Modern boxing traces its roots back to the beginning of time as men have continually fought in some sort of hand-to-hand combat through the centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans were likely the first to have some form of boxing as sport. The real predecessor to what we know as boxing today developed in Great Britain in the late 1800s.
The Queensbury Rules
Prizefighting, or bareknuckle boxing, became popular in England in the late 1800s. In 1867, the Marquess of Queensbury rules were adopted for amateur championships. Many of the rules instituted at the time – there were 12 in all – are still utilized in some form or another in modern boxing. All fights take place in a 24-square-foot, or similar, ring. Rounds were three minutes with a one-minute rest period in between. The Queensbury Rules standardized what was known as prizefighting, a sport of questionable legitimacy around the turn over the 20th century.
The very first world heavyweight champion under the Queensbury Rules was Jim Corbett, who was known as “Gentleman Jim.” Corbett defeated John L. Sullivan in a match at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans in 1892.
Early boxing dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries was motivated by money. Fighters competed for prize money and spectators would place bets on the outcome. In 1908, boxing was introduced as an Olympic sport. The amateur version of the sport featured fewer rounds – typically three – and used scoring based upon the number of clean blows landed. Fighters wore protective headgear which helped to reduce the number of injuries in the sport. Boxing is still an Olympic sport and today both men and women complete on the amateur Olympic stage.
Professional boxing became extremely popular in the United States in the early 1900s. In the 1920s, boxing was ruled by Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion. From the ‘20s to the 1940s, some of the most famous athletes in the U.S. included boxers such as Max Schmeling, Max Baer, and Joe Louis, who defeated Schmeling in 1938 to become heavyweight champion.
With the rise of the sport, the National Boxing Association (N.B.A.) became boxing’s governing body sanctioning title fights at the time. In 1962, the N.B.A. became the World Boxing Association (WBA). In 1963, the World Boxing Council formed as a rival. The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was formed in 1983 and the WBO, or World Boxing Organization, started in 1988. The World Professional Boxing Federation formed at the end of the 20th century and now, boxers must be recognized by each organization to earn the title of “undisputed champion of the world.”
Louis was long considered the greatest of all heavyweight champions. He retired in 1949 which led to the rise of Rocky Marciano, who retired as a world champion with a perfect 49-0 record. In the 1960s, the heavyweight champ was Sonny Liston, who was seemingly invincible until he met a young, confident Cassius Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali and become possibly the most iconic figure in boxing history. Ali had several memorable fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman through the 1970s.
Fighters in other weight classes were also well known. Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard fought three times in the 1980s including the famous “No mas” fight in November 1980. Leonard would go on to beat Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler and earn the title as the “pound for pound” best fighter ever.
Mike Tyson is the most famous of fighters from the late 1980s and early ‘90s earning the title of heavyweight champion. Most recently, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has a professional record of 50-0, defeated Manny Pacquiao in the “Fight of the Century” at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in 2015. The fight was one of the most anticipated sporting events in history and was the most lucrative boxing match ever.