In the Beginning

By Robert Ecksel on June 8, 2011
In the Beginning
Boxing fortunes rose and fell with those of the Roman Empire. But boxing kept fighting.

Boxing was here before we were and will be here after we’re gone. Boxing has legs. Boxing has a good chin. Boxing is here to stay…

Men been hitting each other in the face for as long as there have been faces to hit, and if it wasn’t over this bone or that, than it was for the fun of it.

Six-thousand year old hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt profile men engaged in the manly art. According to Scholiast on Pindar, in 900 B.C. Theseus, son the Greek monarch Aegeus, introduced boxing to his soldiers as a way to kill time. The men would wrap their hands in leather, sit on large stones in the sun, and pound each other to death.

The classical Greeks, who honored athleticism along with intellect, formalized boxing by introducing it at the XXIII Greek Olympiad in 688 B.C. The Olympics were founded by Oxylos in 776 B.C. as an athletic festival to honor Zeus. The Olympics excluded team sports in lieu of individual achievement and included discus and javelin throwing, the long jump, running, wrestling, and the pentathlon, in addition to horse and chariot races. Given the high-toned company, it’s no surprise boxing fit in as well as it did.

That was a turning point in the realm of fistiana. Boxing was finally legit. The world’s first champion was Onamastus of Smyrna and he was crowned with a wreath of olive branches. The earliest written record we have of boxing came from Homer in the 23rd book of The Illiad. In the 8th century B.C. he put his quill to parchment and gave the world its first fight coverage. Homer wrote of a tussle in 1184 B.C. during the Fall of Troy between Epeus, king of a tribe from the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and Euryalus, son of King Mecisteus. They fought at the funeral games of Petrocles, in a fight promoted by Achilles. The stakes in the bout were high. Not only was the two men’s honor at stake. There were exotic prizes. The winner won a mule. The loser got a drinking cup.

How did Homer call it?

Amid the circle now each champion stands,
And poises high in the air his iron hands,
With clashing gauntlets now they fiercely close,
Their crackling jaws re-echo to the blows,
And painful sweat from all their members flows,
At length Epeus dealt a weighty blow
Full on the cheek of his unwary foe.

Boxing in ancient Greece wasn’t that different from boxing today. The combatants trained in gymnasiums, as modern boxers do, with a regimen of calisthenics, diet, shadowboxing and roadwork. They practiced their punching on speedbags filled with fig seeds and grain. They performed in stadiums. There was no clinching, hooks or uppercuts in those days. There were no rounds, decisions or TKOs. These refinements were still to come. The fight was over when one of the fighters could fight no more.

The pancratium was introduced at the 38th Olympiad. Like boxing, the pancratium permitted punching, but the pancratium also allowed wrestling, tripping, kicking, stomping, hair pulling and strangulation.

Art from that time depicts a lively interest in boxing. A Minoan vase from Cyprus from 1600 B.C. called Boxing Rython shows two cartoon characters sparring. A Greek urn from Rhodes circa the 6th century B.C. depicts four men at a boxing match: two boxers going at it, with a chief second on the right, and a referee on the left holding a stick with which to enforce the rules.

Greece fell to the Romans in 146 A.D. The Romans embraced boxing and introduced the sport to the public at the Colosseum. The Colosseum held 50,000 fans and featured such time-honored activities as chariot races, animal hunts, sea battles, gladiators fighting to the death, and that all-time crowd favorite, feeding Christians to the lions. Among such fiendish amusements, the simplicity of two men fighting with bare fists had to be jazzed up to satisfy the Romans’ bloodlust.

Because the fighters were either slaves or convicted criminals or prisoners of war, the Romans could do pretty as they pleased much with their captives, so the Romans created the caestus, hard leather gloves that covered the hands, wrists and forearms, and into which metal studs, teeth and spikes were inserted. Boxing and the Roman Colosseum were now a perfect fit. The phrase “killer punch” took on a whole new meaning.

The Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid from the 1st century A.D. wrote rhapsodically about the caestus.

From somewhere he produced the gloves of Eryx
And tossed them into the ring, all stiff and heavy,
Seven layers of hide and insewn lead and iron.
You can still see the blood and splash of brains
That stained them long ago.

A century later, a Latin poet named Lucilius wrote about a fighter’s misshapen mug: “Having such a face, Olympicus, go not to a fountain nor look into any transparent water, for you, like Narcissus, seeing your face clearly, will die, hating yourself to death.” Lucilius also wrote in his Epigrams: “Onesimus the boxer came to the prophet Olympus wishing to learn if he was going to live to an old age. And he said, Yes, if you give up the ring now, but if you go on boxing, Saturn isn’t in your horoscope.”

While slaves in ancient Rome fought for their lives, free men in Asia created their own martial arts. There was vajra-musti in India, as recounted in the early Hindu epic poem Mahabharata, shaolin boxing in China, muay-thai in Thailand, and bama letwhay in Burma. But Imperial Rome set a standard for the Western World, and boxing’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the Roman Empire. After twelve centuries of blood on the sand, Theodosius I abolished boxing in 393 A.D. For 1300 years, with a few notable pockets of resistance in Europe, there were no formal fights.

The Brits in Regency England in the late 1600s woke boxing from its slumber. In tune with the Restoration, the English resurrected the game as a way to divert rabble in a town square. Boxing was right at home with the cockfights, dogfights, bull and bear baiting, ratting and farting contests. Boxing softened up the crowd for public lashings of whores and Roman Catholics.

The diary of Samuel Pepys has an entry from August 1660 that refers to a fight between a Dutchman and a waterman at the stairs of Westminster Abbey. In another entry from 1662 Pepys wrote: “I came and saw my first prizefight…between one Mathews…and one Westwicke who was cut several times in head and legs…all over blood…strange to see what a deal of money is flung to them both between every bout.”

It wasn’t long before a wily gent saw that boxing had potential. That man was James Figg. He was master of the broadsword, cudgel and quarterstaff, and embraced bareknuckle prizefighting as a legitimate form of discipline and self-defense. Figg opened his amphitheater—history’s first boxing gym/casino—on Tottenham Court Road in 1719. Figg was as much of a showman as he was a pugilist, and his daily challenge to the crowd was, “For money, for love, or a bellyful!”

Figg had many students eager to learn the noble art. One of these students, Captain Godfrey, wrote boxing’s first how-to book in 1740 and titled it A Treatise on the Useful Science of Defense. He never forgot the lessons he learned at Figg’s Academy: “I purchased my knowledge with many a broken head and bruises in every part of me.”

Figg’s greatest pupil was a heavyweight named Jack Broughton. Not only was he big. He was also athletic. The “Father of Boxing” could parry and cross-buttock throw. He introduced defense. He created counterpunching. Broughton was boxing’s first ring genius and he ushered in 170 years of hard-hitting bareknuckle history.

In 1743, under the patronage of William, Duke of Cumberland, Broughton opened his amphitheater. One of his fights was against a Yorkshire coachman named George Stevenson. Broughton beat up Stevenson so badly that he died three days later. Broughton was crestfallen at the death, but Broughton believed in boxing, so he created Broughton’s Rules, the first modern rules, published on August 16, 1743. These rules reintroduced the referee and forbid gouging and kicking a man when he was down.

Broughton was a great champion and when he lost the crown in 1750 boxing went into a tailspin. But boxing wasn’t going away. It was moving overseas. The first Anglo-American war fought by men with their fists was between England’s champion Tom Cribb and a former slave from the United States named Bill Richmond in 1805. Cribb fought another tough black man from a southern plantation named Tom Molineaux in 1810 and 1811. Also during this time, Pierce Egan’s Boxiana (1812), the first great book devoted exclusively to boxing, introduced the “sweet science of bruising” to eternity.

The London Prize Ring Rules were introduced in 1838 and further legitimized the game. These rules gave us the boxing ring, and outlawed biting, butting, and wearing spiked boots.

The Marquis of Queensberry Rules of 1867 established 3-minute rounds with 1-minute rest periods, and boxing gloves became the norm, signaling an end to the bareknuckle era.

Boxing was here before we were and will be here after we’re gone. Boxing has legs. Boxing has a good chin. Boxing is here to stay.

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  1. Patrick Hogan 11:57am, 06/28/2011

    waoow! that was a great lesson learnt about the greatest and the oldest sport on earth, keep it up and keeping up. hope to be a good contributor and also supportive writer too….............cheers.

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