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Who Was the Marquess of Queensberry, and How Did He Change Boxing?

If you’re a new spectator to the world of boxing, you’re about to see what raw courage, ambition, and sheer physical skill, strategy, and agility are all about. Human beings have engaged in fistfights for all of our known history, and boxing became an Olympic event in the days of ancient Greece. But the choreographed artistry of the contemporary version of the sport is in a category by itself.

Modern-day boxing, as played by the fair sporting code known as the Marquess of Queensberry rules, has only been around since the latter half of the 19th century.

Chambers’ rules, Queensberry’s imprimatur

In 1867, John Graham Chambers, a member of the Amateur Athletic Club in England, came up with a new set of rules that aimed to improve on—and especially, gentrify—the sport of boxing. Under the patronage of John Sholto Douglas, the 9th marquess of Queensberry, Chambers’ rules went further toward making boxing a gentleman’s sport than had the London Prize Ring rules of a previous generation.

Chambers’ main idea was to elevate individual skill and technique over the simple wild physical crushing of an opponent. While bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fighting continued, the Queensberry code gradually won the allegiance of boxers, fans, and authorities, and the first prize fight held under the Queensberry rules took place in 1885.

Making the ring more sportsmanlike

Chambers’ rules revolutionized the sport of boxing at both the amateur and the professional level, not least because before his changes, any type of professional boxing was actually illegal in England. Most people at the time saw boxing as solely a “lower-class” affair, something to be avoided by anyone in polite society.

They weren’t wrong about how genuinely rough the sport was: Fights often spilled out of the confines of the designated time and place, turning into free-for-all brawls. With Chambers’ rulebook, privileged people were able to enjoy a boxing match without running the risk of being ostracized by their social circle.

The main provisions that distinguished the marquess of Queensberry rules from their predecessors were the use of padded gloves instead of bare knuckles; the requirement that any contestant who went down get back up again without assistance before the fight continued; the stipulation that “wrestling” was not allowed; and the codification of a round as three minutes’ active fighting followed by a one-minute rest break.

The Queensberry code

The Queensbury code includes 12 rules as follows:

  1. 1. To provide for a fair fight, the ring needs to measure 24 feet, or as close to that size as possible.

  2. No “wrestling or hugging” are permitted.

  3. A “round” is three minutes long, followed by a one-minute rest period before the next three-minute round.

  4. A fighter must get up unaided when knocked down and has 10 seconds to do so while his opponent moves back into his own corner. A round continues once this has been accomplished. If the fallen fighter isn’t able to get back on his feet without help, the referee is authorized to declare his opponent the winner.

  5. The definition of “knocked down” includes the situation when a fighter hangs against the ropes, toes off the ground, unable to pull himself back into standing position unaided.

  6. For the duration of a round, the two contestants are the only people allowed to be in the ring.

  7. A match must end in a clear win and loss, unless the backers of both contestants agree to declare the match a draw. Therefore, any unavoidably interrupted fight must be continued at a later time and at a designated place, according to the referee’s determination.

  8. The boxers’ gloves must be new and of high quality.

  9. Any replacements for gloves torn or otherwise unusable during a match must meet the referee’s specifications.

  10. A fighter brought down to one knee is considered to be technically “down.” This means that, if his opponent hits him in that position, he is entitled to claim the “stakes” in the prizefight, due to his opponent’s unfair actions.

  11. Any type of springs on boxers’ boots or shoes are disallowed.

  12. In every other aspect, the rules of the revised 1853 London Prize Ring Rules remain in force.

An eponym with feet of clay

Generations of earls and marquesses of the Scottish house of Douglas have borne the Queensberry title. The first earl of Queensberry, Sir William Douglas, received the title in 1633. In 1858, John Sholto Douglas (1844 - 1900) succeeded his father as the ninth marquess. The eighth marquess died in a shooting accident; it was widely believed that he took his own life after losing a considerable part of his fortune on a horse racing bet.

John Sholto Douglas served in the Royal Navy and the Royal Army and represented Scotland in the House of Lords for eight years over the course of the 1870s. Loathed by his contemporaries as a vain, abusive, braggadocio, John Sholto Douglas showed his love of the sport, and earned Chambers’ confidence, by sponsoring three prize cups in a boxing tournament in 1867.

In addition to his public championship of the boxing code named in his honor, this ninth marquess may be just as famous thanks to the romantic relationship his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, carried on with author Oscar Wilde. It was the ninth marquess who sued Wilde in court, leading to the writer’s conviction on charges of, in the phraseology of the time, “gross indecency.” Wilde’s public downfall also led to his creation of one of the great poems of the English language, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The writer published the work in 1898, after his release from the prison of the same name.

With a sense of supreme irony, then, we can thank the otherwise apparently reprehensible ninth marquess of Queensberry for indirectly inspiring both a masterpiece of literature and the more humane code that forever elevated the sport of boxing.


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