History of Boxing: How Did Boxing Start?

The history of boxing spans across millennia but ever wondered how it all started? Who invented boxing?

When did the human race start its enthusiasm for the art of boxing and make it one of the popular sports in the modern day?

Two terracotta figurines of African boxers from the British Museum Collection.
Image Credit: British Museum

From the earliest boxing findings in Ancient Greece to the advent of bare-knuckle boxing and the man who published the first rules for bouts, find out the origins of boxing.

Vintage engraving showing a scene from 19th century Victorian London. The Noble Art. People watch two men in a boxing match.
Vintage engraving showing a scene from 19th century Victorian London. The Noble Art. People watch two men in a boxing match.

Ancient Greece and the First Boxing Olympics

The first evidence of boxing dates back to the beginning of the Bronze Age were Sumerian artefacts were found in Iraq with etchings showing two men punching each other; similar evidence was discovered in Babylonia and Assyria.

The artefacts showed men’s fists wrapped in cloth. Similar to the way boxers wrap-up today.

Moving to Ancient Greece, competitions in boxing were held for the enjoyment of the people and in 688 B.C it was introduced as an official Olympic sport.

Fighters used to use leather thongs to cover their hands for protection as boxing gloves were still to be invented. As you’d expect from an Ancient Grecian sport, there were no knockout rounds

There was only one winner. Two men would box and fight until the other couldn’t go on.

The history of boxing shows us that the original boxing leagues didn’t have weight limits or much in the way of health and safety. This meant larger sizes could fight smaller sizes without any interference, or even mercy.

It was during these matches that the boxing stance that we all know today was introduced, with one leg forward and a lead hand up as a guard.

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Bloody Boxing: 3rd Century Romans

While the Ancient Greeks had boxing down as their most injurious sports, boxing history tells us stories of the Romans developing a boxing cestus – a type of glove evident in the Roman mosaics.

Sometimes, these gloves had metal spikes sewn into the leather.

Boxing history was a bit bloodier for the Romans.

Roman boxing was gladiatorial and sporting, with soldiers often fighting for training and for fun.

Usually, matches only ended with the death of the boxer that lost.

Christianity became prevalent and the Roman Empire fell at that time, which then pressed pause on boxing for some time.

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18th Century London Boxing

After Ancient Rome, the history of boxing shifts to London where bare-knuckle boxing was born.

No gloves, no tape, no hand protection – just bare knuckles and competition for money or jewels.

History records show the very first case of bare-knuckle fighting in 1681. The 2nd Duke of Albemarle Christopher Monck put together a fight between his butler and his butcher for the entertainment of his guests.

It was 1719 when the first English bare-knuckle boxing champ was crowned.

In 1743, Jack Broughton introduced the first ruleset to protect the health and safety of the prizefighters. This is where the phrase “boxing” was coined.

It was these rules that started the 30-second rule: if the fighter is down for 30 seconds, the match ends and the winner crowned.

We still use a lot of the regulations in Broughton’s ruleset. For example…

No eye-gouging or hitting an opponent when they’re down.

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19th Century Revised Boxing Rules

In the 1800s, a gentleman named John Chambers published the Marquess of Queensbury rules. These rules are a code of generally accepted rules that boxing circles recognize the most.

Rules that state that boxing should only occur when both opponents are standing up in a square ring is still used today. Grappling and wrestling were forbidden and still are today.

The most significant change in boxing, though, was the introduction of the gloves. It made bouts safer, prizefighters more protected and it introduced strategy into the game.

Defensive techniques were then added and boxing as we know it was born.

Modern Boxing Today

Still a sweet science, boxing is competitive and practised in hundreds of nations around the world. It’s not just the game in the ring, either, as the Rocky franchise made Sly Stallone a legend in boxing pop culture. A film of note is ‘Raging Bull’ based on Jake La Motta where Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal.

There have been adaptations of boxing in other areas, too, and boxing has created superstars and sporting idols from Muhammad Ali to Ali Floyd “Money” Mayweather.

With increased prizes, boxing fighters can now earn millions in their ring performance. It’s come a long way since the Ancient Greek Olympics.

Our passion for boxing as a human race has been alive since the bronze age… and will continue for many millennia to come.