By “Old Yank” Schneider – Dark is the best word for describing the history of boxing and the evolution of its rules. As we march back in time, boxing history becomes more stark then the black and white of film noir. History begins to fade into the black and grays of old tin-type photographs and eventually into the blunt colors of black and blue. Eventually we find ourselves standing in the rain and fog of a gas-lit London street looking for the alleyway the leads us to the action we came to see..
At the bottom of this alleyway is a fighter trained by James Figg who has broken out on his own in pursuit of independence. He will win. But when word reaches Figg (the Father of Modern Boxing), that one of his charges fought a match on his own, Figg will see to it that the fighter never gets another chance at any real purse again. The fighter has broken one of Figg’s rules. The rule is simple; “I am the master with the money and all fights lead through me”.
Figg’s rules that govern money and match making in boxing have remained essentially unchanged since 1719.
James Figg was an expert with the sword. His skills were known throughout all of England and those skills attracted the bluest of blue-bloods to his matches. It was through the patronage of these blue-bloods that Figg would branch out into another sport – the sport of boxing.
Not only was Figg the best boxing trainer, he was also the champ. Under Figg’s guidance, a number of amphitheaters were built where, along with fencing matches, he could exhibit the craft of boxing that he was teaching his students. They were also the venue for Figg to demonstrate that he was the master of his students. His first amphitheater held a wooden-railed box elevated on a stage where the boxers would exhibit their craft. The rules would change frequently in order to suit Figg’s mood; as would the referee (who would stand outside the box).
The Father of Modern Boxing would train virtually all of the champions for the next 20 years. He would eventually die in 1740 at the age of 38 of what was likely tuberculosis.
It was a student of James Figg that would eventually lay claim as champion and set boxing on a course governed by uniform rules. Jack Broughton would usher in the first code of boxing and his code would remain in effect for 95 years (1743 to 1838). Interestingly enough, Broughton’s “Rules of Fair Play” included the use of “mufflers” (boxing gloves he had invented for sparring). So contrary to popular belief, the earliest days of “modern” boxing were not exclusively the days of bare-knuckles, but rather a more civilized form that used boxing gloves for sparring and typically bare knuckles for championship matches. However, it should be noted that Broughton’s rules provided a great deal of “elbow room” for wrestling and other roughing that one might more closely associate with today’s MMA then today’s boxing.
Let there be no doubt about it, England lays a rightful claim to establishing the groundwork for rules that would eventually lead to the modern era in boxing. In fact, boxing was viewed as essentially illegitimate in America and Europe unless it followed some form of rules “sanctioned” in England. And as such, it was not until 1816 that America had the first boxing match that is traditionally viewed as the first “legitimate” public boxing match in America. It pitted Jacob Hyler against Tom Beasley in New York.
These rules that were finally getting accepted in America were soon to change.
In 1838, the new code that replaced Broughton’s “Rules to be observed in All Battles on the Stage” was “The London Prize Ring Rules”. And these rules would soon change again in 1853 to the “Revised London Prize Ring Rules”. And eventually the mother of all modern boxing rules came into effect, “The Queensberry Rules for the Sport of Boxing”, and otherwise known as the “Marquis of Queensberry Rules”.
With all the roughing and wrestling that had been permitted since the days of James Figg, most boxing historians have come to recognize the more pure stand-up version of boxing brought about by the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, as marking the time when the Modern Era of boxing began.
Throughout the history of the rules of boxing that led up to the modern era, the sport was frequently embroiled in controversy. Rules were made up by the early promoters of the sport. Referees were paid by the promoters to favor one fighter over another. The bluest of blue bloods became irritated over losing major wagers in corrupt bouts. So the very patrons that funded the early promoters eventually turned on themselves and turned on the sport. Corruption and fixed fights would eventually cause England to fall from grace as the major player in the sport and this opened the door for the USA to become the home of many of the most notable bouts in the history of the sport.
Wooden rings would give way to ropes. Bare knuckles would give way to gloves. Illegal bouts where government officials would conveniently look the other way, would give way to legal, sanctioned bouts. But the underlying darkness of a sport born in darkness would remain. So we are left with the seedy world of promoters and the corruption of new officials (sanctioning bodies) and we are tossed about in controversy after controversy over steroids, fixed fights, corrupt hometown decisions and more. Welcome to boxing; much less has changed in nearly 300 years then we realize.