The Evolution of Great British Sports

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Among the sports beloved in the UK, there are a number of games that showcase the sheer physicality and strength of spirit possessed by our athletes. Some of them, like boxing, utilise full-contact ferocity. Others, like gymnastics and rowing, prize strength and coordination.


All of these sports are on show this summer, but it’s the sheer growth of each that is impressive. Whether it’s the records being broken or the athletes competing within them, each has changed heavily since they began.


Boxing is one of the world’s oldest sports – and has been an established sport from as long ago as 688BC. However, the sport has witnessed heavy change since its early inception that has impacted all of the athletes who compete.


Originally boxing had no time limits or weight classes, making it a far more difficult – and dangerous, sport.

  • Longest boxing match: 111 rounds, or 7 hours 19 minutes, in 1893 between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke. (Fight was declared a no contest)
  • Largest bodyweight disparity: The largest weight difference ever recorded 211lb/95kg when Carl Chancellor (440lb) took on Ahmed Abdin (229lb) in 1994. The smaller man won by knockout in the fifth round

The growth of athletes

Despite the addition of weight classes to boxing, there are still huge disparities in the upper weight classes. None are more obvious than in the heavyweight division, where there is no upper weight limit. At amateur level, super heavyweight replaces this. However, the size and weight of the men who have won titles has changed a lot over the years.

  • In 1987, Mike Tyson held the WBA title belt. He defended it 8 times, over 1073 days. He stood 5ft 10(178cm), with a reach of 71 inches (180cm)
  • In 1997, Evander Holyfield held it. He stood 6ft 2.5 inches (189.2cm) with a reach of 78 inches (198cm)
  • By 2007, the belt was held by Nikolai Valuev, who stood 7ft (2.13m) and had a reach of 85inches!
  • The current champion is Tyson Fury, who stands 6ft 9 inch (206cm) and has a reach of 85 inches
  • In just 30 years, the heavyweight champion’s height is now almost a full foot taller, with 14 extra inches of reach


However, different champions have different heights and weights – so averages must be looked at:

  • Throughout the 1980’s, the average stats of heavyweight champions were a height of 6ft 2/188.9cm and a reach of 78.6inch/199.7cm
  • In the 2000’s, this had increased by 2cm to a height of 191cm/6ft2 – but reach had fallen to 77.7inches/197.6cm
  • Since 2010, the rise of far larger heavyweights has become apparent. The average has moved up to a height of 6ft3/194.2cm and a reach of 78.8inches/200.2cm


Of course, at amateur level these stats may differ – but it seems certain that as the years have gone by, successful boxers have grown larger. If you’re looking to gain weight, this article is great as it will help you build muscle and size.


Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history, stood just 5ft11 (180cm) with a reach of 67 inches (170cm.) Compared to today’s average, that’s 0.4 ft or 14.2cm shorter with 11.8 inches less reach!

Rugby Union

One of the most famous British sports, Rugby Union frequently captures the world stage. However, it has changed heavily since it was officially created in 1863. Thanks to growing safety regulations, increased nutritional knowledge and increased demand, players have grown larger and stronger.


During a game of rugby, players tend to cover anywhere from 2,500m to 9,000m – and generally average around 22 bouts of high-intensity effort per game, where their speed exceeds 6.7 metres per second.


To reflect this, we’ve seen a huge shift in player strength. In 1994, the average England player was 92.3kg – but by 2014 this was 105.1kg, an increase of 13kg, or 2 stone!


However, in Rugby Sevens, speed is key. The average weight of the current Great British Rugby Sevens squad is 92.9kg, which is a 11.6% decrease – illustrating the need to drop weight for speed.


Rowing is common throughout Britain, from university teams powering down rivers to amateur clubs showing their strength. With ancient roots, the first modern rowing event was held in 1715.


Rowing is split into two weight classes – with lightweight dictating an average weight of 70kg for men and 57kg for women. In openweight (or heavyweight) this limit doesn’t apply – and shows off how rowers have grown.


In 2006, the BBC reported that in lightweight rowing, the average height for men is 180cm, with women standing 170cm. In openweight, this number is around 190-195cm (6ft3-6ft5) for men and 180-185cm (5ft11-6ft1) for women.


By 2016, the current British squad comprises the following averages – in the lightweight class, men are 183cm tall on average – a 3cm increase from 2006. In openweight, men have an average height of 193.7cm, on the taller side of the 2006 averages.


A sport most British people associate with other countries, weightlifting is becoming popular thanks to university clubs and increased awareness. Despite funding cuts and other problems, weightlifting as a sport is still one that constantly grows – especially when it comes to the weights being lifted.


In 1936, the 67.5kg division saw world record totals set at 342.6kg. The current weight class shift now pushes that division to 69kg – with a 357kg total achieved in the year 2000. That’s a 15kg increase in 64 years!


A record was just broken in 2016, a 307kg total at 56kg in bodyweight. That’s an increase of 2kg from the one set in 2000.


As the years go by, it seems all of these sports are growing. With better understanding of sports nutrition, physiology and technology – it’s inevitable that we will continue to see improvements as the years go by. The only question that remains is: how far will they grow?



About The Author

Following the birth of his son in 2009, Paul was unfit and sluggish. Since then he's been training using a range of exercise techniques and gained some valuable information over the years. Events he has completed to date are Total Warrior, Pier To Pier, Bamburgh 10k, Hamsterley 10k, Blaydon Races, Newcastle Stampede and over 50 parkruns. In 2012 he created his own challenge called the '12 Days of Christmas.' He raised over £1000 for Percy Hedley by running 60 miles to celebrate their 60 years. In 2013 he ran the '12 parkruns of Christmas' with friend Lee Nyland. The pair raised over £1400 for the Tiny Lives Fund.

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