Boxing: The Brief History of a ‘Science’

Boxing will still be filled with will they, won’t they questions / Image by Jeffrey Pott (Flickr Creative Commons)

By Adam Park / 08.17.2015
PhD Candidate in American Religious History
Dissertation: Sports and Religion
Florida State University

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.