The sport of boxing has been around in various forms for thousands of years. Mesopotamians enjoyed a sport where two men would box each other while sitting in chairs, and Egyptian tombs display wall paintings of boxing competitions. The Greeks added boxing to the original Olympics in 688 BC, and Roman audiences cheered on boxers in Coliseums across the civilized world. The pugilism of slaves who hoped to win their freedom became so popular that even aristocrats began to take part in the sport.
After the Romans outlawed boxing, the sport dropped out of public recognition for hundreds of years – although pockets of people, especially in England, still competed informally. In the early 1700s, English royalty began to encourage the sport by offering prize rewards.
Boxing before the 18th century was a brutal affair; there were few rules, and many participants were killed or maimed. It was actually a successful boxer, Jack Broughton, who organized protective rules after killing an opponent in the ring in 1743. Broughton’s rules, which prohibited things like hitting a downed fighter and punching below the waist, were refined and replaced over time to make boxing a more fair and genteel sport. The Marquess of Queensberry rules, introduced in 1867, are still used today.
Boxing was also a rousing success in the United States, which became very instrumental in the boxing world during the early 20th century. Prizefighter Jack Dempsey earned a staggering $8.4 million dollars between 1921 and 1927, even though the heavyweight champ participated in only five matches. The simplicity and excitement of the boxing ring put it far ahead of other sports like football and baseball. A double feature with boxing was used to increase the popular appreciation of basketball.
It should be no surprise that boxing is so popular. Every boxer who steps into the ring is a triumph of courage over fear. Each blow is a test of willpower, each blow a testament to strength and skill. The final victory over the opponent is something that every one of us can understand on a primal level.
The stories of boxing’s legends further enhance the sport, and help the audience connect to the fighters. Every American would have cheered for gold medal favorite Oscar de la Hoya in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but his story captured the hearts of watchers worldwide. Oscar de la Hoya’s beloved mother died of breast cancer at the young age of 35 shortly before the Olympic event.
Oscar de la Hoya considered dropping out of the sport of boxing altogether, but his mother made him promise to compete in the Olympics. On her deathbed, Oscar promised to win a gold medal in her name – which he did, dominating competitor Marco Rudolph for three rounds before putting him down with a technical knockout. The victory was even sweeter for de la Hoya, since Marco Rudolph was the only fighter who had beaten him at that point in his career.
The story of boxer James J. Braddock is another one that caught at the hearts and souls of onlookers, and which was recently made into a move, “Cinderella Man.” Braddock was the son of Irish immigrant and seemed to be poised to break out of Hell’s Kitchen with a promising boxing career. A narrow 15-round defeat to Tommy Loughran, however, left Braddock physically injured and mentally crushed. As his boxing record faltered, the Great Depression hit, and Braddock and his family lost everything. The once-shining boxer was forced to work as a dockworker to keep his family fed.
Just when he seemed ready to be written off, James J. Braddock got the chance of a lifetime. There was a last-minute cancellation in one of the fights leading up to the heavyweight championship, and Braddock was asked if he wanted to fight John “Corn” Griffin. No one expected anything of the washed up boxer, but Braddock pulled off a stunning victory.
Braddock’s star was on the rise again, and he rode it all the way to the top, defeating Max Baer for the heavyweight championship and continuing on for a successful and profitable career, despite arthritis.
The pageantry, courage, and triumph of the “sweet science” of boxing have inspired viewers for thousands of years, and continues to do so today. The touching stories of some of boxing’s legends show every person what can be achieved if we refuse to give up on our dreams.