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Beginnings of Boxing

Boxing in the Ancient Olympics

Man has always had a desire to beat one another up whether it is in on the battlefield or in the ring.  History is full of conflict, and it is human nature to be competitive.  Boxing is an extension of that desire to prove oneself better than one’s opponent.

Ancient Olympic BoxingThe first recorded boxing seems to be from the ancient Olympics.  Boxing became an official sport of the Olympic Games in 688 B.C., the 23rd Olympiad.  The reason, as was the reason for the Olympics, was to honor a god.  In this case, it was Patroklos, the slain companion of Achilles.  As the myth goes, Apollo invented boxing and defeated Phorbas in Delphi and he outboxed Ares in Olympia.  Ancient mythology points to one match in particular as the model boxing match – the bout between Polydeukes and Amykos, the king of Bebrykes who lived in Bithynia on the Black Sea.  Amykos would urge all strangers traveling through his country to box with him and then kill them during the match.  Polydeukes happened to be one of these strangers, but proved to be more of a match for Amykos than he could handle.  Polydeukes kicked his ass and made the king promise to leave travelers alone.

The rules of boxing in the ancient Olympics were significantly different than they are today.  Some of the main differences include:


  1. There was no concept of rounds:  Boxers fought until they could fight no more.  Either one of the boxers gave up signaled by holding one or two fingers in the air, or one of the boxers could no longer carry on be it because he was dead, unconscious or something similar.
  2. The size of the ring is unknown.
  3. As long as both fighters agreed, the referee could give them both time to gain some strength before carrying on with their pummeling.
  4. Certain types of hits were not allowed including blows to the genitals, holding, and modifications to the leather thongs they wore as gloves (for example, they could not use pig skin).
  5. There were no weight classes.  Fighters fought each other at random, chosen by lot.
  6. No rule against hitting an opponent when down.
  7. No time limit to the match as mentioned above.  If neither boxer would go down, eventually they would agree to a klimax.  In this case they would stand still and exchange blow for blow until one of them yielded or was rendered unconscious.


The equipment used at this time consisted of leather straps wrapped around the knuckles and forearms.  They were more to protect the wearer’s knuckles from injury than to protect their opponent.  Over time these thongs, called himantes, evolved to become sharper and harder.  The Romans, in their quest for blood, turned the boxing glove more into a weapon than a protective device so their gladiator matches were more exciting. The shift in design of the glove signaled a significant shift in the way boxing matches and the athletes competed.  Soft thongs resulted in a match in which agility, skill, flexibility, and good technique were predominant.  As the thongs got harder and sharper, the matches became heavier and slower with a significant emphasis on defense.  At all times, though, the competitors of the Ancient Olympics fought for pride, patrionism, and religious honour, a far cry from the corruption and scandal often marring the reputation of boxing in modern times.  That’s not to say cheating did not exist back then as well, because it did, but on the whole, the boxers were fighting for more than themselves and that made for great shows.

The 41st Olympiad saw the addition of boy’s boxing to the games.  Coaches at the time did not know much of anything about the differences in physiology between boys and men and essentially trained them the same way.  It is known that boxers of the time favoured effective blows to the head and punches were usually swinging and looping type blows as opposed to the quick linear, fencing like, offenses and defenses used today.  One strategy consistently employed was to use the sun to the boxer’s advantage.  A good deal of the initial part of the fight would be spent trying to position an opponent in such a way that the glare from the sun would benefit the one fighter and be a detriment to the other.A Greek philosopher and sports enthusiast, Flavius Philostratus (AD 170-245) wrote six manuals on Olympic training.  It is our best insight into what the athletes at the time did to prepare for their opponents.  In these manuals, Philostratus describes a good boxer as one with long, powerful arms, strong shoulders, a high neck, and powerful flexible wrists.  Detriments included thick shins (preventing agility) and large stomach (preventing supple movements).  In that regard, at least they were on the right track.  Reach, strength, agility, and overall fitness are characteristic of the best boxers today.  In addition, the boxer must possess persistence, patience, endurance, great will-power, and strength.


Of those qualities, will-power and endurance are what define heart and courage.  Without those two qualities, a boxer is nothing and cannot climb to the pinnacle of the sport.  History is littered with courageous battles won because of the persistence, endurance, courage, and sheer will power of one side.  Boxing matches are no exception.


In 394 A.D., after 320 Olympiads and close to 1200 years of boxing, Theodosius the Great discontinued the Olympic Games permanently.  Fortunately for boxing enthusiasts everywhere, the sport eventually made a comeback.


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