Boxing, Pugilism and Self-Defence

Boxing/Fist fighting has a long tradition in human history. The earliest known depiction comes from Sumer (Iraq) and dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. Other depictions are found in Mesopotamia (Assyrian and Babylonian arts) and Anatolia (Hittite art) in the 2nd millennium BC while the earliest documented use of gloves is found on Minoan Crete (1650-1400 BC) and on Sardinia.

Boxing Classes in South London

Boxing and Pugilism during the Antiquity

Boxing in ancient Greece is well documented and dates back to at least the 8th century BC and was introduced to the Olympic Games in 688 BC. It is said that boxing was originally developed in Sparta but Spartans never participated in the competitive sport.

“Thermae boxer”: athlete resting after a boxing match. Bronze, Greek artwork

In Ancient Rome, boxing was a popular sport but was later abolished (ca AD 393) due to excessive brutality. It seems that the Roman habit to draw a circle on the floor to mark the limit of the fighting area, gave the term "ring".

The word "pugilism" was borrowed from Romans. In Latin, the word pugil means "boxer". This term is related to the word pugnus which means "fist" in Latin.


Left arm of a statue of a young boxer, late 2nd BC. National Archaeological Museum in Athens

For all its ancient popularity, it is commonly held that pugilism disappeared from the Western world with the fall of the Roman Empire until it re-emerged in England at the end of the 17th century.

Fistfights In Medieval Europe

In recent years, however, dozens of medieval treatises on personal combat (such as the "Arte Gladiatoria" or the "Codex Wallerstein"), dating back at least to the beginning of the 14th century caught the attention of historians by their sophisticated approach to sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat.

These documents were geared towards the military and the close-quarters combat they describe is mainly a grappling style designed to swiftly control the weapon-arm and cripple or kill the opponent outright. Strikes were generally used to make openings for grips, throws and joint-breaking actions, not as the primary weapons of the systems. Furthermore, the techniques characterized as "strikes" in these texts are not classic bare-knuckle punches. Kicks, slaps, open palm strikes, eye gouges, hammering blows were used instead.

Alongside these well documented approaches to combat (such as The Fechtkunst of Liechtenauer, or the school of Fiore dei Libri), existed other traditions of pugilism that went, unfortunately, unrecorded (i.e. no treatises were ever written to precisely document the techniques.)

Such is the case of the Italian "Battagliole". These mass brawls consisted of mobs of men with shields and in helmets pummeling each other with wooden sticks in chaotic melees. Some fighters preferred the sole use of fists ("pugni" in Italian) and, while unarmed, were reportedly able to overcome the canne fighters most of the time because they were not encumbered with heavy weapons or body armor.

Participants were routinely injured and maimed, and sometime killed. Battagliole seem to have started in the late 1300s in the city of Venice and, by the late 1600s, the Venetians were well-known for their superior pugilistic skills.

Some popular games -such as the French "Soule" and the Italian "Calcio Storico"- were also extremely violent. In what could be described as a mix of football, boxing and wrestling, players punched, kicked and wrestled one another and it was not uncommon for participants to be injured, and broken limbs were often reported.

"Soule" is the name of a bag full of sand used as a football and of the game itself. The earliest mention of this game -which has no rule- dates to 1147.

The "Calcio Storico" originated in 15th-century Florence from the ancient roman "harpastum" (which was itself a romanized version of a Greek game). The Calcio Storico is played by teams of 27 that are allowed to use 'any means necessary' to get ball to opponents' end of the field in order to score. The matches lasts 50 minutes.

A strong tradition of fist pugilism was also present in Russia as early as the 13th century. It was called "Kulachniy Boy" ("fistfight") and has ever since been part of Russian folk life and occurred frequently in Russian art and literature despite being forbidden several times in the course of the country's history (1684, 1751, 1832).

Muay Thai and other Asian Traditions of Boxing

Other styles of boxing can be found in many parts of the world but few have had the far reaching impact of Muay Thai.

The roots of Thai boxing go as far back as the 14th century. It was a component of military training and the constant threat of war ingrained the practice of this martial art in the culture of Siamese people. It became the national sport in the 17th century.

Muay Thai is referred to as the "Art of Eight Limbs" because it makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes thus using eight "points of contact", as opposed to "two points" (fists) in Western boxing and "four points" (hands and feet) used in kickboxing and Savate. Its popularity grew further during the 19th century and rules and regulations were introduced.

It spread beyond the borders of Thailand during during World War 1 when Thai soldiers were stationed in France and bouts were organised to boost the morale of the servicemen.

This impressive style of boxing rapidly began to garner international recognition and exposure in the following decades to become the world wide phenomenon we know now.

Thai boxing is the best known of a number of related styles from Southeast Asia, namely Lethwei from Myanmar (AKA "Burmese bareknuckle boxing" and "The Art of the 9 Limbs" because the use of headbutt is accepted), Pradal Serey from Cambodia (AKA "Kun Khmer" and "Cambodian kickboxing"), Muay Lao from Laos (AKA "Lao boxing"), and Musti-yuddha from India.

In Korea, a long tradition of martial arts dating back to the Goguryeo dynasty (37 BC - 668 AD) culminated in the 20th century with the development of Taekwondo characterized by its kicking techniques. Its origins can be found in upright fighting styles such as Subak and Taekkyeon, and the 16th century hand-to-hand combat method called Gwonbeop.

After the Medieval hiatus, boxing resurfaced in 17th century England. At that time, the sport was referred to as bare-knuckle boxing (also called "Prizefighting", "Fisticuffs" and "Fist fight").

Bare-Knuckle Boxing

The earliest documented account of prizefighting in England appeared in 1681.

In contrast to street fighting, bare-knuckle boxing had an accepted set of rules (e.g. not striking a downed opponent). The first written rules, called the Broughton's rules, were introduced in 1743 following the death of George Stephenson, whereas the London Prize Ring Rules were promulgated in 1838 (and revised in 1853). They introduced measures that remain in effect for professional boxing to this day, such as outlawing butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, hitting a man while down, holding the ropes, and using resin, stones or hard objects in the hands, and biting.

In 1867, the first modern rules of boxing were published under the patronage of Marquess of Queensberry whose name has been associated with them ever since. They were the first rules to mandate boxing gloves.

It is interesting to note that whilst gloves spread the impact of a blow, they do not lessen the force applied to the brain. 

The main issue with bare-knuckle boxing is the prevalence of open bleeding woods and broken bones leading to injuries such as:

  • "fight bite": hand injury that occurs when striking an opponent's mouth (the laceration of the soft tissues by the teeth can lead to serious infections),
  • "boxer's fracture": fracture of the metacarpal bones of the hand, 
  • "boxer's knuckle": debilitating injury around the first knuckle, 
  • broken jaw bones, teeth knocked out, eye injury, etc...

Whilst gloves protect the knuckles and fists of boxers and provide a welcome padding between their face and their opponent's fist, they also lead to a lot more blows to the head which, in turn, can cause serious and long-term brain injury.

Kickboxing and Modern Boxing

The strong expansion of boxing along other martial arts and combat sports, during the 19th century seems to follow the banning of swords in a number of countries. This was the case in France with Savate (French kickboxing) and la canne (stick fighting).

Before becoming a sport, Savate was a self-defence system that evolved from a variety of local street fighting styles such as style des ruffians, style des bandits, jeu marseillais ("chausson"), along with traditional French fencing, and was later influenced by English fisticuffs.

At the time, clenched-fists were considered a deadly weapon under the French law so fighters emphasized kicks.

Kickboxing became very popular in the 20th century, particularly the second half, and culminated with the launch of K-1 in the 1990ies.

Although it developed originally from Karate and Muay Thai, it was influenced by many other styles of stand up combat sports based on kicking and punching, (such as Chinese kickboxing, Taekwondo, etc) and there has been a lot of cross-fertilization between the various styles.


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Dervenis, K., Lykiardopoulos, N. and Pantelides, M. (2007) The Martial Arts of Ancient Greece: Modern Fighting Techniques from the Age of Alexander. Rochester: Inner Traditions International, Limited.

Gardiner, N. (1930) Athletics in the Ancient World. Chapter XV. London: Oxford University Press.

Miller, S. (2004) Ancient Greek Athletics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Murray, S. (2010) Boxing Gloves of the Ancient World. Journal of Combative Sport.

Poliakoff, M. B. (1987) Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Potter, D. (2012) The Victor's Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press.

Zorzos, G. (1996) Pyx Lax (Kick-Punch) Kick Boxing: Ancient Greek Martial Arts.