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In comparison to Joe Louis, what makes Muhammad Ali the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time? The answer surely doesn’t lie in the numbers, for Ali’s record pales in front of Louis’s. Ali himself explains the conundrum:

Every move you make starts with your heart, and that's in rhythm or you're in trouble. Your rhythm should set the pace of the fight. If it does, then you penetrate your opponent's rhythm. You make him fight your fight, and that's what boxing is all about.

A lot has changed in the boxing ring since the days of giants like Ali, Louis, Foreman, Robinson, Leonard, Marciano, Liston, Tyson and others. What has however remained the same, is the love for the game. Thousands still watch the game in person, while millions catch it live on their television sets. The sport recognizes no national boundaries and knows no language.

If you’re a fan, then get your boxing tickets here and watch your favorite boxer knock out his opponent.

Holding No Punches, All the Way from Ancient Greece

The Greeks presented some of the greatest gifts to the world, boxing being one of them. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the sport was “invented” by them.

Humans have fought in hand-to-hand combat since time immemorial. The earliest traces of what is now called boxing can be traced back to 3rd millennium BCE Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. The earliest form of modern day boxing (with gloves) can be traced back to people living on the island of Crete, one of the modern day Greek islands.

They may have not invented boxing, but what the ancient Greeks did was refine the sport and subsequently popularize it. It was first included in the 23rd Olympiad, which was held in 688 BC.  

In its early years, boxing was starkly different from its present structure. Boxers used wind leather thongs around their hands for gloves and a match would continue till one of the fighters conceded defeat or could not continue. There were no rounds and no weight categories and therefore the heavyweights dominated the game. The opponent’s head was targeted, while hitting other parts of the body were not common.

Origins of Present Day Boxing – From Ancient Rome to 16th Century London

Not to be outdone by the Greeks, the Romans, too, played an instrumental role in the evolution of boxing to its current form. It was in ancient Rome where wrapped leather thongs gave way to harder leather and the thong became a weapon.

The “Roman boxing” as compared to “Greek boxing” was truly a no-holds-barred contest. Held at Roman Amphitheaters, where boxers essentially played to the gallery,the fight often ended when one of the fighters died. More often than not, the contestants were slaves, whose lives meant nothing to their masters. However, in later years, as boxing became more of a specialized art where trained combat sportsmen performed, the lives of the boxers were valued, even if they were slaves.

There were no rings in Roman Amphitheaters. A circle marked on the floor was the ring. The present-day term “ring” comes from that circle.

Boxing, a spectator sport in ancient Rome, died however, as Romans took more interest in gladiators. It was essentially abolished for excessive brutality in AD 393. It would reappear in the late 16th century London.

Bare-Knuckle Prizefighting in London

It resurfaced as bare-knuckle boxing and was sometimes referred to as prizefighting. The first such documented bout took place in 1681. In 1719, James Figg was declared the first English bare-knuckle champion. The word “boxing” was also used for the sport during this time.

Though these were the initial days of modern day boxing, still the sport was starkly different from its present-day form. For one, boxing then meant, in addition to fist fighting, cudgeling and fencing.

Though much different from its previous Roman incarnation (the fighter didn’t have to die to lose), the London version of boxing still carried traces of Roman boxing. On 6 January 1681, Christopher Monck, an English noble, organized a boxing match between his butler and butcher. This by the way was also the first recorded boxing bout in Britain.

From Early Chaos to Modern-Day Order

The English reincarnation of boxing was also largely unregulated, in line with its Greco-Roman days. An extremely chaotic sport, boxing had no round limits, weight divisions and referee. Hard throws, chokes, eye-gouging and headbutting were common practice.

To protect the fighters from dying, rules were made. The first set of boxing rules were called the Broughton Rules. Named after Jack Broughton, a boxing champion, these rules made in 1743, commanded when a fighter goes down and could not get up after a count of 30 seconds, the fight was over. Below the belt hits were also prohibited along with hitting the downed fighter. What however did not change from ancient Greek boxing was that the head remained the primary target.

In 1838, the London Prize Ring Rules were enacted, which were later revised in 1853. According to them, biting, using hard objects like stones or resin, holding the ropes, hitting a downed fighter, kicking, scratching, gouging and butting were outlawed. Needless to say, these rules are still in place.

In 1867, what is commonly referred to as the Marquess of Queensberry rules were enacted. These rules were actually drafted by John Chambers, a Welsh sportsman. But since the Marquess of Queensberry was Chambers’ patron, therefore these rules are known by his name.

The Marquess of Queensberry rules were twelve in total and changed the sport forever. The ring size was laid down in these rules along with the duration of each round with one-minute rest intervals between them. Knock Out (KO) rules were written down and wrestling your opponent was banned. The rules on gloves and how they are to be used can also be found in the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

As a result of these, boxing bouts became longer and more strategic, requiring the presence of mind as well as the body. In present-day boxing, the Marquess of Queensberry rules have been expanded upon and the rules continue to evolve and change.

The Greatest Bouts

The Rumble in the Jungle – George Foreman lost the fight much before he stepped into the ring in Stade du 20 Mai. What Ali did to him on October 30, 1974, was simply finish him for the spectators. Foreman had come to Kinshasa, Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), a former Belgian colony, with his German Shephard dog. This species of dog, by the way, were often used by the Belgians to keep the locals “in line” (to put it mildly). There were no takers for Foreman the moment he set foot on Ndolo airport’s tarmac. It was all Ali Bomaye after that. This fight is well documented the world over and therefore requires no further elaboration.

The Fight of the Century – On March 8, 1971, two of the greatest boxers on this planet came close to death. It was Ali vs. Smokin’ Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. And while the fight lasted for full 15 rounds, out of which Frazier came out victorious by unanimous decision, it was more than a fight between two boxers. “The Fight of the Century” was essentially the clash between “new America” represented by the rebellious Mohammad Ali, who had refused to serve in the Vietnam War and Joe Frazier – the muscled face of pro-war establishment.

When Hagler met Hearns– Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, had never witnessed such intense eight-minutes. Round three of this fight between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns is arguably the greatest round in boxing history. Amidst much media hype and frenzy, the two entered the ring and immediately lived up to the hype. If it was said that it was the perfect illustration of when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. An exhausted Hagler in the end came out on top.

Thrilla in Manila – It was Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier on October 1, 1975. After the fight, the victorious Ali had reportedly said, it was as close to death as he’d ever been and that he couldn’t go any longer, but Frazier’s corner had thrown in the towel. Interestingly, Frazier never wanted the fight to end as he had reportedly said, “I want him, boss.”

It was trilogy where Ali and Frazier had won one match each and therefore the hype for the third episode was not unfounded. Boxing buffs still wonder what would have happened if Frazier’s trainers had let the fight go on. 

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