Primordial Pugilism

A look back at boxing’s brutal beginnings

Boxing is primal. Settling scores with combat is as inherent to the human condition as eating and breathing. 

The reason it has endured is because it unlocks a primeval reaction within us as a mammal, the instinct to fight and not flight.It is no surprise then that the history of boxing is as long and storied as human history itself. 

As with most ancient history evidence is found in art. The oldest evidence we have for competitive boxing are Sumerian relief carvings from the 3rd millennium BCE. 

Found in modern day Iraq these carvings come from the Mesopotamian nations of Assyria and Babylonia. There are also some similar depictions in Hittite art from Asia Minor.

They depict two adult men fighting with fists, prepared with bands around the wrists. Carvings sometimes show spectators too which suggests that even at this time the bouts were for sport as much as they were for score settling.

Sumerian relief carving

History then leads, as it often does, to Greece. By 1500 BCE the Minoans had established one of the first fully formed civilisations on the island of Crete. They had established trading links with much of the known world and had developed several uses for bronze, including making the first ever boxing glove. 

The Minoans had boxing in a form more akin to that of roman gladiators much later. We see this in a carved vase from that period that shows helmeted boxers wearing a bronze plate strapped to their fists.

As Greek civilisation spread around the peninsula sport became more codified with the olympics.

 The first Olympiands contained only running events, it was then expanded to include the pentathlon and wrestling and in their 23rd event, Boxing. 

The rules were brutal but some of them have endured even to this day. Although they had no ring, no weight classes, no rounds they did prohibit holds and wrestling and the bout ended when a fighter was knocked out, incapacitated or gave up (ususally by raising a single finger). 

A defeated boxer raises a finger to indicate capitulation

There were several referees and they enforced the rules with a whip or a cane. Unlike modern boxing, the Greeks did not enclose the competitors in a ring to encourage fighting in close quarters. Therefore, most boxers fought defensively as opposed to offensively to encourage patience and caution, with the threat of a whip if you clinched, it's really no wonder. 

They greeks regarded boxing as the ultimate bloodsport, a test of bravery and toughness like no other. A 1st-century-BCE inscription praising a pugilist states, “A boxer’s victory is gained in blood.”

Homer's Iliad, the epic poem of the Trojan war, gives more detail about the sports growth and it’s part in the celebration of warfare. One passage reads; 

“The two men, girt up, strode into the midst of the circle

and faced each other, and put up their ponderous hands at the same time and closed, so that their heavy arms were crossing each other,and there was a fierce grinding of teeth, the sweat began to run everywhere from their bodies. 

Great Epeios came in, and hit him as he peered out from his guard, on the cheek, and he could no longer keep his feet, but where he stood the glorious limbs gave. 

As in the water roughened by the north wind a fish jumps

in the weed of the beach-break, then the dark water closes above him” (Book XXIII of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattimore.)

This is the first written account of a knockout. 

By the 4th century the simple leather coverings has become “sharp thongs,” which had a thick strip of hard leather over the knuckles that was designed to cut and pierce the flesh. 

Boxing gloves that more closely resemble what we see today were used as training tools but didn’t have a place in competitive bouts. 

As the great city states of Greece declined and the Roman Empire conquered most of the known world the popularity of boxing didn’t waver. 

Roman Boxers wearing Caestus

The Roman culture of gladiatorial combat wholly embraced the possibility of new bloodsport and soon the baying boards of Rome were witnessing a predictably brutal new form of boxing. 

Roman boxers used gloves called the caestus (cestus) that are seen in Roman mosaics and described in their literature. 

Made of hard leather these gloves often had lumps of metal or spikes sewn into the leather for maximum damage.

Doing away with the Greek need for sportsmanship, gladiatorial boxing contests usually ended only with the death of the losing boxer at the hands of the victor. 

As Roman culture dominated Europe and the Near East boxing became absorbed into the gladiatorial zeitgeist. It was categorised with armed combat and man versus animal fights. 

This meant that when the Huns and Goths of Eastern Europe began to encroach on Roman territory from the east deposing the last emperor Augustulus, boxing was, temporarily, lost to history. 

Christian monarchies soon became the dominant force in Europe and due to their aversion to everything Roman and their new codes of morality they abandoned the practice. 

Heroes like Diagoras and Theagenes, Dares and Entellus, Onomastus and Melankomasz who had basked in the glory of the world's great empires had become lost figures. 

Melankomasz Battles a foe

The Ali’s and Frazier’s of their day their role was erased from the pantheon of history and philosophy and culture became dictated by the Vatican. 

Pugilism as entertainment ceased to exist for many centuries. Although we cannot speculate about the existence of small scale bouts away from the prying eyes of literate authority gone were the days it’s mass spectator appeal. 

It’s not until the 17th century that boxing reentered recorded history, and not until the 18th century  that figures like James Figg and Jack Broughton brought it back into the mainstream. 

This era of boxing lasted for far longer than modern boxing has existed but is completely unknown or disregarded by most.

Despite this I believe there is much to be learned from the warriors of the distant past as well as the recent past. 

Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx

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