Boxing has prehistoric origins in present-day Ethiopia, where it appeared in the sixth millennium BC. The Egyptians learned the art of boxing from the local population and took the sport to Egypt where it became popular. From Egypt, boxing spread to other countries including Greece, and eastward to Mesopotamia and northward to Rome. The earliest known depiction of boxing comes from a Sumerian relief from the 3rd millennium BC. Later depictions from the 2nd millennium BC are found in reliefs from the Mesopotamian nations of Assyria and Babylonia, and in Hittite art from Asia Minor. The earliest evidence for fist fighting with any kind of gloves can be found on Minoan Crete.
Hitting with different extremities of the body, such as kicks and punches, as an act of human aggression, has existed across the world throughout human history, being a combat system as old as wrestling. However, in terms of sports competition, due to the lack of writing in the prehistoric times and the lack of references, it is not possible to determine rules of any kind of boxing in prehistory, and in ancient times only can be inferred from the few intact sources and references to the sport.
The origin of the sport of boxing is unknown, however according to some sources boxing has prehistoric origins in present-day Ethiopia, where it appeared in the sixth millennium BC. When the Egyptians invaded Nubia they learned the art of boxing from the local population, and they took the sport to Egypt where it became popular. From Egypt, boxing spread to other countries including Greece, eastward to Mesopotamia, and northward to Rome.
The earliest visual evidence of boxing comes from Egypt and Sumer both from the third millennium BC. A relief sculpture from Egyptian Thebes (c. 1350 BC) shows both boxers and spectators. These early Middle-Eastern and Egyptian depictions showed contests where fighters were either bare-fisted or had a band supporting the wrist. The earliest evidence of use of gloves can be found in Minoan Crete (c. 1500–1400 BC).
Various types of boxing existed in ancient India. The earliest references to musti-yuddha come from classical Vedic epics such as the Rig Veda (c. 1500–1000 BCE) and Ramayana (c. 700–400 BCE). The Mahabharata describes two combatants boxing with clenched fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and headbutts during the time of King Virata. Duels (niyuddham) were often fought to the death. During the period of the Western Satraps, the ruler Rudradaman—in addition to being well-versed in “the great sciences” which included Indian classical music, Sanskrit grammar, and logic—was said to be an excellent horseman, charioteer, elephant rider, swordsman and boxer. The Gurbilas Shemi, an 18th-century Sikh text, gives numerous references to musti-yuddha. The martial art is related to other forms of martial arts found in other parts of the Indian cultural sphere including Muay Thai in Thailand, Muay Lao in Laos, Pradal Serey in Cambodia and Lethwei in Myanmar.
In Ancient Greece boxing was a well developed sport called pygmachia, and enjoyed consistent popularity. In Olympic terms, it was first introduced in the 23rd Olympiad, 688 BC. The boxers would wind leather thongs around their hands in order to protect them. There were no rounds and boxers fought until one of them acknowledged defeat or could not continue. Weight categories were not used, which meant heavier fighters had a tendency to dominate. The style of boxing practiced typically featured an advanced left leg stance, with the left arm semi-extended as a guard, in addition to being used for striking, and with the right arm drawn back ready to strike. It was the head of the opponent which was primarily targeted, and there is little evidence to suggest that targeting the body or the use of kicks was common, in which it resembled modern western boxing.
A boxer and a rooster in a Roman mosaic of first century AD at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples Boxing was a popular spectator sport in Ancient Rome. Fighters protected their knuckles with leather strips wrapped around their fists. Eventually harder leather was used and the strips became a weapon. Metal studs were introduced to the strips to make the cestus. Fighting events were held at Roman amphitheatres.
Boxing is no longer just a sport you see on TV; it’s become a very popular form of exercise that’s found its way into many studios and gyms. It has incredible benefits for both the body and the mind. Not only is boxing a great cardiovascular workout, but it also helps to improve your coordination, strength, and even your brain!
Even with all of its glory, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the sport of boxing. People tend to shy away from boxing, thinking of it as overly intense or aggressive. It’s also thought to be strictly a “man’s” sport.
These myths couldn’t be farther from the truth. Let’s delve behind the scenes of boxing to dispel some of the common myths and reveal the truth.
Boxing is one of the oldest known sports today, with 2,000-year-old depictions on the walls of tombs in Egypt and stone carvings indicating that Sumerians—who lived in what is now Iraq—boxed at least 5,000 years ago. Boxing got its start as an exhausting and brutal spectacle.
In ancient Greece, two men would sit face to face with their fists tightly wrapped in strips of tough leather. They would then hit each other until one of them fell to the ground unconscious, or even worse, dead. Roman fighters or gladiators, on the other hand, fought with the primary intent to kill their opponent, wearing leather straps around their fists plated with metal. However, boxing was soon abolished around 393 AD because it was deemed too savage.
Boxing didn’t really resurface again until the early 16th Century in London. You see, the English aristocracy developed a keen interest in recovering the knowledge and tradition of antiquity, so boxing became a means to handle disputes among the rich. Wealthy patrons would support their pugilists and put large wagers down on their fights. This is actually where the term ‘prizefighters’ was coined.
Jack Broughton, the reigning champion from 1734 to 1758, was the first person to introduce a boxing school. He also helped to formulate the first set of boxing rules and was the inventor of mufflers, the precursors of modern boxing gloves. Broughton invited high society gentlemen to make the change from sponsoring fighters to becoming fighters themselves. As boxing moved across the sea in the early 19th century into America, it wasn’t very popular—that is until Theodore Roosevelt became an advocate.
When Roosevelt was a police commissioner, he would urge his officers to train in the art of ars pugandi. He believed boxing was a great way “to vent out man’s animal spirit.” And this didn’t change when he became president, either. Roosevelt used to box almost daily as a way to keep active and in shape.
From there, boxing continued to grow in popularity with guidelines and rules put in place to protect fighters, making it the sport we all know and love today.