Boxing: The Brief History of a “Science”

By Adam Park

I recently tried to explain to a four-year-old why I whimpered in pain when she “honked” my nose. It was not easy. Boxing, I said. A friend punched me there several times because we were playing a game. She looked perplexed. But we weren’t fighting, I quickly qualified, we were just having fun together. Tilting her head slightly to one side, she looked even more perplexed. I fumbled around for some more words and mumbled something about how we weren’t angry at each other or being mean, and that we were just playing together. By this point I had lost my little audience. Her mom had to chime in. Boxing, she said, is like when your preschool nemesis, Jacob, hits … except not. I shook my head in agreement. Yes, I said, kind of like that a little bit maybe. The little girl’s still furrowed brow, however, suggested that we had missed the mark. Why would anybody want to play fun hitting games with a Jacob? And how could hitting be a fun game anyway?

As someone who fancies himself to be in the business of talking about combat sports, this was a humbling experience. That fun game where people punch each other in the nose, for some odd reason, lacked self-evident sensibility. Her unspoken kinder-logic was apparent though. There was a one-to-one relationship between hitting and anger, punching and violence. To hit is to hate. And though the conclusion may not follow from the premise, others agree. Adults. Such critics of boxing tend not to see a distinction between striking and brutality. However, over the centuries boxing promoters and practitioners have sought to undermine the somewhat intuitive association between the signifying strike and the signified hate. The “science” of boxing, so it goes, negates its viciousness. For legitimacy, advocates of boxing have long described the practice as a science, a sweet science.

Early boxing promoters and instructors tapped into the scientific language of the day by appealing to a sense of purpose in Nature, a teleology in Creation. In what some consider to be the first manual on fistic exercise, author/boxer John Godfrey set the stage in the title of his text, A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Self Defense (1747). Boxing was orderly and logical; the utility and efficacy of its methods were empirically verifiable. It was even natural, evidenced from youth. The drive to excel in boxing, Godfrey claimed, was “observable … in Miniature among the Boys, who, almost as soon as they can go alone, get into their Postures, and bear their little bloody Noses, rather than be stigmatized for Cowards.” Boxing issued forth from Creation just as an oak tree from an acorn. Its physical movements, its moral ability to right wrongs was all but instinctual, given in the marrow as it were. The science of boxing even allowed for greatness, for the elevation of character. The courage that boxing fosters, he continued, was “probably owing to the Complexion and Constitution of our Bodies, and flowing in the different Texture of the Blood and Juices.” The pugilistic act as well as the emotional effect were all rather natural—part of being human, acting in accord with a series of scientifically observable laws. Far from brutish.

Over a half-century later the great boxing chronicler, Pierce Egan, spoke similarly in his 1812 text, Boxiana, even referring to boxing as the “sweet science of bruising.” But it was more than just a science, it was in our biology. The “first principles of boxing,” Egan wrote, were bestowed upon humanity by “NATURE,” the great “law chief.” The birth of boxing, Egan wrote, began with the “wounded feelings” brought upon by a social slight, or being wronged in some way; those feelings then “brought manly resentment”; and that manly resentment necessitated physical retribution. The “effects” of boxing “are so early and strongly implanted in the human frame” that “it may even be witnessed in the Infant,” Egan declared. The most important moment in our evolutionary, pugilistic past, however, was when the “coolness, checking the fiery passion and rage” was cultivated by our ancestors so as to turn boxing into a “perfect science,” free from savagery and primitive or infantile feelings of reprisal. And so, naturally, the “matured Man” “promulgates his manhood by an appeal to blows.” Written in the Book of Nature, so it goes, were the basic tenets of pugilism—present from birth, expressed instinctually, and perfected scientifically. Critics and hit-happy preschool nemeses take note; boxing is in your blood; and its refined expression is not one of ruthlessness.

As “Nature’s weapon,” the fists were not only the most scientific, but the most ethical means of physical retaliation for Henry Downes Miles in his 1906 text, Pugilistica: The History of British Boxing. More deadly (and common) forms of retribution that make use of knives and guns were deplorable and savage. Boxing was more in accord with a moral trajectory of civilization. Miles explains: “Pugilistic exhibitions are falsely said to harden the heart, to induce ferocity of character, and that they are generally attended by the dregs of society. [… but] Pugilism includes nothing essentially vicious; nothing, in itself, prompting to excess or debauchery. On the contrary, it asks temperance, exercise, and self-denial.” He goes on: “To boxing schools and regulated combats we owe that noble system of fistic ethics, of fair play, which distinguishes and elevates our common people, and which stern, impartial, unprejudiced and logical minds must hail and foster as one of the proud attributes of our national character.” A “true British boxer,” then, “gains the most applause by the degree to which he displays in defending his own person.” The “science of pugilism,” in Miles’ words, worked to elevate the individual, for self and for country.

The list of treatments on the “science” of boxing could go on, and does. But all this is not to say that boxing is or isn’t a “science.” The point here is that the description of boxing as a science does political work. So next time you hear about the “sweet science,” consider the implications. I can think of few other sports where such “scientific” language so pervades discussion about them. The nature of boxing, the history of boxing, is such that it is constantly on the verge of collapsing into chaos, into mere violence and brutality. “Science” saves.

Adam Park is a Ph.D. Candidate and sweet scientist. He may be contacted at park353@gmail.com.

10 thoughts on “Boxing: The Brief History of a “Science”

  1. Dear Sir,
    I have recently taken up boxing, and so I can certainly empathize with the difficulty of explaining the appeal. I agree that describing boxing as the “sweet science” is a form of euphemism. I am curious about who you think this euphemism is directed towards. Perhaps the language of science was adopted to ward off those who might have wanted to ban the sport all-together, especially in the days of “no holds barred” prizefighting. Or could it be for the benefit of the fighters themselves, as a sort of mental strengthening? “Jab-Cross-Hook” might hold a better appeal than “smash your fist into this other human as hard as you can.” It would seem these sorts of euphemisms are present in other sports as well. An NFL commentator might celebrate a crafty defensive play, which frequently ends in a bone-crunching collision, by espousing the athleticism and intelligence of the defender, not necessarily the violent act he committed. It seems possible that deep down we are uncomfortable with the violence in contact and combat sports, and feel a need to re-package the reality to some extent.

    Thank You,
    Van Knopf

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    • Short answer: yes. Initially, back in the days of James Fig (“The Father of Boxing”) and Jack Broughton in the 1700s, the description of boxing as a science catered to the sensibilities of the gentry. Among other things, upwardly mobile men were expected to have some mastery of the sciences of the day. Men of leisure were men of letters, as it were. In the Victorian era, however, high-born sensibilities changed around the sport. The “science” of boxing continued throughout the 19th century as its legacy, and the descriptor served as a counter to the sport’s many detractors. The underclasses took to the sport. With the popularization of the Queensberry Rules in the late 1800s, though, came a renewed sense of civility to the sport. As civility and science go hand-in-hand, the early decades of the 20th century saw unprecedented popularity of the sport in America. So, “science” does a lot of work for a lot of people. But through it all, “science” legitimizes.

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  2. Boxing is one of the oldest sports in the worlds dating back to the first Olympic Games. First boxers wrapped straps around their hands to strengthen their wrists and steady their fingers. The straps were soft fabric but, as time progressed, some boxers started using hard leather straps, often causing damage to the opponent’s face. Later some boxers even placed metal into the straps when fighting to cause further damage even death on occasion. Today boxing is fought in a padded ring using protective gloves and mouth guards. Boxing is no longer a popular Olympic sport but is widely commercialized just the same. One question I have for author Adam Park did you and your wife eventually explain to your child boxing she could understand, if so can you Please share Thanks.

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  3. Certain rules are used to create boxing, that is why it is called boxing and not fighting. The sport of Boxing can differentiate it itself from fighting because it has rules it place that govern the game. For example yes it would be good to drop your opponent with one good timed strike but you can also win with points. Fighting on the other hand has a different purpose, to cause pain. There is fighting in other sports, football, hockey, and baseball. It may look like boxing but boxing has rules. When men in other sports fight they do it for other reason. This is where you can label boxing a science and yes it does save in this context. By adding science to the game of boxing you add rules to govern it and to make it safe. Would you agree that by adding rules to the game that it makes it more safe and more of a science?

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    • I would humbly disagree. Most of the rules introduced to boxing are not for the protection of the fighter, but rather to make the spectacle more spectator friendly and to make the show more publicly palpable. Take a few of the Queensberry Rules for instance. Prohibiting tie-ups required fighters to hit each other more. Timed rounds, with one minute break in between, allowed fighters to recover so that they could hit each other even harder. And finally, the requirement that fighters wear gloves made the head a much more viable target (since the small hand bones where less jeopardized); so not only could fighters hit harder, they could hit heads harder.

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  4. Thanks for the great read, Adam. I must totally agree with you that boxing is a sweet science and that it is the “science” that saves the sport and separates it from simple brutality. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the history of the sport and can be clearly referenced in both the public perception of the sport and the misconceptions included in that perception. Around 1735 when boxing was gaining influence in the American colonies, there were many misconceptions about the differences in boxing and brutality. In fact, in 1746 after 4 deaths associated with “boxing” the governor of North Carolina even prompted legislation about boxing which he considered, “barbarous and inhuman” (Riess, 64). This so perfectly depicts the misconception that many had during this time. Of course what he was referring to was the sport of Gouging in the south. It was similar to a small degree, but it was a decidedly more brutal sport and lacked much of the science that is present in boxing. These contests often lacked the “cool” nature of boxing in that bouts were usually a result of one man slighting another (Reiss, 64).
    Why do you think that boxing was so often confused for such brutal sports as gouging? Furthermore, how do you think that boxing overcame these misconceptions to become the sweet science?
    Works Cited:
    Reiss, Steven A. “Major Problems in American Sport History.” 2nd Edition. Stamford: Cengage Learning , 2015. 64-72.

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    • Short answer: gloves. The requirement that boxers wear gloves (in addition to a few other key stipulations), changed the public image of prizefighting for the better (re: made boxing seem more “civil”). Prompted by the gradual acceptance of the “Queensberry Rules” in the final years of the 19th century, boxing would soon see a substantial rise in the popularity/acceptance of the sport during the early decades of the 20th century. Just as the drafters of the rules intended, the QRs saved prizefighting from legal extinction by turning it into “boxing.” Kasia Boddy has a nice article on the Queensberry Rules, “‘Under Queensberry Rules, So to Speak: Some Versions of a Metaphor.”

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  5. I can personally apply myself to the first paragraph discussing the explanation of boxing to a four year old. I have been playing hockey for all of my life and a big aspect of hockey is fights. When I try to explain myself for getting into numerous fights after a game, I come to a loss of words. I can not explain why I fight; it is just part of the game. And the purpose is not to injure someone (more often than not) but to be a defense mechanism. I also like how you tied science into the sport because it provides a deeper analysis than just the surface of boxing. The “science” of hockey parallels to this conception because people in the stands do not comprehend the need for fighting. It is just among the science of the game and from the history which it developed.

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    • One question I have after reading this article is whether you refer to the science of boxing as an explanation of the sport or as a genuine label?

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      • I don’t think boxing is a “science” in the strictest sense. Not even close. But I do think that the term can be metaphorically helpful to describe boxing. However, the caveat here is that when boxing is described as a science, such descriptions work to legitimize the sport. So, boxing as a “science” is a normative claim. And normative claims, for some historians/academics, are problematic insofar as they interrupt scholarly neutrality. Nevertheless, I think boxing is awesome, scientific or not.

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