Boxing in different corners

Boxing fans who gathered at Madison Square Garden on 16th June, 1983, were mightily surprised by the outcome of the fight they had just watched. Billy Collins Jr., on whose victory all the wise money was bet, was beaten into a bloody pulp by the scrawny-looking Luis Resto. When, after round ten, referees declared the latter to be the winner, Billy Collin’s face was so swollen he couldn’t even open his eyes.

Many people suspected that Luis Resto played dirty, but there was no proof. The truth only surfaced in 2007, when the guilt-ridden boxer admitted to Collins’ wife (Billy Collins himself died prematurely in 1984) that he fought in illegally enhanced boxing gloves. The obligatory inner padding, which prevented superficial facial injuries, was removed, and bandages wrapped around Resto’s hands were dipped in wet gypsum. As a result, Resto’s punches were much more powerful and did more damage. Boxing fans around the world were outraged, and 16th June 1983 is widely believed to be the worst day in the sport’s history.

Ancient Greeks, however, are unlikely to have been moved by this story. I’m sure they’d condemn cheating – they always insisted that sportsmen have to play by the rules – but they’d be baffled by the idea of using gloves designed to limit the power of a blow and the resulting injuries.

Ancient Greeks, whom we usually associate with track-and-fields sports, such as the discus throw or long jump, were also avid fans of martial arts. They practiced wrestling, boxing and pankration, which was a combination of the two and wasn’t much different from today’s MMA fights. Opponents went into the ring naked (wrestling), or with their hands wrapped in leather straps (boxing and pankration). However, these leather straps were not intended to limit the facial injuries caused to the opponent, but only to protect the boxer’s hands. What’s more, being hit with a leather-wrapped punch was even more painful than a normal blow, since it was more likely to cut the opponent’s skin. As if this wasn’t enough, at some point Greeks added an extra thick and toughened leather strap to their proto-gloves – the sole role of which was to cause more damage.

Romans, who are known to have enjoyed bloody sports, preferred gladiatorial fights to martial arts. Still, boxing was widely practiced in the Empire. However, its inhabitants introduced one crucial innovation. It seems that they thought simple leather straps were for wimps, so they introduced even meaner “gloves”. Roman boxers used studded leather straps or placed bits of metal in between the wrappings. It’s hardly surprising then that Virgil describes boxers’ hands as splattered with blood and bits of brain – boxing matches fought with such accessories were bound to end tragically from time to time – it was as if the opponents were fighting in knuckle-dusters. Luis Resto would have felt right at home – apart from the fact that his opponents could strike him back fair and square, that is.

Even if a boxer managed to leave the fighting ring under his own steam, he’d need a long while to get back in shape. The outcome of ancient boxing matches is well illustrated by the unique bronze statue, known as the Terme  or Quirinal Boxer. A photo of the whole sculpture can be accessed here; below is a close-up of the face:

Source: Wikimedia

Even though this statue comes from the Hellenistic period – so well before Romans introduced the knuckle duster-like gloves – the boxer’s face is badly battered. His cheeks, eyebrows and the forehead are covered in cuts; some of his teeth are missing, and his ears are swollen and have a cauliflower-like look. The model for the Terme Boxer is also likely to have suffered from many internal injuries, such as micro injuries to the brain, but this obviously cannot be seen on this statue. Interestingly, the statue also lacks eyes – but this at least is not due to brutal duelling; ancient bronze sculptures had eyes separately crafted out of precious materials which were often stolen.

Why am I writing about all this? Not because I’m a boxing fan; to be perfectly honest, I have always found the sport rather boring. Still, I think that ancient boxing is a great example with which to illustrate the complexity of our relationship with the past. On the one hand, it would appear that we’re very similar to ancient Greeks and Romans; boxing seems to be as popular today as it was two thousand years ago. One could argue that people have changed very little since the days of Plato and Caesar, despite all our technological and social progress. However, taking a closer look at ancient and modern boxing reveals crucial differences. Whereas modern fans of the discipline were revolted by boxing gloves designed to leave the opponent’s face in tatters, ancients took them for granted and presumably thought they made the spectacle more fun to watch. This shows that the similarities between us and the ancients, which are so frequently emphasised, are often no more than superficial.

Jakub Szamalek [2009] is doing a PhD in Classics focusing on the material remains of Greek settlements in the Black Sea area. He is particularly interested in the nature of the relations between the Greeks and the indigenous peoples inhabiting this region.