Six-thousand year old hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt profile men engaged in the manly art. In 900 B.C. Theseus, son the Greek monarch Aegeus, introduced boxing to his soldiers as a way to kill time. The men would wrap their hands in leather, sit on large stones in the hot sun, and pound each other to death. Theseus grew bored with that after a while, so he introduced the myrmekes, metal spikes inserted into the leather gloves, to help liven things up.
The classical Greeks, who honored athleticism along with art and intellect, brought boxing into the big-time at the XXIII Greek Olympiad in 688 B.C. The Olympics were founded by Oxylos a hundred years earlier, in 776 B.C., as an athletic festival to honor Zeus, king of the gods. The festivities lasted five days and were held at Olympia in the Peloponnesos every four years. Those Olympics excluded team sports in lieu of individual achievement and included discus and javelin throwing, the long jump, running, wrestling and the pentathlon, in addition to horse and chariot races. Given the high-toned company, it’s no surprise that boxing fit in as well as it did.
That was a turning point in the realm of fistiana. Boxing was finally legit. The world’s first champion was Onamastus of Smyrna and he was crowned with a wreath of olive branches. The earliest written record we have of boxing came from Homer in the 23rd book of The Illiad. In the 8th century B.C. he put his pen to paper, his quill to parchment, and gave the world its first fight coverage. Homer wrote of a tussle in 1184 B.C. during the Fall of Troy between Epeus, king of a tribe from the Peloponnesian peninsula, and Euryalus, son of King Mecisteus. They fought at the funeral games of Petrocles, in a fight promoted by Achilles. The stakes were high, as usual, even for contests of this sort. Not only was the two men’s honor at stake. There were exotic prizes.
The winner won a mule. The loser got a drinking cup.
How did Homer call it?
Amid the circle now each champion stands,
And poises high in the air his iron hands,
With clashing gauntlets now they fiercely close,
Their crackling jaws re-echo to the blows,
And painful sweat from all their members flows,
At length Epeus dealt a weighty blow
Full on the cheek of his unwary foe.
There’s nothing like a one-punch knockout to set the record straight.
Boxing in ancient Greece wasn’t that different from boxing today. The combatants trained in gymnasiums, as modern boxers do, with a regimen of calisthenics, diet, shadowboxing and roadwork. They practiced their punching on speedbags filled with fig seeds and grain. They performed in stadiums. There were no body shots, clinching, hooks or uppercuts in those days. There were no rounds, decisions or TKOs. These refinements were still to come. The fight was over when one of the fighters could fight no more.
He admitted defeat by raising his index finger.
In some ways that was the last gasp of civilized behavior vis-à-vis the fistic arts for many years. The pancratium was introduced at the 38th Olympiad. Like boxing in one respect, the pancratium permitted punching, but the pancratium also allowed wrestling, tripping, kicking, stomping, hair pulling, eye gouging and strangulation. By upping the ante in such a manner, the good old Greeks – in anticipation of the Romans - were traveling that long and winding road from heavenly heaven to hellish hell, and the crowd, as crowds often do, ate it up.
Art from that time depicts a lively interest in pugilism. A Minoan vase from Cyprus from 1600 B.C. called Boxing Rython shows two cartoon characters sparring. A Greek urn from Rhodes circa the 6th century B.C. depicts four men at a boxing match: two boxers going at it, with a chief second on the right to offer assistance, and a ref on the left holding a stick with which to enforce the rules. There is a bronze statue in Rome’s National Museum from the late Hellenistic period of a seated pugilist. His smashed nose, misshapen lips and cauliflower ears attest to a profession like no other.
Greece fell to the Romans in 146 A.D. The Holy Roman Empire was in full swing by then, and when the Romans got their hands on boxing they would not let go. The Romans introduced the sport at the Games in the Colosseum. The Colosseum held 50,000 screaming fans and featured such time-honored features as chariot races, animal hunts, sea battles, gladiators fighting to the death, and that all-time crowd favorite, feeding Christians to the lions. Among such fiendish amusements, the simplicity of two men fighting with bare fists had to be jazzed up to satisfy the Romans’ bloodlust.
Because the fighters were either slaves or convicted criminals or prisoners of wars, the Romans could do pretty much with their captives as they chose, so the Romans looked to the past, as men have looked to past ever since, saw the Greek myrmekes and spun it into the Roman caestus. The caesti were hard leather gloves that covered the hands, wrists and forearms, and into which metal studs, teeth and spikes were inserted. Boxing and the Roman Colosseum were now a perfect fit. The phrase “killer punch” took on a whole new meaning.
The Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid from the 1st century A.D. wrote rhapsodically about the caestus.
From somewhere he produced the gloves of Eryx
And tossed them into the ring, all stiff and heavy,
Seven layers of hide and insewn lead and iron.
You can still see the blood and splash of brains
That stained them long ago.
A century later, a Latin poet named Lucilius wrote about a fighter’s misshapen mug: “Having such a face, Olympicus, go not to a fountain nor look into any transparent water, for you, like Narcissus, seeing your face clearly, will die, hating yourself to death.” Lucilius also wrote in his Epigrams: “Onesimus the boxer came to the prophet Olympus wishing to learn if he was going to live to an old age. And he said, Yes, if you give up the ring now, but if you go on boxing, Saturn isn’t in your horoscope.” [the whole thing]