How Boxing Became a Popular Sport in Ancient Greece
Boxers on a Panathenaic amphora in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Boxing, or Πυγμαχία, meaning “fighting with the fists,” in ancient Greece originated as a very tough sport, much harder than professional boxing as we know it today.
There are archeological discoveries showing that the ancient Greeks held boxing matches as early as in the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. There are numerous legends about the origins of boxing in Greece.
One of the most bizarre stories holds that the heroic ruler Theseus invented a form of boxing in which two men sat face to face and beat each other with their fists until one of them was killed. With time, however, boxers began to fight in a standing position, as we so often see them pictured on Ancient Greek pottery.
The boxing rules in the early days were draconian. No Marquess of Queensberry rules applied in those days. There were no weight categories, no rounds with intermediate breaks, no points, no victory or defeat on points, no interruption when the fighters began to bleed; nor of course, were there any gloves, and judges enforced the rules by hitting the offenders with a switch or whip (as seen above).
The winner was simply the boxer who knocked out his opponent or forced him to leave the match. In case of a match of especially long duration, with no clear winner, the brutal “scale” rule applied, with the agreement of both opponents.
The “Boxer,” a Hellenistic Greek bronze sculpture. Credit: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0
The “scale” was in a way similar to the modern penalty shootout in soccer. Each of the two opponents remained completely still and received a punch to the face, without making any move whatsoever to avoid it.
The order of these blows was determined by lot and the winner was the one who would remain standing up. There have been cases in which boxers were killed during the “scale” after receiving a lethal punch.
Also, there were no gloves for protection. The boxers wrapped their fingers and wrists to make their joints more stable — not to reduce the force of the blows on the opponent.
Through the years, though, boxing became more civilized and more of a sport. In fact, it became an Olympic Games sport as early as 688 BC. Onomastos Smyrnaios is the first winner in Olympic boxing.
At the time, the god Apollo was regarded as the inventor and guardian of the sport of boxing.
Boxers in Ancient Greece who went down in history
It is obvious that winning in such a sport required huge reserves of physical — and even mental — strength. Therefore, the few great boxers whose names have gone down in history were revered as superheroes.
The Spartan Ipposthenes was most likely the top boxer in ancient days in Greece, winning first place in five consecutive Olympic Games. This means that for 16 consecutive years he was boxing at the very highest level of this hard sport.
August Vinchon, “Diagoras Carried by his Sons After Olympic Victory,” 1814. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain
Diagoras of Rhodes, a one-time Olympic winner, four-time winner in Isthmia and two in Nemea, was over two meters (6 feet 6 inches) tall and boxed without twisting aside or ducking, making no effort to avoid his opponent. On the contrary, he went straight at his unfortunate competitors. Everyone admired this giant of a man who was known to have combined power with great personal virtue.
Melagomas, from Karia in Asia Minor, followed the completely opposite tactic, however. But as we can see today, his name has also gone down in history as one of the great ancient pugilists.
He was so flexible and nimble that he could easily avoid being hit by his opponent. The latter usually left the match exhausted, without throwing a single punch — but also without receiving any, as “noble” Melagomas was only interested in avoiding the blows, and not throwing any!
The most courageous boxer, in all of history perhaps, was Evrydamas from Kyrini. In one match, his opponent broke Evrydamas’ teeth, but he swallowed them so that the other would not realize that fact and feel that he had an advantage. Then, with a series of overwhelming blows, Evrydamas simply knocked his opponent out cold.