Origins of boxing and its history in southeast Asia
The sport of boxing went through a lot of changes since it adopted the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in the mid-1800s to become one of the world’s most popular spectacles. This piece will tackle the history and origins of boxing, as well as its growth in Southeast Asia, specifically in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Although different forms of hand-to-hand combat were practiced in many places around the world and in various periods of history, boxing as we know it started with prizefights that were held in Great Britain in the 16th century. The sport was then codified in 1867 with the Queensbury Rules, its landmark provision being that fighters should wear gloves.
The first recognized world heavyweight champion is “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who defeated John L Sullivan in 1892. Its introduction in the Summer Olympics in 1908 gave boxing more recognition as an amateur sport, transforming it from an illegal gambling operation held in seedy locations to a formal athletic discipline.
Professional boxers, on the other hand, gained prestige by winning titles. Bob Fitzsimmons, who became famous for beating Corbett, was the sport’s first three-division champion (middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight) and holds the record for being the lightest heavyweight champ at 165 lbs.
Notable boxers in history
Many more distinguished boxers followed suit, from prolific pugilists such as Henry Armstrong and Willie Pep to heavyweights like Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. The following is a short list of popular boxers and a brief recap of their career:
Sugar Ray Robinson
Real name Walker Smith, Jr, he started boxing as a pro at age 19. His career spanned 25 years, retiring in 1965 with more than 170 wins and above a hundred knockouts in about 200 fights. Robinson had a 91-fight unbeaten streak from 1943 to 1951 and was a champion in the welterweight and middleweight divisions.
It is hard to find someone who is not familiar with the former Cassius Clay. He was an Olympic gold medalist at age 18 and a heavyweight champion at age 22. Ali was known for his exploits inside and outside the ring, from his eloquence in his trash-talking to making public his political stances and opinions. His rivalries with other boxing legends like Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson continue to be talked about today.
“Sugar” Ray Leonard
A flashy boxer known to throw a flurry of punches to defeat his opponents, he is a five-division champion who carried the sport in the 1980s. Leonard only had 40 bouts in his 20-year career, but almost each one of them is a classic. His most memorable fights were against Roberto Durán, Thomas Hearns, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Arguably the only other boxer who can match Ali in controversy is “Iron Mike” Tyson. He had 58 official fights in his on-and-off 20-year career, finishing with a record of 50 wins (44 by KO), six losses, and two no contests. Tyson was on a rampage in his younger years, amassing a 15-0 record in his first calendar year as a pro. He then won his first championship in November 1986, 20 months after his debut, when he was just 20 years old.
“PacMan” revitalized the excitement in the lighter weight classes of boxing in the 2000s. A champion boxer for four decades, he retired when he ran for president in the 2022 Philippine elections. Pacquiao had 72 fights, winning 62. The only eight-division titleholder in the sport, his gallery of conquests includes Marco Antonio Barrera, Érik Morales, Juan Manuel Márquez, Oscar de la Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, “Sugar” Shane Mosley, and Adrien Broner.
Notable boxers in Thailand
Thailand is a regional power in sports, and this includes boxing. The country has an impressive list of world champions, including Chartchai Chionoi, Eagle Kyowa, Khaosai Galaxy, Pone Kingpetch, Saensak Muangsurin, and Samart Payakaroon. From 1990s and onwards, some of whom reached the pinnacle are Sirimongkol Singmanasak, Yodsanan 3-K Battery, Chatchai Singwangcha, and Fahprakorb Rakkiatgym.
The country has a long-standing rivalry with the Philippines both in pro and amateur levels. In fact, Medgoen Singsurat dealt one of Pacquiao’s losses in the latter’s storied career.
Notable boxers in Malaysia
Malaysia is not really known as a boxing hotbed, but several high-profile events have been held there. Ali defeated Joe Bugner to retain the WBA, WBC, and The Ring heavyweight straps at Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. More recently, Pacquaio upended Lucas Matthysse at Axiata Arena, also in Kuala Lumpur, in 2018.
Nevertheless, there is one Malaysian boxer who inspired a pound-for-pound great to pick up the sport. There is a story that Floyd Mayweather, Jr saw 1998 Commonwealth Games gold medalist Sapok Biki perform and was influenced to box himself.
As for pro champions, Muhammad Farkhan Haron has held crowns in the lightweight and cruiserweight divisions.
Notable boxers in Vietnam
With the lines between amateur and pro boxing getting blurred, Vietnamese boxers have taken advantage of this to both earn more as prizefighters and still get to represent the country in competitions.
Nguyễn Thị Thu Nhi is the first Vietnamese boxer to win a world championship, after she stopped Tada Etsuko in October 2021 to claim the WBO female mini-flyweight title. She then went to carry the flag at the 2022 IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships.
Meanwhile, Trương Đình Hoàng and Trần Văn Thảo have held intercontinental titles and medaled at the 2021 Southeast Asian Games. WBA Asia’s minimumweight champ Lê Hữu Toàn recently became the Viet boxer to reach the top ten rankings of the WBA.
Notable boxers in Indonesia
Indonesia has had several world champs, from Ellyas Pical and Nico Thomas to Muhammad Rachman. Presently, there are two Indonesian world champions, Tibo Monabesa and Daud Yordan.
Their most popular title owner though is Chris John, who was featherweight crown holder from 2004 to 2013, the second longest reign in that division. His 16 defenses are also the second most in that weight class.
The country’s peak in amateur boxing came in the decades between the 1970s and 1990s. The introduction of women’s boxing in the 2000s had Indonesia reaching the podium sporadically since then.
There you have it, an abridged history and origin story of boxing.