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History Of Boxing In Britain


The Boxer of Quirinal, resting after a contest, 3rd Century BC. This image is copyright free

Organised amateur and professional boxing began in Britain, but there are no buildings or centres strongly associated with it. There is no Oval or Wimbledon or Silverstone. Boxing made its home in any field, building or hall that might be pressed into service. Pubs were often the main focus for competition. Aristocratic team sports in Britain have had a world wide impact, and they generally all have their shrines. Boxing, a British working class sport which has also had a world wide influence, does not.

Boxing as a sport has very ancient origins, described for example in Book XXIII of Homer's Illiad. It is obviously a form of fighting, but it is fighting with rules. As far as Britain was concerned bare knuckled prize fighting was provided with rules - known as Broughton rules - in 1740 which did not allow hitting below the belt, or striking a man when he was down. Rounds lasted for forty minutes and continued until at least one competitor was on the ground. If one or both contestants was knocked unconscious their trainers had between thirty and forty seconds to revive them. Essayist William Hazlitt memorably described this kind of fighting in 1882, when he wrote of the defeat of boxer Tom Hickman:

"I never saw anything more terrific than his aspect just before he fell. All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him. His face was like a human skull, a death's head spouting blood" (from Hazlitt's essay The Fight, which appeared in The New Month Magazine February 1822 - quoted in Sport in Britain ed Tony Mason P79).


As the nineteenth century progressed this kind of competition became increasingly unacceptable. In 1866 John Graham Chambers of Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, founded the Amateur Athletic Club at Walham Green. The Club held regular sporting fixtures, which from 1867 included boxing. Chambers wrote revised rules for boxing, which called for competitors to wear protective gloves, fighting over three timed rounds. The umpire gave points for style, which now made it possible for victories to be gained without having one or both competitors lying unconscious on the floor. Chambers persuaded a Cambridge friend John Sholto Douglas, the 8th Marquis of Queensbury to provide cups for winners of boxing matches. Chambers, with an eye to publicity and image, also captioned his boxing rules with Queensbury's prestigious title. In this way Chambers' rules became the famous Queensbury Rules. Queensbury Cup competitions continued until 1885, when they were replaced with a championship organised by the Amateur Boxing Association.

Although amateur boxing was aristocratic in its origins and early administration, it was dominated by working class boys, who sometimes went on to box in professional competitions, centred on London. By 1900 a boxing show was available in London almost every night of the week. Boxing had also become an international sport, and much public interest was raised by trying to find a British champion to put up against the black American boxer Jack Johnson. A colour bar meant that no black man could box for a British title until 1948, which meant the challenger had to be white. So although boxing was more democratic than many sports in Britain, that democracy definitely had its limits. Eventually, however, black athletes would come to dominate British and world boxing.

Boxing went through periods of greater and lesser interest during the twentieth century. A high point came in the 1970s when the exploits of Muhammad Ali caught the imagination of millions of people around the world. Since then, however, there has not been a comparable champion. Mike Tyson, the last world famous champion certainly did not have the charm and public relations ability of Ali, or his awareness of social and political problems. There was also an increasingly influential body of opinion highlighting the risks of boxing to the health of participants. In 1984 a British Medical Association report on boxing made it clear that punches to the head caused cumulative brain damage, a fate which claimed the lives of many boxers. According to Joseph R. Svinth in Death Under The Spotlight in the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences, two hundred amateur or professional boxers have died as a result of injuries in competition or training during the period 1980 - 2007. Changes have been made to try and reduce the risk of injury. Fights are now shorter, decreasing from twenty rounds for an international fight in the early twentieth century to twelve by the end of the century. Boxers will also take part in fewer contests. Head guards are mandatory in amateur boxing, although it is not clear if such protection actually helps much. Some countries have banned professional boxing, Norway, Iceland and Cuba, for example, and the British Medical Association has campaigned for a ban in Britain. Interestingly British boxing enjoyed something of a revival in the 1980s, coinciding with economic depression and rising unemployment (see Sport in Britain ed Tony Mason P109). This would fit with boxing as a primarily low cost, working class sport in which manual workers can find a way to money and prestige. However, it is difficult to see boxing as having a bright future. The UK Government statistics on sport in Britain, (see National Statistics, Sport and Leisure, 2002 General Household Survey) does not even include boxing in its list of sports. "Self defence" is the closest activity included in official statistics. This reflects a shift to other martial arts which do not involve blows to the head, and give a similar level of energetic competition with fewer risks.

As I say there seems to be nowhere to go in Britain to recall boxing. The United States, which has come to dominate world boxing, has the Boxing Hall of Fame at Canastota in New York State, but there is nothing comparable in Britain. While writing this article I read a report by boxing fan Andy Kershaw who in 2010 visited the scene of one of boxing's most famous events, the "Rumble In The Jungle" at the Tate Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa. It was October 1974, and a thirty two year old Muhammad Ali was taking on the formidable young world champion George Foreman. Ali sat against the ropes for seven rounds, soaking up Foreman's blows, wearing him out, and taunting his opponent. Then in the eighth round Ali sprang out of his defensive position and knocked Foreman down. I recall watching this bout as a young boy, and admit to jumping up and down with excitement when Ali won. Now the Tate Raphael Stadium is derelict, and the only evidence Andy Kershaw could find of the famous Rumble In The Jungle were a few faded newspaper cuttings on peeling stadium walls. To me this sums up the fate of boxing. It might be said that boxing is an interesting aspect of British sporting history, in that it has been dominated by the working class, while most other sports have been aristocratic. But history moves on, and probably will leave boxing behind.