Beginning in Britain, going from bare-knuckle fighting under London Prize Ring Rules to ‘boxing’ under Marquess of Queensberry Rules with gloves, the sport gradually found its way to North America and Australia by the 1880s. While hard and skin-tight gloves were more often than not used in America prior to the 1890s, in Britain it was far more acceptable, especially in clubs, to use gloves weighing no less than two ounces up to eight ounces right from the beginning.
At the start of gloved fighting although certain named weight classes were already recognised, such as bantam, feather, light, middle and heavy, men in Britain generally claimed what was then known as the English title at every two pounds within those loosely defined weight bands. The welters (1887) were the next to arrive followed by light heavies (1899) and flys (1909), prior to junior light (1921), junior welter (1923), junior middle (1962), junior fly (1975), junior feather (1976), cruiser (1979), junior bantam (1980), super middle (1984) and minimum fly (1987) becoming established at later dates.
Because there were many variations in the weight limits between Britain and America in the early days, I have gone with what was generally perceived by those running the sport in Britain at the start of boxing - bantam (116lbs), Feather (126lbs), Light (140lbs), middle (166lbs) and heavy (166lbs+). The middleweight limit of 166lbs includes those fighting at catchweights who were too small for heavyweights. With the advent of new weight classes and in certain cases where great fighters moved up in weight and were perceived by the press to have taken their named title with them, as in the case of Young Corbett at featherweight, I have massaged the weight divisions accordingly until we enter the modern era.
On 11 February 1909, the National Sporting Club in London stipulated that there should be eight named weight classes governing British boxing - fly (112lbs), Bantam (118lbs), feather (126lbs), Light 135lbs), welter (147lbs), middle (160lbs), light heavy (175lbs) and heavy (175lbs+) - and by 1920 the rest of the world had followed suit.
Other than the heavyweight line of descent, the great majority of fighters in the days before proper regulation should be viewed as claimants as they were not officially recognised and many gained their reputation purely through newspaper support. You only have to view the number of men claiming a title at the same weight at the same time to see the chaos. Even in America it was difficult to decide on a champion, and much of what has been printed in the following years has been selective to make things look black and white. On top of that the main men in Britain rarely met their American counterparts and had as much right to claim titles if the fights could not be made.
I have taken the start of boxing as we now know it to be when championship weights became standardised worldwide and/or boxers receiving general recognition from established bodies with the sport, such as the New York State Athletic Commission (1920) and the National Boxing Association (1921) in America. In Europe the International Boxing Union (IBU) had been formed in 1913 to bond European nations together, while after the Great War those involved in boxing in Britain had a working agreement that would eventually see all parties concerned signing up to form the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) in 1929. Although there was an on-off relationship between the IBU and the BBBoC during the early days, in 1946 all countries in Europe, including Britain, became members of the European Boxing Union (EBU).
Despite there being several attempts to create a World Boxing Commission it never properly came to fruition due to the stance taken by the NYSAC, who deemed that they were only empowered to deal with boxing in New York. Eventually, after many attempts to set up one body the NBA reorganised themselves in August 1962 and were renamed a