1 – Boxing (8th Century BC, codified 1867)
“To be sure, boxing has always been, at best, a shady and sometimes cutthroat business, buttressed by hype and tomfoolery rivalling, at times, that of carnival circuses.” Dan Hill, on the origins of boxing.
Boxing is, at its core, among the simplest of all the martial arts and very likely the oldest. There is evidence, cast in reliefs, that can date the sport back to the 3rd Millenium BC in Sumeria, with further ancient artefacts that place it two thousand years before Christ in Mesopotamia and Babylonia, as well as other civilisations of the time. The Greeks and the Romans were known for their love of the sport, with boxing gloves found that date from that period, and boxing was one of the three martial arts that featured at the original Olympic Games, having been first contested at the 23rd Games in 688BC. Boxers fought in Roman amphitheatres and at the Coliseum, with skilled fighters being renowned for their skills in the ring: which was, at the time, a chalked circle on the floor that gave rise to the modern term for the fighting area.
The origins of boxing as a sport, however, are far more recent than that. They will surprise nobody with a knowledge of the modern fight game: the sport was founded and codified with the express purposes of making it easier to bet on. While folk fighting had long been a facet of life in Europe – and particularly in Britain – it was the desire to make a uniform contest, on which those who were not present could still wager money. Previously, prize fights had included all kinds of strikes, throws, chokes and other moves that would have no place in a modern boxing ring, and thus many saw them as open to corruption and manipulation by outside forces. Thus, it was thought that having a codified, agreed-upon set of rules, as well as a referee to enforce them, would aid those who wished to bet on the outcome. Given that the fighters, the promoters, the bookmakers and just about everybody else got their take from the betting profits, it was an obvious solution.
The London Prize Ring Rules were first published in 1838 and then amended in 1853 and are the genesis of all rules that we know now: an allotted size for the ring, which was to be surrounded with ropes, a referee to be agreed upon beforehand, the method by which a man was knocked out and the procedure for settling bets in the event of an inconclusive result. These rules lead to a proliferation of the sport and the growth of its first popular stars, before in 1867, the famed Marquess of Queensbury Rules were introduced.
The Queensbury Rules are still accepted as the basics of the sport to this day. They enforced the wearing of gloves and disbarred wrestling, as well as establishing uniform three-minute rounds, with one-minute breaks between them and abolishing the use of seconds – fighters who would step in should one participant be unable to continue – and bringing in the now ubiquitous ten-second count for a downed fighter.
They were named for the Marquess of Queensbury, though they were actually written by a Welsh boxer named John Graham Chambers. Queensbury’s endorsement was a key factor in the acceptance of the rules, as his position in the aristocracy lended a level of legitimacy to what had previously been an underground, borderline legal pursuit. Of course, the chicanery that plagued the sport prior to codification has hardly gone away: cheating is still common, whether by taking dives to lose or performance enhancing drugs to win and gambling still dictates much about how the sport takes place – hence why so many large fights are held in Las Vegas.
The progress of boxing from the ancient world to the modern, multi-billion dollar industry that it is today has been in pursuit of cash and fame, but not all martial arts have gone that way. Next, we will talk about wrestling: another Olympic sport, but one which has taken a markedly different route to the modern world.