The Definitive Answer To Whether Boxing Is Considered A Martial Art

Two men boxing with one man throwing a punch.

The sport of boxing has been around for thousands of years, yet today a debate still rages as to whether boxing is indeed a true martial art or a sport?

According to historical records, boxing dates as far back as 3000 BC. Has rich historical and cultural heritage. And can be used to attack or defend in a time of war or conflict. So it does appear to fit the criteria for being considered a Martial art.

So what we need to do is first qualify what exactly is a martial art? Now there are several different definitions floating around and even some misunderstanding in terms of the very origin of the term “Martial art”!

For those of us who grew up watching Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies. The term martial artist has always been associated with a fighting style that originated in the Asian subcontinent. Whether that be the Kung Fu of Lee or the Shaolin monks.

But the truth of the matter is that the term martial art was first used when referring to the European combat systems of the 15th century. In fact, it is a direct translation from a Latin term meaning “arts of Mars”, the Roman god of war. And to add to that the term “boxing” is derived from the Latin word pugnus, which means “fist.” 

So as we can see the term martial arts is not in fact a term that refers to Asian fighting styles at all! And I think that perhaps the biggest takeaway here is what people have been debating something which is already inherently western and European. As the very subject of the debate is steeped in European and not Asian history.

So now that we have established this, the question still persists! Is boxing considered a martial art? Read on …

What Technically is a Martial Art

Martial arts does not necessarily mean putting on a Gi and tieing a coloured belt. This is not how Martial arts should be exclusively viewed. The term “Martial” means military, or it is related to fighting itself.

“a traditional method of fighting or defending yourself, such as judo or karate .”

“a sport that is a traditional Japanese or Chinese form of fighting or defending yourself:”

Definition by Cambridge dictionary

By very definition, martial arts mean a method of fighting, not a particular type of method exclusive to only certain styles or certain cultures and by this definition is very much a martial art.

How a martial art can be defined is broken down into five main categories and those are:

  • Striking arts or standup striking arts.
  • Grappling arts or styles.
  • Low impact arts.
  • Weapon based styles.
  • Most recently the hybrid of styles in mixed martial arts.

The sport of boxing fits neatly into the first definition that is the striking arts. Along with kickboxing, Muay Thai, Karate, Taekwando and many more. When compared to the other arts, it may offer less complete sets of tools at your disposal in terms of striking.

But at the very same time, boxing is a fighting system that has its roots firmly fixed in ancient history. And it is a style from which many other martial arts have borrowed techniques.

The History of Boxing

The very first depictions of boxing were first recorded in ancient Sumeria. These early depictions show a version of bare-knuckle or fighting with wraps their wrists. The very first instances of recorded gloved fights come from 1500 BC and were found in Crete.

An ancient Sumerian wall drawing which shows fighters with cloth wrapped hands during a bout.
Ancient wall drawing of boxers from Sumeria

Different variations have been recorded across the Asian subcontinent from India to Egypt. In Ancient Greek boxing was a very popular competitive activity, eventually making its way into the first Olympic games in 688 BC. With no weight divisions, heavyweights tended to dominate the sport, a trend we still see to this very day.

In more recent times it has received some major changes and modernising of its ruleset when in 1743, the Broughton rules were introduced to protect fighters inside the ring. These amendments were seen as the precursor to the Marquez of Queensbury rules which until today the sport of boxing now operates.

Why is Boxing a Martial Art

In order for boxing to be considered a martial art, it needs to have certain criteria that define it as such. And these criteria seem to vary from source to source. Even world-renowned dictionaries which millions of people around the world reference have their own varying definitions.

These inconsistencies can sometimes create more questions than answers. Especially as the term martial art originated in Europe, yet is consistently and explicitly defined as a term from the Asian subcontinent.

Martial art – Noun “Any of several arts of combat and self-defence (such as karate and judo) that are widely practised as sport .”

Merriam Webster

So let us take a closer look at the criteria which define what does or does not qualify as a martial art. And if the fighting style does not fulfil these criteria, should it then be considered true?

Boxing Can Be Used In Times Of Conflict

Boxing falls under the criteria for unarmed combat in that only fists with no weapons are being used. It can and has been used in a warlike or conflict situation, whether that be on the battlefield or during other scenarios.

Boxing is effective in unarmed conflict and we have had many instances of boxers killing people with punches alone. The one drawback is how would this work against an armed assailant? As it does not use any defence against weapons, its application in the theatre of war can be limited.

Previously certain techniques such a hitting your opponent when they were down, pulling hair or gouging. Were all part and parcel of the fighting style and could very well have been used in a life and death struggle. However modern-day boxing no longer reflects the fighting style in its earlier forms.

It can also be said that other fighting styles which are defined as martial arts were themselves not designed by professional soldiers. Were never designed to be used on the battlefield. And would not be viable in a war-like situation, yet they are still considered a martial art?

Is It a Codified System

It does offer a codified and recorded system of techniques that have built the foundation of the fighting style. At its core boxing is built upon a documented set of techniques and combinations which can, in turn, be replicated by others.

Traditional western boxing fundamentals as they are now referred to date back to the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Which saw a fundamental change in how the sport operated and the rules of engagement inside the squared circle.

The famous case of father vs son and the roots for the Marques of Queensbury boxing rules.
The infamous Queensbury fight case

This recorded and easily replicable system of fighting means that the sport has since circumvented the world. And today, we can see world champions in the sport that have come from every corner of the globe.

It Offers Spiritual & Physical Development

Development in spiritual, emotional and physical attributes are very much a requirement of martial arts and boxing does involve all of the above. One of the main reasons for this is that it is a very real fighting style.

There are no overly elaborate movements or no-touch techniques. There is no requirement for the opponent to be complicit in the interaction. Boxing is a true fighting style that requires many elements of physical and mental development in order for you to be victorious.

It instils discipline and strict adherence to its rules, excellent body conditioning. That then, in turn, enhances the physical and mental well being of its practitioners.

It Preserves Cultural Heritage

As I have previously mentioned the art of boxing is one of the oldest forms of fighting which still maintains until this day. While the styles and rulesets have evolved over the millennia. At its core is still a standup striking martial art.

With its origins in ancient Egypt and Greece, the art form we know today as western-style boxing is but the latest iteration of this ancient martial art. Many of the most popular martial arts we know today are far younger. Yet there is no one who will dispute their validity when claiming martial art status.

Even martial arts such a Sanda or Sanshou, also known as Chinese boxing. Has taken elements of western-style and incorporated them into its fighting style. Showing that both Western and Eastern martial arts can and are being used in combination. Not separate, but coming together and evolving.

Why Boxing Is Not a Martial Art

The argument from naysayers is that boxing cannot be used in a war situation. And so the term “martial” cannot be applied to what is effectively a controlled sporting exercise.

Two boxers, one in green shorts and the other in blue face-off inside the boxing ring.
Two boxers facing off inside the ring

Boxing has a predefined ruleset and so in a life and death struggle, the attacker will not be limited to using this same set of rules in combat. Of course, this is also the case when it comes to several other fighting systems which are considered martial arts, but in this case, we are just focusing on boxing and its limitations in real-world situations.

Boxing Does Not Develop You Spiritually

The argument is that boxing does not develop the spiritual side, but rather just focuses on aggression. And while other martial arts like to appeal to the zen aspect of their craft. It is all about doing one thing, hurting your opponent.

Knocking out or hurting your opponent will provide a feeling of satisfaction and euphoria. But it will not lead to anything other than this short term sense of achievement.

There is no avenue for personal development in terms of a person’s spirituality. And for this reason, boxing should not be considered one of the martial arts, as it does not fulfil all of the criteria required.

Closing Argument

For me, it is evident from what we have discovered that boxing, like many other of the great fighting systems, is also a martial art. With a heritage that stretches back into ancient times, a precursor to many of the other great martial arts we see today.

It very much has its place alongside the development in fighting styles that we see across the globe. And while its closed fist application started in the ancient Middle East. Its popularity spread far and wide and was adopted and integrated into many other styles.

And while modern boxing does nowadays very much adhere to a specific set of rules. It has evolved over its long history into a sport and form of self-defence which has become one of the most widely followed and trained in of all martial arts in the world.