The History of Boxing Punching Bags





The first documented case of a modern-day fighter using any type of equipment to punch in training is in the late 1870’s, when Middleweight Champion Mike Donovan was seen hitting a rugby ball he had hung from the ceiling. Known by the nickname, “Professor” or “The Professor” didn’t reflect a college education but referred to his complete mastery of the art of boxing. Donovan was a pioneer of tactics and strategy and spoke about his invention in a book he wrote in 1893.  


"In the fall of 1877 I was living in Troy, N. Y., teaching a large class of students of the Polytechnic Institute. In my leisure hours it was my habit to call on my old friend and advisor, James Kiloran, who kept a hotel there. One day, while chatting with him about my prospective match with William Mc-Clellan, I noticed a round football on a shelf. I took it down and began bouncing it with one hand and then the other. While doing this, all of a sudden the idea came to my mind that it would make a better punching ball than the big heavys and bag that was used by all pugilists and athletes at that time." - Prof. Mike Donovan, “Donovan’s Science of Boxing”


His device was quickly adopted by other fighters and over the subsequent 10-15 years, punching bags evolved, taking on many different forms. Donovan’s football/rugby ball contraption is what became the contemporary speed bag.  It provides the same type of head target and bounces back, but with the added benefit of a swivel and platform. With ball bearing swivels, instead of rope, this invention requires quicker reaction time and is geared more toward developing reflexes. His book was copy written in

1893 and he mentions inventing 16 years prior. That means that it was, realistically, invented around 1877.


The more modern version likely began in the early 1900’s when Jack Johnson was first seen using this type of bag, although it was much, much bigger back then.


The speed bag was, originally, meant to provide eye-hand coordination, muscle development and to even out the dominance of one hand over the other.  Now it is incorporated more for the development of speed, timing, and accuracy.



Another popular “spin-off” of Donovan’s original design is the



This piece of equipment gained widespread popularity in the 1950’s when combination-puncher Sugar Ray Robinson was seen working it with masterful speed, rhythm, and fluidity.

You can see many earlier images of the double end bag, where it looks as much like a converted soccer ball as it does a more modern double end bag, but Sugar Ray made the boxing world take notice.


The only difference between Donovan’s original creation and the more contemporary double end bag is that today’s bag is attached to the floor by a rubber cord limiting its range, movement and subsequently creates a bag that better imitates the movements of an opponent. These bags were, also, initially much bigger to focus on muscular development.  Today, most that you see are smaller, so the focus is on developing better timing, hand speed and combination punching.




Although The United States Office of Patents and Trademarks awarded a patent for the punching bag to Simon D. Kehoe in 1872, we really didn’t see what we would consider a modern-day heavy bag, in use, until around the time of “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and later Jack Dempsey.  Oddly enough, Corbet was called the “Father of Modern Boxing" because of his scientific approach and technique, so it’s not surprising that he would be considered one of the “early adopters” of the use of a heavy bag.


Most common heavy bags were, typically, constructed of canvas or leather, due to the durability of those fabrics.  They would have, also, been filled with sand, grains or even sawdust.  

From the onset, it was mostly about using readily available materials, that provided weight, somewhat simulated a life-like feel and could be used to replicate a realistic fighting experience. 

Over the years, heavy bags have advanced some in design, with the use of high-end leather and advanced synthetic materials that are now available. 


Most contain a foam liner and shredded fabrics that are better for your hands and provide more shock absorption, improving in, both form and functionality.




The Maize Bag first originated in the early 1900s. 

In the early 1900s punching bags were constructed of canvas sacks that were, specifically, filled with corn. That’s why they were called “maize bags.” 


What differentiated this bag from the others was its unique feel and the way it moved. 


At that time, fighters used this bag, because the canvas shell was soft, and it allowed them to feel the contents of the bag.  

The corn inside also moved, absorbed, and formed around each punch. 


The maize bag provided a very life-like experience and allowed the fighter to sink each punch into the bag without damaging his hands.




Reflex Bags go as far back as the 1900s and heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Early versions of the Reflex Bag had cast iron bases with a leather bag, mounted to a wooden base. The base, then, contained a tension spring inside that would make the bag recoil and bounce back into place when it was struck. Images also exist of Henry Armstrong on a more modern design that has an iron base, loaded down with sandbags.  The center pole, again, features the internal tension spring for its recoil.


The Reflex Bag has become more and more popular in recent years due to its intense action.  It requires a fighter to focus, utilize their hand speed and head movement. Its design also makes it a fantastic tool for developing punching endurance and stamina.