September 29, 2011
This article wet my appetite for a thorough cultural history of competitive fighting.
Boxing’s beginnings in America go back to slave days, when plantation owners pitted slaves against one another and wagered on the outcomes. One freed slave, Tom Molineaux, even fought overseas against the British champion, Tom Cribb—and probably would have won their 1810 match, had Cribb’s desperate supporters not intervened just as Molineaux seized a decisive advantage. Boxing then was conducted with bare fists, under the old London Prize Ring Rules, which stipulated fights to the finish—that is, until one man could not continue. The rules also permitted wrestling holds and other tactics, and rounds ended only with “falls,” when one man went down, whether from a punch or a throw or sheer exhaustion. Before the Civil War, boxing enjoyed a brief vogue in New York, where fighters often associated with the Tammany Hall machine rose to prominence. But the war interrupted the sport’s momentum.