Hand-to-hand combat may be the oldest form of combat that occurred between Homo sapiens. While weapons quickly replaced the fist as a way to hunt, hand-to-hand combat persisted as a way of settling disputes. Sports were often developed as ways for soldiers to maintain their skills during times of peace. The origins of these kinds of competitions can be seen in events like chariot races in Egypt or the javelin tosses of ancient Greece.
Many modern sports originated at the original Olympic Games of Greece. These sporting events gave rise to wrestling, archery, shot put, discus, and a number of running events. The most relevant sport to our topic was called “pankration.” This violent sport involved the use of kicks as well as punches, and it only had rules against eye gouges and strikes to the groin. Nowadays, this sport is seen as the predecessor to modern MMA-style contests.
Depictions of fighters with wrapped fists have been found in the art of ancient Minoa from as early as 1500 BCE, and this type of fighting attire was described in Ancient Egypt as well as Greece. Romans enjoyed watching gladiators fight using only their fists, though fighters would wrap their fingers in leather thongs to protect their hands. Hardened leather was added in additional layers so that the fighters’ fists became deadly bludgeoning weapons. Less valuable slaves were forced to fight in an area within a circle drawn in the dirt, which was the origin of the term “ring” in the context of boxing. This sport was actually outlawed in Rome due to its violent and brutal nature.
Fistfights fell out of favor with the advent of casual weaponry – that is, wearing a sword or other weapon as part of daily attire. Some allusions to fistfights exist in text from Italy and Russia between the 12th and 17th centuries. The sport was revitalized during the late 17th century in England, when carrying weapons had fallen out of fashion. Resurrected as prizefighting in London, organized fistfights were still bare-knuckle, brutal, and occasionally fatal affairs.
Rules created by champion fighter Jack Broughton introduced concepts like rules against hitting below the belt, a 30-second count when a fighter is down, and a standardized ring size with ropes to mark the boundaries. These rules also called for the use of cotton wraps on the hands of the fighters. With the induction of these rules, fatalities became less common. Ninety years later, weight classes were introduced in the London fight circuit to further reduce injuries caused by unfair fights.
The next leap forward came with the published rulebook known as the Marquess of Queensberry rules. These guidelines established that matches must consist of ten 3-minute rounds with 1-minute breaks between each. They also standardized the size of boxing gloves to be closer to the modern version. These new gloves allowed for longer matches and a greater focus on strategic punching and defense.
In the end, boxing became the modern sport we appreciate today through the introduction of truly talented and powerful fighters that changed the scene forever, like Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman.