Boxing―the sport itself creates an image of swollen appendages and a bruised face. However, the flip side of the coin is that this sport has also enabled many a country to create a niche in the world of sport, and many a sportsperson to find true self-expression. The sport originated from typically primitive hand-to-hand combats of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The earliest forms of expression of the sport probably rose out of the need to declare supremacy of the physical body, and the extent to which it can be resilient. The sport is believed to have become a part of the American world of sport and history in the 18th century. The pugilism was passed on when the British colonized the Americas. The sport ‘arrived’ via the youth of wealthy southern families.
The Early Days
The earliest recorded history of boxing in America is one of a public spectacle. At that point in time, the matches were fought bare knuckles. There were no-holds-barred combats that were encouraged. The boxing exhibited then included wrestling. Spectators formed the ring, and the absence of a referee and time limit made the sport a brutal affair. The primitive sports psychology applied was ‘fight till one man is finished’. Boxing bouts used to last for hours. The boxers were allowed to choke, throw, and kick their opponents. There was no ‘weight’ category, and neither were victors recognized officially. The sport was brutal and bloody.
African-American boxing involved bouts between Black American and Hispanic American boxers, and at times, even Native Americans who were victims of slavery. They were betted on by their wealthy southern masters. The first great slave fighter known was Tom Molineaux. He won his freedom after knocking out a rival from an adjoining plantation. The fights were soon categorized into sports betting or prize fighting and sparring. In the former, the boxers fought for money, with bare knuckles. The bouts were often against local laws. In sparring, the combatants wore gloves and displayed a new kind of ‘science’ associated with the moves in the ring. The techniques were used, not for a purse or to inflict bodily harm, but to take the sport to the next level. Sparring was exhibited as a genuine sport at exhibitions and private gymnasiums. This was probably the era that marked the beginning of extreme sports.
The earliest set of rules laid-down included:
- No hitting below the belt
- No hitting an opponent who was ‘down’ in the ring
- No wrestling holds below the waist
- 30-second rest periods
- Knockdown spelled round over
In 1866, the Marquis of Queensberry laid down a set of glove fighting rules that included:
- Compulsory use of gloves
- No wrestling
- Rounds lasting three minutes
- Rest period of one minute
- Recovery period of ten seconds after knockdown
The Early Heroes of American Boxing
Tom Molineaux, a slave boxer: He ‘won his freedom’ in 1809 and went to England. There, he fought several times between 1810 and 1811, finally losing out to Tom Crib, the English champion.
Christopher Lilly: He is best remembered for defeating Thomas McCoy in a bout that lasted for a whole two hours and forty-one minutes! McCoy died in the 77th round due to fluid from wounds draining into the lungs. He had ‘drowned’! However, the match attracted immediate legal response.
John C. Heenen and Thomas Sayers: They enhanced their sports careers on becoming the first recorded joint winners of a bout. The fight took place on April 17, 1860, in Hampshire, England.
John L. Sullivan: Popular as the ‘Boston Strong Boy’, he became America’s first ‘sports hero’. He was known to be an honest fighter, who could adapt to any set of rules. He refused to fight a black, and knew nothing of the science of the ring, but he had a knockout punch.
American boxing developed out of sheer show of strength, but evolved into a sport that enabled many strong-willed and able-bodied men to ‘find’ the power of resilience.