to protect them from injury.
In Ancient Rome, fighters were usually criminals and slaves. They hoped to become champions and gain their freedom. However, free men also fought. Eventually, fist fighting became so popular that even aristocrats started fighting, but that was banned by the ruler Augustus. In 500 A.D., the sport was banned by Theodoric the Great.
London Prize Ring Rules (1839)
Records of boxing activity disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The sport would later resurface in England during the early 18th century in the form of bare-knuckle 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.
Early bare-knuckle fighting was crude with no written rules. There were no weight divisions, round limits and no referee. Modern rules banning gouging, grappling, biting, headbutting, fish-hooking and blows below the belt were absent.
The first boxing rules were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters in the ring where deaths sometimes occurred. Under these rules, if a man went down and could not continue after a count of 30 seconds, the fight was over. Hitting a downed fighter and grasping below the waist were prohibited. Broughton also invented "mufflers" (padded gloves), which were used in training and exhibitions.
In 1839, the London Prize Ring rules were introduced which superseded Jack Broughton's rules. Later revised in 1853, they stipulated the following:
- Fights occur in a 24-foot-square ring surrounded by ropes.
- If a fighter was knocked down, he must rise within 30 seconds of his own power to be allowed to continue.
- Biting, headbutting and hitting below the belt were declared fouls.
Marquess of Queensberry Rules (1867)
In 1867, the Marquess of Queensberry rules were drafted by John Chambers for Olympic championships held at Lillie Bridge in London for Lightweights, Middleweights and Heavyweights. The rules were published under the patronage of the Marquess of Queensberry, whose name has always been associated with them.
There were twelve rules in all, and they specified that fights should be "a fair stand-up boxing match" in a 24-foot-square ring. Rounds were three minutes long with one minute rest intervals between rounds. Each fighter was given a ten-second count if he was knocked down and wrestling was banned.
The introduction of gloves of "fair-size" also changed the nature of the bouts. An average pair of boxing gloves resembles a bloated pair of mittens and are laced up around the wrists. Gloves protected the hands of both fighters but their considerable size and weight made knock-out victories more difficult to achieve. Resultantly, bouts became longer and more strategic with greater importance attached to defensive maneuvers such as slipping, bobbing, countering and angling.
The English case of R v. Coney in 1882 found that a bare-knuckle fight was an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants. This marked the end of widespread public bare-knuckle contests in England.
The first world heavyweight champion under the Queensberry Rules was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan in 1892 at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans.
With the gradual acceptance of formalised rules, two distinct branches of boxing emerged; Professional and Olympic. The boxing rules enforced by governing bodies worldwide today at the local, national and international level are all derived in some way from the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.