The History Of Boxing Is Classist And Violent, And We Should Maybe Just Do Something Else Instead

Tonight's fight between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao has been billed as "The Fight of the Century" (clearly by someone who doesn't realize that we have 85 years left in this century). I've never been particularly into boxing (the only thing bloody about me is my big ol' bleeding liberal heart) and I understand this match is years in the making, but I really have absolutely no interest. Part of that is my complete lack of any kind of sporty gene (I got a double dose of the theater geek gene to compensate), and part of it is my admittedly priggish attitude toward the sport. When it comes down to it, it's the only sport I can think of whose primary goal is to harm your opponent. Literally this is how it works: You're supposed to knock them out, aka, injury them in ways that could cause brain damage.

Look, I'm not saying we should legally ban boxing, but maybe we should be less enthusiastic about it as a culture. Its history is violent, exploitative, and overall pretty problematic. Because I am a nerdy killjoy, I thought it might be fun to take a look at boxing through the ages to explore why these issues are absolutely nothing new, but are, in fact, a part of its very fabric.

Images: Getty Images

by Jamie Kenney

3rd Millennium BCE

The first depiction of boxers can be found on a Sumerian relief. I don’t know how this fight was billed, but if it was cool enough to be literally carved in stone, it must have been pretty epic.


Ancient Rome

Boxing was a popular spectator sport in Roman amphitheaters. Initially combatants’ only accessories were leather straps wrapped around their fists (think of them as ye old boxing gloves). But over time, whether for protection or showmanship, the straps got harder and weaponized (often with the inclusion of metal studs). Lest you forget your Roman history (or the Oscar-winning classic Gladiator), these weren’t just a couple of hearty young chaps looking for a sporting outlet. These were slaves who were expected to battle to the death. For entertainment. This was… not okay… and the Romans knew that: In 393 CE, boxing was banned for excessive brutality. Let me reiterate: The same dudes who were like “Let’s build the Colosseum and have men fight tigers and encourage gladiators to disembowel one another with tridents”, thought boxing was too violent.

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393 CE - 1680

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, boxing really wasn’t a thing (minus a few pockets of fist-fighting clubs here and there, mainly in Italy). It’s theorized that interest waned because so many people were going around with weapons. So, it was basically like a 1,300 year long episode of Game of Thrones up in Europe for a while (which sounds both horrifying and magical). So everyone was like, “Why use fists when we have swords?!”

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Bare-knuckle boxing began to gain popularity in London. On January 6th of that year, Christopher Moncke, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle, arranged the first recorded “modern” boxing match between his butler and his butcher. Please note that we don’t have the names of the actual fighters (though we do know the butcher won), but we do have a continued tradition of the wealthy physically exploiting the “lower classes” for amusement.

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Daniel Mendoza published The Art of Boxing and completely altered the sport forever with his “scientific method.” What was this revolutionary new strategy? Basically, bobbing and weaving. Yes, apparently before Mendoza, boxing was literally just exchanging punches until one guy passed out. Mendoza, only 5’7” and 160 pounds, was able to outmatch opponents much larger than he because of his ability to avoid and block punches, which was initially considered “unmanly”.


Marquess of Queensbury Rules are established by John Chambers, codifying the use of gloves, the 10 count, and three minute rounds. These rules are generally followed to this day. It should be noted, I think, that John Chambers was a rower, not a boxer, and a wealthy, Eton-and-Cambridge-educated landowner’s son to boot.

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Simon and Garfunkel release The Boxer on their album Bridge Over Troubled Water. It is (still) a completely wonderful, amazing song and the best thing ever to come out of boxing.