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Early Pugilism

By: Michael Blackett

Using the clenched fists in aggression or self-defence is one of those activities like running or hunting, so necessary to the existence of early men that its origin can only be said to be as old as mankind itself. With no weapon to hand the fist, is one of the best we have.

The earliest records of boxing, date from before the great days of the Greek and Roman Empires. Egyptian hieroglyphics from around 4000bc suggest that a sort of combat between soldiers was practiced. Thongs were wrapped round the hands and forearms, in a primitive forerunner of the boxing glove.

The word pugilism is a mixture of Greek and Latin “ to fight with the fist “ and the term Boxing arises from the action of clenching of the fist, the folding of fingers and thumb into a box.

Boxing then went through different stages in development , the Greeks in 900BC for their lust for blood made their warriors sit on flat stones, facing each other wearing leather thongs and when the signal was given they would begin punching each other, the fights ended when one contestant beat the other to death. These fights could last for a long length of time, so metal studs were introduced which were fastened into the thongs and then spikes. A few blows would smash an opponents face and a few more would finish him off.

In 688BC, boxing was introduced into the Olympics and fighters wore leather gauntlets from the knuckles to the elbows, they also wore head guards and trained using punch-bags. The champions were sponsored by their cities, celebrated by poets and commemorated on vases and in statues. Boxing continued in the Olympics without metal studs, but during the Roman holidays and feasts gladiatorial contests were held to please the crowds. Pugilists would be brought in from Africa and the winners were awarded maidens as prizes. A sort of professional circuit emerged, but they realized that fighting to the death or near death was not the best training for warriors and so the studded gloves were abolished. Without the prospect of the fighters getting killed the interest lessened and in 339AD the Emperor at the time terminated the Olympic games and boxing disappeared for almost 1300 years. It resurfaced in England in the 17th century, when it was closely linked with fencing. Masters who taught the backsword were often instructors in boxing, as they were both sciences of self-defence. For publicity they would often have fights with and without the swords.

Gradually, fighting with the fists became more popular and the term Prize-fight was used. Strong men with an aptitude for the sport roamed the countryside usually in small groups, with a length of rope. They would attract a crowd and one of them would issue a challenge to the audience, for anyone to fight for a Guinea. Spectators would form a circle with the rope ( hence the ring ) into which, to accept the challenge, an onlooker would throw his hat (hence tossing ones hat into the ring) meaning to accept the challenge.

Should there be no challenges, two of the party would box each other. In each case there would be a collection and the party would move to the next village.

Traveling fairs might have a boxing booth, in which professionals would challenge the public or box each other, with spectators paying to watch. A man who showed strength and aptitude would become a champion of his village or locality, and his neighbors would support him in challenges to other local champions. A “purse “ might be put up for the winner and there would be plenty of betting.

The boxing match then did not resemble a match of today. The fighters were stripped to the waist , but did not wear gloves. Kicking , biting and gouging were not allowed , and neither was hitting or grabbing below the waist. But most other thing were. Wrestling was an essential part. The opponent could be knocked or thrown to the ground, either by picking him up around the waist or by a popular move known as cross buttock. Having thrown an opponent to the floor, it was allowed to fall on top of him as heavily as possible.

It was not allowed to strike a man or inflict damage once he was down apart from falling on him. A round ended when a man was down, and there was a 30 second break before the next. Rounds could therefore be of any length and carried on until one man was unable to continue. There were no refs as the spectators were the guardians of fair play.

As more began to follow the sport the ring formed by spectators, holding the rope was not satisfactory as its shape could not be maintained under the pressure of supporters surging back and forth during the excitement of a fight. So stakes were used, around which the rope was wound. Later an outer ring was required for the big fights, to accommodate the umpires and the gentry who had put up the money. The timekeeper used a whistle or gong to indicate when the 30 seconds had elapsed between rounds.

The two fighters occupied diagonal corners and each was allowed supporters usually two. These men were usually fighters themselves who sometimes fought themselves in a supporting bout, should the fight end quickly and it is where the term “Seconds“ comes from. One second used his knees as a seat for the boxer between rounds and the other was to try an revive a fighter, he was known as the bottle man and even today one of the seconds gives a boxer water during the break.

A line was scratched across the center of the ring dividing it into two halves. At the start of the contest the boxers toed the line, an expression still used today. At the beginning of each round the boxers had to toe the line. The timekeepers would give the boxers 8 seconds for the boxer to come up to the mark. If he was unable to do so, he would lose the bout, i.e. He failed to come up to scratch, and was counted out of time, hence a count out or known now as a knockout. The term “stake money” came about as the boxers purses were tied to the stakes of the ring so they could see no one was making off with the cash. The first champion of the bare knuckle era is generally acknowledged as James Figg…..

*If anyone is interested in reading more on the origins of bare knuckle boxing, here is a link to Michael Blackett’s site- THE HISTORY OF BAREKNUCKLE BOXING

1 Comment on Early Pugilism

  1. Dave J. Lomas. (Dragonwriter UK) // June 28, 2012 at 11:17 am // Reply

    A very well written and informative article on a very misunderstood topic.

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