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The Ancient History of Boxing

Boxing is mankind's oldest and bloodiest sport. So who came up with it?

We have to go back approximately 7,000 years to the city of Baghdad in the Middle East. (I know some of you are probably thinking, "Will fighting ever end in the Middle East?") Anyway, they have been fighting for years and the proof is in a stone tablet discovered by archaeologist, Dr. E. A. Speiser in 1927.  Though badly worn through time the image clearly depicts two men squaring off for a prize fight.  Actually, several more tablets have been found around Baghdad, all at least around 7,000 years old.  They are considered the earliest recordings of what we know as boxing.  And back then they had no rules.  It was brutal, it was bloody and usually one fighter ended up dead, while the other one (although pretty bruised) had his hand raised  in victory.  Bets were also done back then and paid off in gold and silver coins.

However, fighting wasn't unique to Baghdad only. In India, men fought with their hands wrapped in layers of string.  On Tonga Islands, boxing matches were held as regular entertainment on command of the king. On the Mortlocks Islands (in the Pacific as well) boxers were even more brutal.  They armed their fists with sharks teeth!

Boxing was also used by the Greeks to help train the boys to become soldiers for wartime.  In training, two boys sat facing each other on flat rocks.  With no protection and bare-fisted they just punched away at each other.  If one of the boys ran away he was branded a coward and told he needed some more toughening up.  In most cases one boy simply knocked the other off the rock.  The one who did this was declared the winner and considered a top candidate for the Greek army.

This was for the boys now. However, there were also adult boxing competitions with the Greeks, especially during their festivals and holidays.  And odd as it may seem, sometimes boxing matches were held at Greek funerals. They felt the person they were going to bury would enjoy this contest so much he'd want to turn around and come back to haunt the living.

Around 500 B.C. the Greeks added gloves to the sport.  At first, fighters wound soft strips of leather around their hands and arms as protection, and also helping to add some ooomph to their hits.  Later on, they actually wore gloves made of hardened leather, with cutting edges.

Around 200 years later, in say 300 B.C. the boxing ring got developed. The fighters were given a drawn circle in the dirt and not allowed to move out of it.

When the Romans conquered the Greeks in 150 B.C. then took a lot of Greek soldiers as slaves.  In Rome they used these captured Greek soldiers, as we all know, in gladiator competitions in the arenas.  These often got pretty bloody and violent.  It was the Romans who invented the cestus, which is a leather hand-covering that was weighted with pieces of iron and had metal studs and spikes fixed over the knuckles.  
The gladiators fought to the death and the winner's reward was to merely live long enough to fight another battle.

Eventually, in Rome, boxing turned into such a gross, brutal, disgusting sport that people literally didn't want to watch it anymore.  So the use of the cestus was banned and during the last half of the first century B.C. boxing in any form, using anything or nothing on the hands was banned period.

For hundreds of years boxing was non-existent publicly. It finally made a comeback around the 17th century in England, where it got it's name today.  In England the word "box" means gift. (They have Boxing Day over there.)  So the word became a play on words for them.  When the combatants fought they exchanged "boxes."  Although not real boxes filled with gifts of love as the original meaning.  They used the word boxes to mean punches.  This was a way to help reduce the harshness of this sport by saying that the men were exchanging boxes.

So boxing matches began, and although they were phrases as exchanging boxes, they were no less nice than what the fighters did years before.  The matches were brutal, bloody spectacles to watch.  Men fought bare-handed and often wore shoes with spikes or studs. Boxers were also allowed back then to kick, stomp, gouge eyes, head-butt, body-slam, etc.  Both the winner and the loser usually ended up a horrible mess.

Then in 1743, Jack Broughton, a boxing promoter, did a lot to get boxing under control and make it less gruesome. At the London arena where he put on matches, he outlawed wrestling, kicking, gouging and created the rule "you cannot hit a man when he's down."  Also, if a boxer fell and was not able to get up within 30 seconds he was declared "knocked out of time" and the other fighter was the winner.

Back in those days they also had fan problems (like with some sports today.) In those days some of the fans would jump into the ring and enter into the fighting, beating up the boxers, the referees, the trainers and also each other.  To help stop this, Broughten changed the ring from round to square, enclosed it with ropes and raised it 6 feet off the ground - where it remains today.

Broughton also invented the boxing glove as we know it today.  But back then it was used only for sparring and training, not in the actual bouts. It was actually the Marquess of Queensberry (English) that got gloves on the hands of boxers in public fights, making it a bit more civilized.  In 1867 he laid down the basic rules of boxing that we follow today. Among these rules are that the fighters were padded gloves, the ring would be canvas and there would be 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest periods in between.

The catch is that although Queensberry said there would be rounds, he never indicated how many.  So fights would last as many rounds as necessary until somebody collapsed.  Then in 1892 Harry Sharpe knocked out Frank Crosby in 77 rounds!  In 1890 Danny Needham and Pat Kerrigan fought to a draw in 100 rounds.  But the longest fight ever was in 1893 between Andy Bowen and jack Burke, which lasted for over 7 hours and went on for 110 rounds!! The referee finally declared the bout "no contest" when both men were too tired and smashed-up to go on with the fight.  It wasn't until the early 20th century that fights were limited to definite number of rounds and so stopping the endless boxing matches of the past.

Those were the longest fights. What about the shortest ones? In 1946 a fight between Al Couture and Ralph Walton is the shortest fight on record. When the bell rang, Couture dashed across the ring at Walton.  But, Walton wasn't really ready yet and was still putting in his mouthpiece. Couture knocked him cold in just 30 seconds after the fight started.

As we all know boxing has its bizarre moments.  Some say the craziest one was only a few years ago when in 1997 Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear.  But then some say it was in 1978 when Sugar Ray Leonard knocked out Tom Kelly -- the referee.  


Then there are those that remember the 1959 fight between Henry Wallitsch and Bartolo Soni.  This is what the book said happened:

Soni kept running and dancing around the ring.  Wallitsch handn't landed a single punch, and he was getting frustrated, impatient and angry. By the third round Wallitsch got Soni in a clinch and saw his big chance.  Wallitsch wound up, and with every ounce of his being he threw his mighty punch at Soni and....MISSED!

The force of his own swing carried him across the ring and over the ropes. Wallitsch took a right on the chin from the arena floor and landed in sports history as the only boxer to every knock himself out.

NOTE: The above story about Henry Wallitsch's 1959 fight with Bartolo Soni is false!  I spoke on the phone with Henry and this is what really happened.  Back in those days, the rings had 3 ropes, not 4 like today.  In this particular fight, Henry had Solo's back against the ropes and as he faced him, he gave him  several body punches.  Suddenly, the top rope broke! Both fighters fell out of the ring.  Solo was instantly helped back into the ring. But, Henry fell out face first and cut his chin on a typewriter sitting on a table (being used by a reporter) outside the ring.  By the time Henry got back into the ring, the referee counted him as being "out!"  But, he  wasn't  out due to a knockout. It was due to the fact that he had been out of the ring apron for more than 15 seconds. (Today the rule is 20 seconds.) Henry feels that due to equipment malfunction, this fight should just have been called off, and no one declared a winner.
However, that didn't happen.  It's very sad that the erroneous story that Henry knocked himself out has gone on for so many years.  I myself believed it because it was in the book.  Anyway, Henry is now busy being President of Ring#8 and with the New York Veteran's Boxing Association providing help and assistance to all boxers in need and their families.


The purpose of this page is to give you the historical foundation of boxing.  The sport is not only popular world wide and thus annually creating more of it's own history, it also is divided now into weight categories, giving more specific history, facts, stats, fights, to it's legend.  There's several websites on-line devoted to specific boxing area.  Here's one that in a nutshell provides the matches for Heavyweight fights only: Historical Fights Listing.

In 1892 this person knocked the renown boxer, John L. Sullivan, to the canvas:
(a) Hessie Donahue
(b) Jimmie McDoughal
(c) Paddy Doughan

(Place your cursor over the dot)
(A) Hessie Donahue -  A WOMAN!




Check out some other Sports Fun at our Main Entry Page.

Source: "When Human Heads were Footballs"
By Don L. Wulffson
Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon and Schuster) © 1998

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