Boxing is an ancient martial art combining hand strikes, controlled aggression, evasiveness, and bone-crushing force. The term boxing derives from the box shape of the closed hand, or fist, which in Latin is pugnus (hence the alternative terms pugilism and fisticuffs). Pungent, sharing the Indo-European root, describes the art rightly executed: “sharply painful, having a stiff or sharp point; marked by sharp incisive quality; caustic; being sharp and to the point.” Pugnus derives from the Greek pugme, meaning “fist.” Though boxing is mentioned in the ancient Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the origins of the art traditionally have been traced to ancient Greece. Both Homer and Virgil poeticize the art in their epics, and designs on ancient Greek pottery feature boxers in action. In Greek mythology, the divine boxer Pollux (also called Polydeuces), twin of Castor (with whom he presided over public games such as the Olympics), was said to have sparred with Hercules.
Ancient Greek and Roman pugilists developed the art of using the fists to pummel their opponents while wearing leather thongs and binders, known as himantes and sphairai, wrapped around the hands and wrists. The Greeks also used the ampbotidus, a protective helmet; Egyptian boxers are depicted wearing similar headgear. Originally used to protect the wrists and fragile bones in the hands, the leather thongs (also known as cesti) were twisted so as to inflict greater injury. By the fourth century B.C., the thongs were replaced with hardened leather gloves. The first famous Greek boxer, Theagenes of Thaos, champion of the 450 B.c. Olympics, is said to have won 1,406 battles with the cesti, killing most of his opponents. In Roman times, the cestus was studded with metal, and the art was reduced to a gladiatorial spectacle.
The art of boxing in combat disappeared with the advent of heavy armor. Upon the introduction of the firearm—and the resulting obsolescence of armor—the “noble science of self-defense” was reborn. James Figg, an eighteenth-century British cudgel-fighter, swordsman, and the first modern boxing champion, was the central figure in this renaissance. When he opened his boxing school in London in 1719, the art of boxing had been dormant for over a thousand years—since the fall of the Roman Empire. Figg taught young aristocrats the art of self-defense by applying the precepts of modern fencing—footwork, speed, and the straight lunge—to fisticuffs. Thus, Western fistfighters learned to throw straight punches, the basis of modern boxing, from fencers. To some extent boxing replaced the duel, allowing men of all social classes to defend themselves and their honor without severely maiming or killing each other.
Despite this connection with fencing, boxing encounters during this early modern era were largely unstructured and highly uncivilized. Boxers fought bare-knuckle (without gloves), and wrestling, choking, throwing, gouging, and purring (stomping on one’s opponent with spiked boots) were commonplace. The art began to be refined when Figg’s successor, Jack Broughton (the “Father of Boxing”), drafted the first set of rules in 1741 after killing an opponent in the ring. According to “Broughton’s Rules,” a square was established in the center of the fighting ring (a circular border of spectators) to which fighters were to return after a knockdown, which marked the end of a “round.” The down man was given thirty seconds to get back up; it was illegal to hit a down man, and wrestling below the waist was not allowed. Broughton also advocated the use of gloves in training. As an innovator of technique, he is known for “milling on the retreat,” or blocking while moving back in order to draw an attacker into one’s punches, compounding their force. By the end of the century Daniel Mendoza, a British-Portuguese Jew, refined the art by incorporating footwork, choreographed combinations, lateral movement, and fighting from a crouch. At 5 feet, 7 inches, and scarcely over 160 pounds, Mendoza’s unique strategies enabled him to defeat much larger men and lay claim to the championship of England.
“Broughton’s Rules” remained in effect until the Pugilists Protective Association, in an attempt to make boxing safer, issued the “London Prize Ring Rules” in 1838 after another death in the ring. Further revisions of these rules in 1853 and 1866 (by which time boxing was actively outlawed) banned choking and head butting, but still did not limit the number or length of rounds. In the interest of safety and fairness, weight classes were first introduced in the 1850s: heavy (over 156 pounds), middle (134-156 pounds), and light (under 134 pounds).
In 1866, a new set of rules was issued that completely revolutionized the art of boxing and that serves as the basis for the governance of the sport today. The “Queensbury Rules,” named for the marquis of Queensbury, consisted of twelve clauses, prohibiting wrestling altogether and mandating a 24-square-foot ring, three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest period after each round, and the use of gloves. Subsequent revisions limited the number of rounds to twenty, set the minimum glove weight at six ounces, and introduced a scoring system of points.
The manifestation of the art of boxing in sport and spectacle has become a significant source of revenue and a nexus for social commentary. The martial art of boxing reaches its highest level in the professional athletes who perform in the prize ring. Boxing continues to be a primary self-defense technique employed by several military institutions and by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. Boxing instruction remains widely disseminated at urban youth centers run by the Police Athletic League and YMCA. Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and Israeli krav maga borrow heavily from boxing’s arsenal. Boxing is also the striking art of choice of many martial artists, such as shootfighters (modern, professional no-holds-barred competitors) and grapplers, determined to augment their primary nonstriking skills.
The philosophy of boxing is simple: “Hit and don’t get hit.” Despite the simplicity of this premise, over the centuries the art has been developed to such a degree that it is often referred to as a science—“the sweet science.” Boxing is both an art and a science, as boxers learn strategic moves and techniques, undergo expert coaching and training (Broughton referred to his boxing lessons as “lectures”), practice in specialized facilities with special equipment, and follow a special diet. Boxing is often likened to a chess game because boxers think several steps ahead. Boxers employ feints and gambits, sometimes allowing themselves to be hit in order to deliver a knockout blow, as chess players sacrifice a piece in order to reach checkmate or gain a positional advantage.
Though physical conditioning is essential, the most important element of boxing is mental and psychological: the capacity to relax, think clearly, and control oneself during a fight. Boxers are aware that their fights are often under way before the occurrence of any physical contact, and they are studied in psychological warfare and body language. They attempt to gain advantages by forcing their opponents to break eye contact or by feigning fear. Many boxers train their faces to be blank while shadowboxing in the mirror so that they do not convey (or telegraph) their punches with their facial expression and eyes.
Initiate boxers spend as long as their first year learning to “work the floor” before engaging in their first sparring session. Learning to move— even to stand—properly as a boxer is learning to walk all over again. The boxer stands relaxed on his toes in a crouch, slightly bent forward at the waist, left side forward at an angle, hands held up to throw punches and protect the face, elbows close in to the ribs to protect the body. The chin is dropped to the chest so that the line of vision is directed out and slightly up from beneath the eyebrows with the shoulders rounded to protect the chin.
The boxer moves forward with small steps by pushing off the back leg, which he “sits” on. To move backward, he reverses the process. Boxers stand on their toes in order to move nimbly and maintain balance. Boxers are trained to move in a continual circle to the left (when facing a right-handed opponent) and to keep the left foot outside the opponent’s right foot (so as to have more target area while giving up less). Boxers train for hours, moving from side to side and in circles, forward and back, learning to punch with leverage while moving in any direction. The boxer learns to use his body as a gravitational lever; the boxer’s force comes from the ground. The boxer’s feet are also his most important defensive tools, maneuvering him out of harm’s way.
The boxer’s hands are the projectiles, and the boxer’s punches are the tools that launch them. Boxers land their punches with three knuckles simultaneously—those of the middle, ring, and little fingers. The knuckle of the ring finger—the middle of the three—is the “aiming” knuckle. The boxer’s own nose is the “target finder” or “sight” through which the fists are fired. Punches in boxing are thrown from the shoulders. Power is derived not so much from the muscles as from the joints and ligaments.
If there is one punch that defines boxing, it is the jab, a straight punch thrown from the shoulder with a short step forward. This lunge makes it possible to fight from a distance beyond even the range of kicks. The jab snaps forward from a blocking position; upon striking, the fist snaps back in direct line, retracing its path. Beginners traditionally practice only the jab from four to six months before learning the other punches. This is intended to raise the level of the weaker side of the body to that of the stronger. Thus the jab is the boxer’s first lesson in self-control, and the primary indicator or measuring device of skill level in the art. The jab is also an external measuring tool, in the sense that it has been called a range finder, or means of determining and establishing the distance between the boxer and the opponent. It is used to keep the opponent at bay, to spark combinations, and to set up the КО (knockout) punch (the classic instance of which is the “one-two punch,” left jab, straight right).
The straight right is thrown from the chest with a forward step from the right leg, and counterclockwise rotation of the fist, with the full twisting force of the hips. The left hook, apocryphally said to be the last punch to be developed in boxing, has an aura of mystery. It is delivered from the side with a bent elbow, palm down. Boxers are often taught to end every combination with a left hook. In order to throw the uppercut, the boxer bends his knees and explodes from floor to ceiling, palm facing the puncher. The blow is designed to land under the chin, brow, nose, or ribs. The overhand right and roundhouse punches tend to be used more often in Western films, barrooms, back alleys, and hockey games than in boxing rings, because they travel in wide, long, swooping arcs and are thus easier for a trained boxer to see and avoid. When a boxer can “get off” these punches outside the opponent’s line of vision, however, they are highly effective.
Since the boxer’s goal is to “stop” his opponent, the vulnerable organs and bones are primary targets. When boxers aim for the solar plexus, liver, kidneys, and ribs, though the targets change, the punches do not; boxers simply bend at the knees and throw the jabs, hooks, straight rights, and uppercuts to the body. Straight rights and lefts to the body are also thrown with the elbow, hip, and fist moving together in a plane with the palm facing up.
The so-called illegal tactics of boxing are not only integral to the martial art, they have always been a part of the sport. In addition to low blows and holding and hitting, which are commonly practiced in the ring and occasionally penalized, many techniques other than hitting with the knuckles above the waist are used. Rabbit punches are short, chopping blows thumped to the back of an opponent’s neck, usually while in a clinch. These punches are outlawed in the ring because the back of the neck, vertebrae, base of the brain, and the nerves located there are particularly vulnerable. Boxers routinely try to trip each other and throw each other to the ground.
Korean boxer Joe Teiken gets advice from his manager Frank Tabor during a fight in California, 1933. (Courtesy of Joe Svinth)
Wrestling, hip throws, armlocks (and arm-breaking submission holds), chokes, and to some extent biting are all part of the arsenal. Elbow and forearm blows are often used in combination. Gouging is also prevalent; the boxer simply extends his thumb while jabbing to catch the opponent’s eye. The boxer's "third fist" is the head. The upper part of the cranium is used offensively to butt as well as defensively to break a punching opponent's hand or wrist. Boxers also attack with the fleshy part of the fist (knife-hand edge) and palm-heel strike. Though boxing is officially an empty-handed art, boxers have been known to load their gloves with anything from plaster of Paris to lead dust (recall the studded cestus), or to clench their fists around a solid object, such as a roll of quarters, making their punches much more damaging.
Boxing may be distinguished from many other martial arts by the practicality and intensity with which training in the art is undertaken. Such training takes place outside the gym in the form of running and cross-training, and inside the gym in the form of sparring, floor work, and exercises.
Roadwork, or running, is essential for boxing. It develops mental toughness, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and the lower body. Boxers typically run early in the morning before any other training. Even in the bareknuckle era, boxers ran up to 150 miles a week.
Full-contact sparring is perhaps the element of boxing training that contributes most to its effectiveness as a martial art. Though boxers wear protective headgear and gloves with more padding while sparring, nothing more simulates the conditions and experiences of real combat. In sparring boxers learn what it is like to be hit—hard, repeatedly, and from unexpected angles—how to adjust and recover from it, how to feign injury and well-being. In sparring, boxers learn the unchangeable truths, or reflexes, of the human body when it is hit in different ways, and therefore, where the body will be after it is hit by a certain punch in a certain place. As hazardous as it sounds, sparring is a valuable process through which boxers learn what it feels like to be stunned and knocked down, and how to fight on with a bloody nose or swollen eye. In addition, as brutal as it may seem, sparring is the mechanism through which most boxers condition their bodies for punishment. This conditioning enables them to withstand greater punishment in real combat.
Shadowboxing is an element of boxing training comparable to the forms of Asian martial arts. In the ring or in front of a large mirror, the boxer visualizes his opponent and goes through all the motions of fighting, punching in combination, slipping and blocking punches, and moving forward, back, and from side to side.
Practitioners of various other martial arts who take the opportunity to spar with boxers often come away amazed at their ability to punch powerfully, rapidly, and continually. It makes sense when one takes into account the daily training regimen of up to thirty minutes (ten three-minute rounds) boxers spend hitting cylindrical sand-filled leather or canvas hanging bags weighing up to 150 pounds. With the exception of sparring, working the heavy bag most simulates the experience of punching another person, and it provides invaluable training in learning to put together skillful punches with maximum force.
Boxers jump rope to improve stamina and coordination. The speed-bag (teardrop-shaped bag hung from a swivel) is used to develop hand-eye coordination, timing, arm strength, endurance, and rhythm. Trainers use punch pads, or punch mitts (padded mitts similar to a baseball catcher’s mitt), to diagnose and correct slight errors in form in the way their boxers throw punches and combinations, and to instill conditioned responses.
Trainers often use such tools, together with repetition, to teach boxers to defend themselves, “see” openings, and throw punches without thinking. Such “automatic” punches are all the more dangerous, because they are seldom telegraphed. Training partners take turns throwing the heavy leather medicine ball into each other’s stomachs in order to psychologically prepare themselves for body blows while developing the arms, legs, endurance, hand-eye coordination, and leverage. Exercises, or calisthenics, are usually done to conclude training for the day. Several varieties of sit-ups, crunches, and leg lifts strengthen the stomach muscles and abdomen. Pull-ups, push-ups, and dips develop the arms, back, latisimus dorsi, and chest. Some fighters also undergo light weight training and massage.
There has always been a certain amount of curiosity as to how boxers would fare against other martial artists in combat (and vice versa). This accounts for the public “mixed contests” that have been arranged from the beginning of the modern boxing era to the present. In 1897, in Carson City, Nevada, the heavyweight challenger (and later champion) Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Ernest Roeber (wrestling) with one punch to the head. On December 31, 1908, in Paris, France, heavyweight boxer Sam McVey knocked out Tano Matsuda (jujutsu) in ten seconds. On January 12, 1928, in Yokohama, Japan, Packey O’Gatty, a bantamweight boxer, knocked out Shimakado (jujutsu) with one punch in less than four seconds. On September 11, 1952, in New Jersey, Marvin Mercer (wrestling) defeated Cuban heavyweight Omelio Agramonte in five rounds. On July 27, 1957, in Bangkok, Lao Letrit (Muay Thai) knocked out Filipino boxer Leo Espinosa in three rounds. Perhaps the most famous of these mixed matches occurred on June 25, 1976, in Tokyo, when heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali faced Antonio Inoki (wrestling). The result was a fifteen-round draw, and both men were seriously injured.