Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: boxing from Dictionary of Sports and Games Terminology

(sport) a combat sport in which two competitors trade punches with fists enclosed in boxing gloves

Summary Article: boxing
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

sport of fighting with fists, also called pugilism and prizefighting.

Early History

Depicted on the walls of tombs at Beni Hasan in Egypt, dating from about 2000 to 1500 B.C., boxing is one of the oldest forms of competition. A part of the ancient Olympic games, the sport was exhausting and brutal. The Greeks fought without regard for weight differentials and without interruption, a match ending only when a fighter lost consciousness or raised his hand in resignation. Boxers wound heavy strips of leather around their hands and wrists. Under Roman rule, these thongs (the caestus) were laced with metal, ensuring an abundance of blood. Statues of maimed boxers from late antiquity attest to the carnage. After the demise of the Olympics, boxing survived as a common sport. It persisted at local fairs and religious festivals throughout medieval Europe and was especially popular in the west and north of England, where it was often a combination of wrestling and street fighting.

The Organization of Boxing

In early 18th-century England, boxing, with the aid of royal patronage in the form of betting or offering prizes, became organized. James Figg, the first British champion (1719–30), opened a School of Arms, which attracted numerous young men to instruction in swordplay, cudgeling, and boxing—the “manly arts of self-defense.” After delivering a fatal blow in a bout, Jack Broughton drew up (1743) the first set of rules. Though fights still ended only in knockout or resignation, Broughton's rules moderated the sport and served as the basis for the later London Prize-ring Rules (1838) and Queensbury Rules (1867). The latter called for boxing gloves, a limited number of 3-min rounds, the forbidding of gouging and wrestling, a count of 10 sec before a floored boxer is disqualified, and various other features of modern boxing.

Boxing in the United States

Until late in the 19th cent., American fighters established their own rules, which were few. Early matches, some of them free-for-alls, featured biting and gouging as well as punching. In most instances they were also illegal. In 1888, John L. Sullivan, a bare-knuckle champion and America's first sports celebrity, won a clandestine 75-round match.

New York legalized boxing in 1896, and other states soon followed suit. Although the reign (1910–15) of the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, disturbed the segregated society of the time, and although many continued to question boxing's social purpose, its inclusion in the Olympic games in 1904, its use for military training in World War I, its emergence as a source of discipline for youth, its regulation by state commissions, and its suggestion of national vitality strengthened its claims to legitimacy and bolstered its popularity through the 1920s and 30s. Heavyweight (over 190 lb/86.3 kg) champions Jack Dempsey (1919–26) and Joe Louis (1937–49) were national heroes, Louis becoming one of the first black athletes to gain wide popularity.

Since World War II, boxing has proceeded amid corruption and, at times, chaos. Rising admission prices, restriction of title fights to closed-circuit television, the proliferation of organizations claiming to sanction fights and proclaim champions, financial scandals, ring injuries and deaths, monopolistic practices by promoters, and claims of exploitation of lower-class fighters have threatened its appeal, yet the sport continues to attract huge audiences and investment. Great fighters like Muhammad Ali elicit admiration and fascination, while controversy surrounds others like the repeatedly imprisoned Mike Tyson.

Amateur Boxing

Amateur boxing, while not free from debate, has in recent decades taken steps to ensure safety and objective judging. The Golden Gloves national tournament has long been a stepping stone for young fighters, but the Olympics are the most visible forum for amateurs. Olympic boxers wear eight-ounce gloves and padded head gear and fight just three rounds of three min. Judges use electronic devices to record the scoring punches that determine the winner.

  • See Fleischer, N. S. , Fifty Years at Ringside (1940);.
  • Liebling, A. J. , The Sweet Science (1956);.
  • Roberts, R. , Papa Jack (1983);.
  • Gorn, E. , The Manly Art (1986, upd. ed. 2010);.
  • Sammons, J. , Beyond the Ring (1988);.
  • Early, G. , The Culture of Bruising (1994);.
  • Boddy, K. , Boxing: A Cultural History (2008);.
  • G. Kimball; J. Schulian, ed., At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (2011).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Boxing
American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia

Boxing matches in the United States have historically carried important symbolic meanings. They have highlighted ethnic differences, reflected...

Full text Article boxing films
Encyclopedia of Early Cinema

Scenes of boxers were common in early moving pictures, particularly in the USA. Although prizefights were illegal in many locales, in the 1890s...

Full text Article Boxing
The Companion to British History, Routledge

17th cent. London Prize fighters fought bare- fisted and with no holds barred. The first recognised Champion of England (in this style) was...

See more from Credo