A simple punch was probably early man's first act of violence; it is instinctive. Irritate an infant and he or she will ball his or her fist and swat at you; it's what human's do. Punching is such a natural thing to 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.
Earliest evidence suggests that boxing was prevalent in North Africa during 4000 BC and the Mediterranean in 1500 BC. A Greek ruler named Thesus, who ruled around 900 B.C., was entertained by men who would seat in front of each other and beat another with their fists until one of them was killed. Over time, the fighters in the art of Pankration fought on their feet and wore gloves (not padded) and wrappings on their arms below the elbows, but were otherwise naked. Boxing was accepted as an Olympic sport (the ancient Greeks called it Pygmachia) in 688 B.C. Keeping their fingers free, 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 held high and bent near the head, with the right arm free to hook and thrust.
In Rome, 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 fighting, but that was banned by the ruler Augustus. In 500 A.D., the sport was banned by Theodoric the Great.
Records of boxing activity disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire but it resurfaced in England during the early 18th 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. This is also the time when the word "boxing" first came to be used.
In the bare knuckle boxing of the 1800s, the guard had an extended lead arm with the arms held relatively low, with the knuckles facing downward, and the legs very straight, which was effective under the London Prize Ring Rules, which replaced the Broughton rules in 1838. Under the rules, some actions were illegal, such as butting, hitting a downed man, hitting below the belt, gouging, biting, kicking opponent's knees, and grabbing below the waist. A round in match ended whenever a person hit the canvas so rounds could be long and fights often went over 50 rounds. Various throws, such as the cross-buttock and back heel, were used when in close. The extended guard worked well under these rules and with the longer range the fighters used. Under the Broughton Rules, the hands of the guard were held a little higher than under the later London Prize Ring Rules and the legs had more spring in them.
Little is known about the guard used by fighters and fighting rules before the great English pugilist Jack Broughton, a student of James Figg, devised the Broughton Rules in 1743. Broughton also invented "mufflers" (padded gloves), which were used in training and exhibitions. Under the Broughton Rules, not much was considered illegal when compared to the London Prize Ring Rules so a higher guard and quicker stance was necessary. There were no limitations against butting, gouging, kicking, or hitting below the belt. The rules mostly just kept a boxing match from becoming a wrestling match.
Until the use of gloves became common, pugilists struck mostly with a vertical fist because it was considered less injurious to the fist to hit with a vertical fist than a horizontal one, especially when using hooks or swinging punches. However, they used a horizontal fist when the target warranted it, such as to the side of the neck. 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.
Due to the confrontations American soldiers had with Filipino natives in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898, the guard was raised from the low knuckles downward position to the higher knuckles forward position. When engaged in hand-to-hand combat, the Filipinos would slash the wrists of the extended arms of the American soldiers.
The wearing of gloves in a boxing match is a fairly modern innovation. Prior to 1866, when the Marquis of Queensbury Rules made the wearing of gloves mandatory, boxers fought bare-knuckled. Gloves, or “mufflers” as they were called, were used only in sparring. One may think that fighting bare-knuckled, would cause significant damage to the fist. A common injury among modern boxers 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 in this way when engaging in street fights.
However, the risk is significantly reduced through the biomechanics of throwing a bare-fisted punch. Old style pugilism, which was built primarily on linear action and emulated the thrust of a swor,d 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, and maximizes the striking surface by using the whole fist and not just the first two knuckles. Even when throwing a “rounding blow,” which is the ancestor of today’s hook, the vertical fist was used – either normally or inverted. Punching with a vertical fist provides fewer places in the arm for energy to “get lost” (like a bent elbow or wrist), and it provides more protection for the arm as a whole. The result is that that more kinetic energy is realized as force, and is distributed evenly across the fist. This 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 an advocate of the three-knuckle, vertical punch, as it worked well with his "power line" theory (similar to the Wing-chun centerline theory).
However, 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 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 are held close to the body to easily tuck and cover. 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.
The older guards, or “attitudes,” were far more extended because the fighters could not rely on the extra protection gloves provide. They needed to block many blows farther away from their bodies. This is particularly true for shots to the head, which could not effectively be blocked with the modern tuck and cover. Combatants needed time to react and parry, having little protection close in. Therefore, the distance in bare-knuckle pugilism was considerably longer than in today’s boxing, being fought just outside the range where each antagonist could hit the other without moving his body or feet.
Increased distance was also significant due to another major difference between modern boxing and bare-knuckle pugilism—grappling. 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. Grappling is difficult to do while wearing gloves. Other techniques included putting an opponent in chancery (a headlock), and landing blows until he yielded.
When the Queensbury rules made wearing the gloves mandatory, they also established timed rounds and disallowed grappling. Therefore, combatants no longer needed to worry about avoiding the throw, and could afford to come in close to deliver blows that were more powerful, such as the hook and uppercut.
Gloves also made certain disreputable techniques impossible. One such technique was gouging, using one’s fingers to injure the opponent’s eyes. Despite gouging being outlawed even prior to the Queensbury rules, it was still sometimes practiced. Another such move, although perfectly legal up until the Queensbury rules, was that of holding an opponent by the hair and beating him until he could no longer fight, as was the case when Gentleman John Jackson severely punished Daniel Mendoza in their 1795 prizefight. These techniques are not possible while wearing gloves; however, thumbing was still a problem.
Boxers have used the corkscrew (twist) punch for years. Norman Selby was born October 13, 1872. By the age of 17, he had become a pro fighter and took the name Charles "Kid" McCoy. In 1897, McCoy won the middleweight boxing title by a knockout over Dan Creedon. He moved into the heavyweight class, and was knocked out by Tom Sharkey in 1899. In 1903, a new light heavyweight division was created and McCoy battled Jack Root for the title. He lost and began a downhill slide.
McCoy used a "corkscrew" punch and claimed to have invented it. Muhammad Ali later used a similar technique and claimed he invented it.
The following references have more information on the vertical punch used as used in early boxing:
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: http://ahfaa.org/ [2005, December 18].
Historical Pankration Project. [Online]. Available: http://www.historical-pankration.com/article-training.html