(An excerpt chapter from the book, Boxing In The Time Of Christ, $5.99 at amazon.com.)
Xenophanes, from the modern Menderes, Izmir, Turkey (circa 500 BCE): “If one owns a victory by the swiftness of foot, or in the pentathlon, where the grove of Zeus lies by Pisas’ stream at Olympia, or as a wrestler, or in painful boxing, or in that severe contest called the pankration, he would be more glorious in the eyes of the citizens than others. (The Olympia champion) would win a front seat at assemblies, and would be entertained by the city at the public table and he would receive a gift which would be a keepsake for him. If he won by means of horses he would get all these things although he did not deserve them, for our wisdom is better than the strength of men or horses. This (false glorification) is indeed of very wrong custom. Nor is it correct to prefer physical strength over excellent wisdom. For if there should be a man in the city good at boxing, or in the pentathlon, or in wrestling, or in swiftness of foot the city would not on that basis be better governed. Small gain would it be in any city when a citizen conquers at the sporting games on the banks of the Pisas, for this does not fill with wealth its secret chambers.”
Euthymos was born circa 505 BCE in modern Locri of the Provincia di Reggio Calabrio, Italy. Pausanius mentioned that Euthymos might have been the son of Astycles, although adds: “Local legend, however, makes him the son, not of this man, but of the river Caecinus, which divides Locris from the land of Rhegium and produces the land of grasshoppers.” If those are my choices, that either Euthymos was the son of Astycles or a river – of course, I choose the former. It is likely that Euthymos was from a wealthier family and from youth was realized to have size, strength, shoulders and longer arms that would be ideal for boxing.
Meanwhile, there was a confused 50 year-old former politician from the modern Shandong province of China named Confucius. Only a decade earlier he had been a know-it-all academic scholar with a love of cataloguing historical music. He was a well-organized man which was a trait that he carried his entire life, but perhaps a bit scandalous in youth. There was some sort of illicit affair with a woman but the details are unclear. Confucius changed from a conceited person who had all the answers into someone claiming naivety and only asked questions.
The Master Speaks
“I used to spend
And whole nights
In order to meditate
But I have made no progress –
Study, I found, was better.”
Theagenes was born circa 500 BCE on the Greek island of Thasos. He received early public attention as a juvenile delinquent. Most boxing champions were products of wealthier families who hired trainers. It was hinted by Pausanius that perhaps Theagenes was a bastard child – which is not proof – but fathers abandoned impregnated women thousands of years ago as they do today. There is no way of knowing what internal forces motivated the behavior of Theagenes to make him such an angry boy – and later an angry man. Pausanius: “The Thasians say that Timosphenes was not the father of Theagenes, but a priest of the Thasian Herakles, a phantom of whom in the likeness of Timosphenes had intercourse with the mother of Theagenes.” A pattern of Theagenes which made him unusual was a personal quest that was almost messianic that he would be viewed after Achilles as the world’s greatest athlete in history, along with utter disregard or concern that people like him personally.
At the age of nine, an oversized Theagenes openly defied society’s rules by stealing a bronze statue or item that he admired from a market and placed it on his shoulders for home. There are hints that whatever he stole was enormous for even an adult to carry – and this was a mere child. Pausanius: “The citizens were enraged at what he had done, but one of them, a respected man of advanced years, bade them not to kill the lad.” Apparently, the man spoke with Theagenes and convinced him to return the stolen item – likely with an apology. There is no suggestion of a father or mother speaking to the nine-year-old, but this stranger instead which calls into question whether the future celebrity athlete was from a traditional sporting well-to-do family unit.
Meanwhile, a 60+ years-old, formerly wealthy Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama had abandoned his princess wife, Yasodhara, and child due to depression over inner-angst isolation for a vow of poverty and self-awareness. Sitting under a banyan tree with favorite milk-rice meal he battled his inner-demon, Mara, to become an idealized soul. Siddhartha not only wanted to advocate lack of ego or addiction to materialism, but actually be that person. Successful in his quest, he was reduced to begging for food so that he could understand humbleness. His father, King Suddhodana, was aghast and allowed his son and followers into the palace for a feast. Siddhartha’s movement was spreading with its theme: “Dukkha can be avoided and Nirvana achieved – via meditative self-awareness.” Siddhartha was re-named the Buddha; he who has realized the truth.
The best boxer during the formative years for Euthymos and Theagenes was Philon from the Greek island of Korkyra. Philon was a 2-time boxing champion of the 500 BCE and 496 BCE Olympia. A statue was built in tribute for Philon with the description composed by Simondes: “My fatherland is Korkyra and my name is Philon. I am the son of Glaukos, and I won two Olympia victories for boxing.”
Kleomedes, from the Greek Island of Istanbulya (Astypalaia), killed Ikkos of modern Epidaurus, Greece during the 492 BCE Olympia. The umpires disqualified Kleomedes for “foul play” so that Ikkos, in death, was declared the victor and champion. Kleomedes was overwhelmingly distraught not to be awarded the prize. He returned to Astypalaia, and enraged over his Olympia failure pulled down a pillar, with his great strength, that held the roof of a school. Sixty children were crushed and smothered to death. Local citizenry were understandably outraged and began pelting the boxer with stones. Kleomedes fled for safety until placing himself inside a heavy chest. Astypalaian’s were initially unsuccessful with their attempts to open the chest and slay the child-murderer. Finally, they pried the chest open only to find the boxer was not there. Astypalaia locals sent envoys for advice from the Priestess of Delphi who told them, “Last of heroes is Kleomedes of Astypalaia. Honor him with sacrifices as being no longer a mortal.” It appeared that the missing Kleomedes was dead, but without body as proof. The citizens of Astypalaia did as told and began to worship the boxing disgrace and child-murderer as a hero.
Fotius (circa year 870 in Constantinople which is modern Istanbul, Turkey): “Diagnetus the Kritian boxer, winner in a competition, did not receive the crown but was even attacked by the Eleans because the adversary whom he had defeated and killed was called Herakles – like the hero. This Diagnetus is honored as hero by the Kritians.” The 2014 Grecian Olympics Committee recognizes Diagnetus as the boxing champion of 488 BCE. The Olympics were meant to utilize sports instead of war as healthy alternative. For a boxer of one city to kill another from a neighboring region would create understandable outrage. It could perhaps lead to war which is why Olympia rules usually disqualified the killer and awarded the championship (Olive Wreath) to the dead man – such as Ikkos. Diagnetus likely killed his opponent – if that’s what happened – at another boxing event. It would be normal, unfortunately, that Diagnetus’ local island, Kriti, would still view him as a hero and winner of the bout. Then and now – pugilist fans are proud when the boxer they like kills another in the ring, but are outraged when a boxer they dislike does the same. If Diagnetus, as a boxing champion, had killed another during a bout it would only emphasize the winner of the following Olympiad as hero.
In 484 BCE, Euthymos was officially recognized as the greatest boxer by winning the championship at Olympia. The official prize was an Olive Wreath with adulation from throngs of strangers. There is always a section of boxing fans that loves its thugs – loves its villains – loves the idea of bullies because it is personal fantasy for themselves. But boxing is dependent on its heroes for continued survival. Pugilism has faced extinction for thousands of years until along comes a slugging villain to revive its popularity – followed by a hero boxer to retain argument that it’s a legal sport with redeeming social value.
By the time Euthymos won his boxing championship at the 74th Olympiad, the Buddha was approximately 80 years-old and nearing death. The United States of America would not exist for nearly 2300 years, but conservative radio hosts would probably attack Siddhartha as a dangerous ‘radical’ liberal. He certainly espoused and practiced a movement that was the conservative antithesis of his time. He would ultimately encourage democracy and women’s rights. Siddhartha’s aunt and her friends became the first women to be officially accepted as nuns with recognition of their equality. Siddhartha did not fear death – and joked about it – with his only concern that the movement continue without corruption. Originally, the Buddha was supposed to be a transitory figurehead. But Siddhartha feared corruption if one man had too much power so he espoused that he would be the only Buddha and that majority votes should rule rather than smaller groups with greater power.
Confucius at 70 years-old (481 BCE)
“Observe your fellow man
Understand his reasoning
Where his chief interest lay
If you understand him
How can he hide –
His true personality?”
Confucius, as an elder statesman, continued to generate controversy amidst his popularity. He refused to accept that he was a philosopher, but merely an outspoken observer of life. Any celebrity gains enemies along with friends. Those skeptical viewed Confucius as false-prophet who never actually said anything profound. Supposedly, at a gathering of both admirers and skeptics, Confucius pointed amongst the crowd and announced: “The least intelligent of you is more intelligent than me. Only I am better read and speak my thoughts aloud.”
Whether Euthymos as boxing Champion held an ego or Theagenes was jealous of the Locri’s fame – the two had some sort of verbal confrontation at the 480 BCE Olympia before competition began – with result that Theagenes spitefully entered the boxing event specifically to battle the defending Champion. Longevity of a legendary boxing bout is enhanced by scandal or controversy. It appeared at the outset to be a hero versus villain battle – and the wrong guy won.
Theokritus wrote in the 3rd century BCE of an exchange between a taunting challenger versus the champion.
CHALLENGER: “Up hands fight me – man against man.”
CHAMPION: “Fisticuffs is it or feet and all? Mind you, I have a good eye.”
CHALLENGER: “Fists be it, and you may do all your best and cunningest.”
CHAMPION: “But who is he that I am supposed to bind thong to arm?”
CHALLENGER: “You see him nigh; the man that shall fight you may be called a woman, but faith shall not deserve the name.”
The boxing axiom, “Styles make fights,” has been consistently proven true. It might be enjoyable for boxing fans to theorize how one champion would fare versus another from separate eras – but you never know. Boxers and pankrationists were generally of different physical build. Wrestlers were often smaller, stockier and more agile. Boxers, such as Euthymos, would have been taller, strong upper-body with longer arms for reach advantage. Pankrationists, such as Theagenes, often fell in-between. Today, an athlete has free-will to defy stereotypes and expectations. Theagenes seems to be an unusual person and athlete. Most BCE athletes, which would likely include Euthymos, had their fates sealed within the early years of childhood. Parents and trainers decided the physical characteristics which compelled focused sports training – both athletic and moral.
Philostratus: “Thick-calved persons, according to my observation, are not fitted for any sort of contest, least of all, however, for boxing; for they are especially sluggish in kicking the shin of an opponent, and on the other hand, are easily taken unaware by kicking. His shins ought, therefore, to be straight and proportionate, while the thighs should stand out far apart from each other; for the figure of the boxer is adapted for attack if the thighs are not close together.”
Both Euthymos and Theagenes were cocky athletes who probably thought the other would be an easy conquest. Euthymos may have been successful prior with early knockouts while tiring himself when facing a guy who did concede or render unconscious easily. Theagenes clearly thought that Euthymos would be an easy knockout victim and would preserve enough strength to defeat Dromeus in the pankration final the same day.
Theokritus: “And so the twain braced their hands with their leathern coils and twined the long straps about their arms and entered the ring breathing slaughter against the other.” Hand wraps for Euthymos/Theagenes were made of animal hide. Then – as now – hand wraps or gloves were not designed as offensive weapons but protection of the pugilist’s finger/knuckles hands.
Philostratus offered some idea of boxing strategy with its popular stance. Philostratus: “It is best if the belly is drawn in; for such people are light and have good respiration. For all that, however, the belly (if it is prominent) gives the boxer a certain advantage, for such a belly hinders blows at the face, in that it checks the force of the blow.”
The “styles make fights” is maddening because the best bouts employ two intelligent pugilists outthinking one another – mental chess – or violent mental chess. Theagenes likely controlled momentum. He may have been unsuccessful with early offensive punches against someone better experienced at blocking, dodging or negating power. He might have utilized a strategy of attrition hoping his reputed physical strength and leg conditioning could withstand any Euthymos offensive power-punches. The island of Elis’ sun, heat and humidity would be an increasing fatigue factor without an early knockout.
There would be blood, gore and possibly teeth loosened. If the violence was excessive pugilists would vomit and continue. The strategy of the time leaned toward head-hunting while defense protected likewise. The kicking of shins was allowed during a period of BCE Olympia boxing but is not dated. Euthymos would have utilized his reach-advantage with punches to the face. Theagenes might have accepted the freedom to land body punches, which was not the accepted stratagem but would weaken an opponent over a longer bout. Most bouts were one-sided with a boxer dominant. It would not be cowardly, but perhaps prudent for a boxer to feign unconsciousness rather than prolong their beating.
It would have been interesting to view Euthymos parry punches. A great boxer would not flatly block a punch, but merely deflect. Theagenes likely engaged in questionable tactics such as holding an opponent in clinch or pushing Euthymos’ head down with full weight. If Euthymos held a reach advantage with superior boxing technique then Theagenes would have to be aggressive with forced inside-fighting. These antics would be illegal, but boxers have been breaking rules for over 3500+ years and will continue breaking rules in the year 5017.
Either Euthymos or his second would have to concede. Theagenes may have been successful in pummeling eyes until the blind Champion had no choice but to concede. There are various injuries that would make it impossible for a boxer to continue. Whatever their cockiness when the bout began it must have been wildly exciting for spectators when they realized the two men were in the fight of their lives unlike any bout seen previous. How tragic it must have been for spectators to witness the great hero, Euthymos, bloodied and battered into submission. There must have been awe at spectacle of the invincible villain, Theagenes, exhausted with endurance sapped. They humbled one another – at least briefly – until they could recover from wounds inflicted upon the other.
And CS asked, “Does man –
Feel guilt over obvious wrongdoing?”
The Master replied,
“Man cannot judge himself honest.
At some point –
He will excuse his self-actions.”
The 480 BCE boxing bout remains the most controversial in Olympics history. Public outrage against Theagenes must have been enormous. It could have been viewed as admirable for Theagenes to compete in the pankration following his boxing championship – perhaps losing – or likely losing since he was the one that decided he was incapable of competition. It was unfair to the declared Olympia pankration champion, Dromeus from the modern Tripoli, because it did not allow him the opportunity to compete for victory. Obviously, it unfairly robbed spectators of a pankration final with a ‘quit’ due to injury and/or exhaustion that was avoidable.
It would have been viewed as heroically flawed if Theagenes’ ego merely had got the best of him – which is exactly what happened – with an overreach of hubris ambition. Perhaps an apology or humbled confession of misguided goals would have served to soften the situation, but it is likely Theagenes was already angry with himself – angry with Euthymos – angry with public outcry – angry with Olympia officials so basically told one and all that they go to Hell.
The two great pugilist’s slayed one another – each causing the other’s only recorded loss. A default is a loss with Theagenes’ pankration final. Theagenes was officially punished with multiple fines for conduct that was viewed to have been motivated by personal hatred. He was assessed a general fine for misconduct – a second fine for “the harm done to Euthymos” – and a third fine paid directly to Euthymos. He was also banned from competition as a boxer in future Olympia’s.
Confucius’ Death (479 BCE)
CS wistfully asked,
“Do you have final words of wisdom?”
The Master replied, “No –
Just please stop calling me Master.”
At the 476 BCE Olympia, Euthymos became the first boxer to reclaim a championship. Theagenes paid his fines so that he could compete as a pankrationist. He won the championship and his second Olive Wreath. Theagenes never completely regained Olympia prominence although he performed at championship caliber as both a pankrationist and boxer (24 major victories) at other sporting competitions. Theagenes built his legacy with these other major sporting championships, but the victory over Euthymos, along with his personal misconduct, continued to be the most famous and infamous moment of his career. The popularity of these two champions was a bonus to Olympia so it may not be coincidence that it would be stretched into five days following these games.
At the 472 BCE Dionysian Festival in Athens, an approximately 50 year-old tragedian won a literary prize with an epic poem that would achieve immortality as one of the most influential ever written. Aeschylus’ epic tragedy, “Persians” takes place in the modern city of Shush, Ostan-e Khuzestan, Iran. The Persian empire of a score earlier was viewed as villainous:
But like men going to battle with resolute courage.
A trumpet with its blare set all these on fire.
At once with a united sweep and rush of oars
On order they stuck the deep water of the sea.
Swiftly all they became visible to see.
At first the right wing in good battle order
Led the array but then the whole fleet 400
Began the attack and at the same time could be heard
A great cry, ‘Children of the Hellenes, advance.’
At the 472 BCE Olympia it appears Theagenes did not compete because there is no mention of him losing while he remained dominant as the athlete of 470’s BCE decade. Euthymos successfully defended his championship cementing his legacy as one of the greatest boxers in history. Euthymos won three Olympia Olive Wreaths – all for boxing – while Theagenes won two – for boxing and pankration. It is curious that Euthymos did not compete in other major boxing events throughout 470’s BCE. Euthymos was not as motivated by fame or money as two-sport celebrity, Theagenes.
Whether Euthymos enjoyed the idolization, or felt it was out-of-proportion for those who love sports did not matter. When he entered a city, the men would shout with joy, “Hey Champ” while boys would trip over themselves to greet the Olympian hero, “It’s the Champ!” Euthymos stood as flesh-and-blood proof that anyone could accomplishment greatness – or at least dream of success and a better life.
Theagenes probably expected and enjoyed the awe and envy in eyes of others when he entered a city, but remained a focused athlete intent on winning whatever the contest. He abandoned both boxing and pankration late in his athletic career to become a long distance running champion. His career concluded with 1400 wins over various events.