Western Boxing: Ancient Origins

Recently, mixed martial artists with a background in western boxing, like Conor McGregor, Alexander Gustafsson, and Amanda Nunes, have risen to prominence. From ancient times to modern, the punching capabilities of trained boxers have become synonymous with accurate and powerful striking.

the_boxers_fresco_from_akrotiri_thera_santorini_minoan_civilization_16th_century_bc_national_archaeological_museum_of_athens_14112030702The earliest depictions of boxing uncovered by archaeologists comes from Mesopotamian tablets dating back to around the third millennium BCE. Later reliefs from the Egyptian, Mycenaean, and Minoan civilizations likewise provide physical evidence of boxing’s widespread use in antiquity. Although possible evidence of wrist supports have been identified in earlier Mesopotamian terracotta, more developed hand protection first appears in the Minoan archaeological record around 1500 BCE.

The ancient Greeks held boxing in high esteem and from the days of Homeric literature frequently participated in boxing bouts. After being introduced into the PanHellenic games in 668 BCE, Plutarch notes that clinching, scratching, or biting were forbidden. The matches, similar to pankration, were not constrained by weight classes. Since no time limitation existed, the fight ended only when a contestant surrendered, lost consciousness, or died. An account by Lucillus attests to the disfiguring effects of ancient pugilism by describing how a boxer’s unrecognizable post-fight appearance kept him from obtaining his inheritance.

farnese_boxer_massimo_inv1055_n2Ancient Greeks, according to Plutarch and Plato, tended to wear varying degrees of soft or hard leather thongs around the hands, wrists, and sometimes forearms. Like modern MMA gloves, the thongs allowed boxers to open and close their hands during a match while still providing a degree of protection to the wearer’s hands. As Virgil relates, the Romans often sewed metal into the leather gloves to essentially create knuckledusters. The brutality and lethalness subsequently increased significantly.

The Roman emperor Theodoric the Great banned boxing around 393 CE because he believed the disfiguring affects were insulting to God’s image. Nonetheless, boxing continued as a combat sport throughout most of the empire. Ancient boxing created the framework for pugilism in the medieval era and beyond, eventually developing into the western boxing of modernity.

Author: Johan Vandeleuv


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