Mokomoko was an ancient Hawaiian boxing sport. Very little is known about this sport, with most knowledge of it coming from eyewitness accounts before its extinction in the 19th century. From these accounts we can ascertain that it was a brutal boxing sport, often leaving the athletes seriously injured and occasionally leading to deaths.
Mokomoko may be accurately described as a very prideful sport. A seemingly inseparable part of these traditional boxing matches was a sort of boastful exchange before the actual competition. The athletes would flex their muscles, brag about their skill, and insult their opponent, often touting their own inevitable victory. If a crowd had gathered, such as during the Makahiki festival, it would typically split and take sides, bullying the opposing side’s champion with more insults. Even more in line with this prideful theme, the athletes reportedly never dodged an attack during the match. Rather, they would deliberately receive each of the opponent’s blows, returning their own in between.
As Hawaii had no written language prior to European contact in the 18th century, there is no recorded history of mokomoko throughout this period. As such, it is unknown at what point in time this boxing sport began to develop. Since the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have been settled from the 4th century AD, the sport could theoretically date to a similar period, though this is speculation. Because Captain James Cook (1728–1779) and his crew witnessed mokomoko after their discovery of Hawaii in 1778, the sport dates back to that period at the latest. It would not be unreasonable to assume that its practice stretches back at least a few centuries beforehand, following along a similar theoretical timeline with ancient surfing and he’e holua (lava sledding).
With increasing missionary influence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, traditional Hawaiian sports and games such as these started to decline in popularity. As traditional Hawaiian culture continued to unravel, these sports were driven to near extinction by the mid 19th century. While some of them underwent a resurgence in the late 19th and early 20th century (surfing, as a prominent example), mokomoko fell out of practice completely.
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Before beginning the mokomoko match, the boxers would typically engage in a bout of boasts and insults. While this may have been intended to intimidate the opponent, accounts of mokomoko matches imply a more lighthearted tone to these squabbles (though this contrasts the bloody nature of the sport). At the start of the match, the two athletes would begin exchanging blows with closed fists, primarily aiming at the head. Neither opponent dodged these blows, and sources conflict as to whether blocking was allowed. Some sources suggest the contestant could not block in any way, and had to receive the blows uninhibited. However, most sources suggest that the athletes were allowed to block using closed fists only, essentially punching the opponent’s fist. This is further reinforced by accounts specifically noting that mokomoko boxers would repeatedly punch each other’s fists, resulting in frequent broken arms.
The bout continued like this until one of the athletes was no longer able to continue. There is no indication that either boxer could submit to end the match; rather, they would continue until one was maimed, unconscious, or dead. A few accounts indicate that the winning fighter would remain in the kahua mokomoko (“place of boxing” – typically a simple clearing in the midst of spectators) to fight the next challenger, though this may not have always been the case.
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Kent, H. W. (1986). Treasury of Hawaiian words in one hundred and one categories. Masonic Public Library of Hawaii.
Wichman, F. B. (2003). Nā pua aliʻi o Kauaʻi: ruling chiefs of Kauaʻi. University of Hawaiʻi Press.