Fighting with the fists for sport and spectacle is probably as old as sport itself. Boxing contests are found throughout antiquity. Greek boxers would wear boxing gloves (not padded) and wrappings on their arms below the elbows, but were otherwise naked when competing. There is evidence to suggest that boxing was prevalent in North Africa during 4,000 B.C.
The word "boxing" first came into use in England in the 18th century to distinguish between fighting to settle disputes, and fighting under agreed rules for sport. It is now used to describe a sport in which two contestants (boxers) wearing padded gloves face each other in a "ring" and fight an agreed number of "rounds" under recognized rules. Although men have always been the most numerous participants, there are some references to fights between women during the 18th century, and women's boxing was organized again at the end of the 20th century.
Pre Queensberry era
Eighteenth and early 19th-century pugilism (bare-knuckle fighting) was an important precursor of boxing in Britain. Boxing, however, probably grew most specifically out of the demonstrations held at the Fives Court and the Tennis Court in London in the early 19th century. These promotions had several features that anticipated the future sport of boxing. The boxers wore "mufflers" (padded gloves); "time" was called after a set period; and the length of the fight was predetermined. Wrestling throws were also barred. None of these features were present in bare-knuckle pugilism.
For the generation following the creation of the Queensberry Rules, bare-knuckle and glove-fights were both promoted. The bare-knuckle fights were usually held under the "New Rules" produced by the Pugilistic Benevolent Society in 1866, which had superseded the "Pugilistic Association's Revised Rules" of 1853. They were often popularly referred to as the "Rules of the London Prize-Ring."
"Boxing" as distinct from any other form of fist fighting can be dated from 1867, when John Chambers drafted new rules. There were twelve rules in all, and they specified that fights should be "a fair stand-up boxing match" in a 24-foot ring. Rounds were to be of three-minute duration with a one-minute rest period between rounds. Ten seconds were allowed for a man to get up if he had gone down during a round. New gloves of "fair-size" were to be worn and "wrestling or hugging" was specifically forbidden. These gloves' purpose was to protect the knuckles. Much like today, an average pair of boxing gloves looked like a bloated pair of mittens, were often red, and were laced up around the wrists. The rules were published under the patronage of the Marquess of Queensberry, whose name has always been associated with them. The first fighter to win a world title under these rules was James J. Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan in 1892 at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans.
The success of boxers has always been associated with their size. In the early years of pugilism, however, there was only one "Champion," who always tended to be one of the heaviest. The term "light weight" was in use from the early 19th century, and fights were sometimes arranged between the lighter men, but there was no specific Championship for them. The terms lightweight, welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight became common during the late 19th century, but there was no universally recognized definitions of weight class. Throughout the 20th century, new weight classes were added, extending the range down to strawweight and up to superheavyweight but with varying agreement over their definitions.
In the early days of pugilism, all fighters were "professional" in the sense that few would fight for "love" rather than money. No distinct "amateur" sport existed until 1867, when amateur championships under Marquess of Queensberry Rules were held at Lillie Bridge in London for Lightweights, Middleweights and Heavyweights. By this date, the old professional bare-knuckle "Prize Ring" was in terminal decline. It had always been against the law, but in the early part of the century it survived because it had widespread popular support and because there were many influential men who supported it. By 1867, however, the results of fights were increasingly suspect, and sometimes boxers even failed to turn up for fights. Less money came into the sport and bare-knuckle pugilism slowly died out.
Conversely, the amateur side of the sport flourished, not only in schools, universities and in the armed forces, but also in the working-class areas of the expanding urban centers.
With the gradual acceptance of Marquess of Queensberry Rules, two distinct branches of boxing emerged, professional and amateur, and each produced its own local, national and international governing bodies and its own variation of the rules.