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

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Boxing: Selected full-text books and articles

Blood Season: Mike Tyson and the World of Boxing By Phil Berger Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995 (2nd edition)
Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sport By Eric Dunning; Dominic Malcolm; Ivan Waddington Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Boxing in the Western Civilizing Process Notes"
Fair Play: Sports, Values, and Society By Robert L. Simon Westview Press, 1991
Librarian's tip: "The Case against Boxing" begins on p. 54
Controversies of the Sports World By Douglas T. Putnam Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Violence in the Ring"
Sports and the American Jew By Steven A. Riess Syracuse University Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Tough Jews: The Jewish American Boxing Experience, 1890-1950"
Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America By David K. Wiggins Syracuse University Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Peter Jackson and the Elusive Heavyweight Championship: A Black Athlete's Struggle against the Late Nineteenth Century Color Line"
Figuring and Disfiguring: Joyce Carol Oates on Boxing and the Paintings of George Bellows By Morris, Daniel Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 31, No. 4, December 1998
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer By Loïc Wacquant Oxford University Press, 2004
The International Politics of Sport in the 20th Century By James Riordan; Arnd Krüger E & FN Spon, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "The Rise of Black Athletes in the USA"
White on Black: The Views of Twenty-Two White Americans on the Negro By Era Bell Thompson; Herbert Nipson Johnson Pub. Co., 1963
Librarian's tip: "Why Negroes Rule Boxing" begins on p. 170 and "Have Negroes Killed Boxing?" begins on p. 182
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