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History of punching


A simple punch was probably early human's first act of violence; it’s an instinctive human response to anger. Irritate an infant and he or she will make a fist and swat at you; it's what human's do.

Punching is such a natural thing for humans that apparently no one through the centuries thought it was special enough to merit mention, so there is little evidence of ancient punching techniques. As technology advanced, people were freed from having to work all day and night for their existence, so they had more free time to think about more mundane things, such as why we punch the way we do.

The early history of punching

The earliest evidence suggests that boxing was prevalent in North Africa around 4000 BCE and in the Mediterranean around 1500 BCE. Thesus, a Greek ruler who ruled around 900 BCE, was entertained by men who would sit in front of each other and beat each other with their fists until one of them died. In later centuries, fighters in the art of pankration fought on their feet while naked with gloves (not padded) on their hands and wrappings on their arms below the elbows.

In 688 BCE, boxing, which the Greeks called pygmachia, was accepted as an Olympic sport. Keeping their fingers free, the fighters wore leather straps, called himantes, on their hands, wrists, and sometimes lower arms, to protect them from injury. For a guard, the fighters held the left arm high and near the head, with the right arm free to hook and thrust.

In ancient Rome, the fighters were usually criminals and slaves who hoped to become champions and gain their freedom. However, free men also fought, and fist fighting became so popular that even aristocrats started doing it, but that was later banned by the ruler Augustus. and in 500 CE, the sport was banned by Theodoric the Great.

More recent history of boxing

Records of boxing activity disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire, but fist-fighting resurfaced in England during the late 17th century in the form of bare-knuckle prizefighting. The first documented account of a bare-knuckle fight in England appeared in 1681 in the London Protestant Mercury, and the first English bare-knuckle champion was James Figg, in 1719. During this the time, the word "boxing" first came into common usage.

Little is known about the guard used by fighters and the rules of fighting before the great English pugilist Jack Broughton, a student of James Figg, devised the Broughton Rules in 1743. Broughton also invented "mufflers," the padded gloves that were used in training and exhibitions. Under the Broughton Rules, not much was considered illegal; there were no limitations against butting, gouging, kicking, or hitting below the belt. The rules were used mostly just to keep a boxing match from becoming a wrestling match. Since they had to be wary of any kind of attack, the fighters stayed at a close range with the arms extended and relatively low and the legs slightly bent for more spring and quick movement.

Under the new London Prize Ring Rules of 1838, actions such as butting, hitting a downed man, hitting below the belt, gouging, biting, kicking the opponent's knees, and grabbing below the waist were made illegal. Some throws, such as the cross-buttock and back heel, were allowed and were used when in close. A round of match ended whenever a combatant hit the canvas, so rounds could be long and the fights often went over 50 rounds. Under the new rules, the boxers began fighting from a greater range and using a guard that had an extended lead arm with the arms held low, the knuckles facing downward, and the legs kept relatively straight.

In 1898, in the Philippines, during the Spanish-American War, when American soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Filipino natives, the Filipinos would slash the wrists of the low extended arms of the American soldiers’ guard. As a result, the guard was raised from the low, knuckles downward position to a guard with the arms held high with the knuckles facing forward, much the same as the boxing guard of today.


Grappling was a major reason why the fighting range was so much greater during the bare-knuckle fighting era than it is in modern boxing. Grappling was a staple of the earlier fighting style and played a major role in ending rounds. Unlike today, rounds were not timed, and lasted until one of the combatants hit the floor; KO’s were not common. One way to drop an opponent was to close, grapple, and throw him, trying to do severe damage with the throw. Other techniques included putting an opponent in chancery (a headlock), and landing blows until he yielded. So it was safer to stay out of range of the opponent to avoid being thrown.

Grappling is difficult to do while wearing gloves. When the Queensbury rules made wearing gloves mandatory, they also established timed rounds and disallowed grappling. Therefore, combatants no longer needed to worry about having to avoid a throw and could afford to come in close to deliver blows that were more powerful, such as the hook and uppercut.

Vertical fist

Old style pugilism, which was built primarily on linear action and emulated the thrust of a sword used a vertical fist, rather than today’s horizontal fist. With a vertical fist, the entire arm is extended in one line from the shoulder through to the fist. The elbow is tucked beneath the arm as opposed to jutting outward, and the wrist is kept straight. This changes the angle at which the fist connects with the target and it maximizes the striking surface by using the whole fist, not just the first two knuckles.

The vertical fist was thought to have a greater range, but, in fact, the arm's reach does not get longer just because the fist is rotated 90-degrees unless you make some other body adjustment. Even when throwing a “rounding blow,” which is the ancestor of today’s hook, the vertical fist was used, either normally or inverted.

Supporters of vertical fist punching say that it provides fewer places in the arm for energy to “get lost,” such as from a bent elbow or wrist and it provides more protection for the arm. Since the force of the punch is distributed evenly across the fist, it protects the hand better than if the force was concentrated in one area, while still providing a powerful blow.

Professor Mike Donovan, an ex-middleweight champion, in his 1893 book, The Science of Boxing, advocated using a three-knuckle landing vertical punch. Jack Dempsey was also an advocate of the three-knuckle vertical punch, as it worked well with his "power line" theory, which is like the centerline theory of wing-chun.

Advent of gloves

The wearing of gloves in a boxing match is a relatively modern innovation. Prior to 1866, when the Marquis of Queensbury Rules made the wearing of gloves mandatory, boxers fought bare-knuckled. Prior to this, gloves, or “mufflers” as they were called, were used only in sparring.

The benefits of punching with a vertical fist are neutralized when wearing gloves. The hand is already protected so linear blows may be replaced by more circular blows like the “corkscrew” jab and, of course, the hook. These blows may be thrown with more power because they have the increased energy of momentum behind them, as well as the weight of the gloves themselves, which may weigh anywhere from 8 to 20 ounces. Additionally, because boxers need not worry about breaking their fists, they may throw punches that are more powerful.

One may think that fighting bare-knuckled, would cause significant damage to the fist. However, the risk is significantly reduced through the biomechanics of throwing a bare-fisted punch. A common injury in bare-knuckled punching is the “boxer’s fracture,” in which the outer two knuckles, and sometimes the outer metacarpals of the hand, are broken from the impact of an unprotected punch. Many boxing greats have broken their fists this way when engaging in street fights.

Gloves, due to their size, act much like small shields around the hands and may be used to block incoming blows. Modern boxing guards reflect this, with the hands held close to the body to easily tuck and cover. However, gloves also make getting through a modern guard with linear punches more difficult, which works to the defender’s advantage when blocking shots to the stomach or sides with the elbows, forearms, and biceps.

Corkscrew punch

The corkscrew punch is a basically any punch with a twist of the wrist added at contact with the target. The twisting motion tends to pull and tear the opponent’s skin and it adds more power to the punch. Muhammad Ali used a similar punch and claimed he invented it, but the punch had been used for decades before Ali was born. The adding of a twist to a punch has been used in boxing and many different martial arts since the 1800s and its origin is unclear.

The punch is said to have been invented by a boxer named Charles “Kid” McCoy who fought from 1891-1916. McCoy said he learned the punch by watching a cat strike at a ball of string. McCoy was born as Norman Selby on October 13, 1872. By the age of 17, he had become a pro fighter and started using the name Charles "Kid" McCoy. In 1897, McCoy won the middleweight boxing title by a knockout over Dan Creedon. He later moved to the heavyweight class and was knocked out by Tom Sharkey in 1899. McCoy was highly successful during his boxing career and was considered one of the greatest punchers in boxing, which helped make his corkscrew punch famous.

In 1903, a new light heavyweight division was created and McCoy battled Jack Root for the title. McCoy lost the match and afterward, his career began a downhill slide.

  • Ruzicki, T. (2003). From Bare-Knuckles to Modern Boxing. How Gloves have changed the Art of Pugilism.
  • Pfrenger, K. (2005). A Discussion of Boxing Stances Through History. [Online]. Available: [2005, December 18].
  • Historical Pankration Project.  [Online]. Available:

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