The Martial Art of Boxing

By Tom Shook - Published in 2005

Most people, even fighters, don’t think of boxing as a martial art. Boxing is a western sport and has no place in practical martial arts discussion because there is no carry over into a combat or self defense situation, or so most people believe.

Nothing could be further from the truth when discussing the practical value of boxing. The sport is a simple one for beginners to learn; yet the complexities make perfection nearly impossible to attain. It can take a lifetime to master the sweet science.

From the very start, a novice boxer is taught to fight. He will learn to throw crisp jabs and straight right hands (assuming an orthodox fighter). The fundamentals will be stressed and practiced repeatedly until they become second nature. It is during this early learning period that fighters are instructed in a proper stance, covering up, footwork and throwing punches without telegraphing them. New fighters will quickly move to hitting the punch mitts, heavy bag and double end bag while practicing their punches. This training reinforces the need for balance, coordination, control and accuracy.

Compare this approach to the more traditional martial arts. Novices are usually taught to stand in a very impractical stance, which would leave them vulnerable and defenseless in a real world scenario. They are taught to punch from a low hand position, and usually introduced to an intricate blocking system that relies on specific strikes being thrown at the practitioner in order to respond with the appropriate defense. Rarely does a novice martial artist throw at strike at a target other than air, and his movements appear awkward and mechanical.

Boxers learn effective combination punching drills and they develop hooks, upper cuts and feints. At the same time they are also learning defensive skills such as slipping, ducking, bobbing and weaving and parrying. It is quite common for a boxing coach to throw “counter punches” while holding the mitts for a fighter. This reminds a fighter to pay attention to defense, even in the midst of launching an attack or following through with a counter. A boxer soon understands the importance of returning his hands to the guard position after throwing a punch or else he will be painfully countered. All the while a boxer is moving around the ring, improving his footwork and timing as well as improving his defense in a natural and free flowing manner.

In boxing, there is a heavy focus on physical conditioning that is not as emphasized in more traditional martial arts. Boxers will perform exercises to develop strength, speed and stamina. They will develop the ability to fight longer and harder, to continue to fight while fatigued and to absorb blows from their opponents. The importance of being able to “go the distance” is stressed early on in a boxer’s career.

Boxers devote a lot of training time to sparring. Here they will put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. At first the sessions are conducted a slower speed and with lighter force or contact, until the newcomer gets used to the fact that he is going to be hit. It takes a lot of doing for someone to get punched in the face and ignore it while continuing to move and look for openings to deliver his own shots. It takes discipline and practice to maintain composure while under attack. The late Bruce Lee was once quoted as saying that “you learn how to fight by fighting.” He hit it right on the button with that statement.

When sparring, especially with more lively sessions, a fighter will learn what does and doesn’t work. His style will develop naturally, based on his own unique physical attributes. For example, a tall fighter with long arms will usually gravitate towards fighting from the outside and basing his attack off of a crisp jab. A smaller but quicker boxer may learn to slip and weave to the inside before launching a vicious barrage of punches. Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion, was a prime example. Despite being relatively short by heavyweight standards, he was able to use his speed, footwork and constant head movement to work his way inside of the reach of taller opponents. Once inside, Iron Mike would throw short, devastating punches to the body and head. This is a level of fighting skill that few could ever hope to achieve.

Through sparring, boxers will also learn the most important skill of all for a successful fighter…relaxation. Any inexperienced fighter has a tendency to tense up when in a threatening situation. It is not uncommon to see novices and more experienced fighters alike that are so tense that they are not effective. It is only when a fighter learns to be relaxed and fluid in the ring that he becomes proficient. When a fighter is tight, he will rapidly become exhausted; likewise a tight fighter is a slow fighter. Most traditional martial artists do not spend enough time actually fighting to ever learn to fully relax and move with grace and fluidity against a real life opponent.

While the overall arsenal of a boxer seems small in comparison to some other martial arts, it is easy to see that one cannot mistake quantity for quality. The longer it takes to decide which technique to use, the slower your response time becomes. It would seem then, from a practical point of view, that a few well-practiced moves would allow a fighter to be fast and effective. Boxers spend most of their time drilling the fundamentals and practicing them in real fighting situations. They develop keen reflexes and an instinct for timing. This ability to react without thinking comes from countless hours of training, and not from memorizing any sort of pre planned moves. The natural, free-style manner of boxing leads to the development of fighting skills that are unparalleled in the martial arts community.

Boxers are well equipped to handle themselves in most self-defense situations. It is very difficult to contend with an opponent that is constantly moving and throwing multiple blows in rapid succession. He hits with precision and power and avoids punches while positioning himself to counter. A boxer has the stamina to continue fighting at a rapid pace long after most well conditioned athletes would have become too exhausted to defend themselves.

It is not my intention to discredit any martial art or its practitioners; I am simply pointing out the strengths of a well trained boxer. The sweet science has a lot to offer a person looking to learn how to defend himself even if he were to never compete in the ring.

I have been boxing for over twenty years and my skills are slightly above average. I recently attended a few classes at a more traditional martial arts school. What I learned was astounding. I learned that you could achieve black belt ranking without being either in shape or able to fight! I saw supposed experts throwing punches that were telegraphed, off balance and ineffective. I was taught a blocking system that was so complicated that a ten-year-old girl was able to punch me in the face while I tried to remember which was the right move to block her punch. I was told that eventually I would learn to “just react” and my technique would be effective. Now, I know the value of being able to react without thinking about it, but apparently my reactions were not correct.

I was made to feel like my style was wrong and useless because I did things that weren’t in the play book, such as feinting a jab and throwing a straight right directly behind it (apparently this is a foul because it “throws off your timing’)-so much for the need to be unpredictable. When I questioned the rationale behind dropping your guard to block a low punch, instead of absorbing it with the elbows, I was told that my technique wasn’t powerful enough to hurt my opponents punching arm. Two things came to mind 1: I wondered if the black belt had ever landed a hook to someone’s elbow…ouch! 2. I also wondered if the over hand right that my opponent should throw next would be powerful enough to knock me on my ass, especially considering that I had no ability to defend against it now that my lead hand was guarding my knees.

The culmination of my education came at the end of the night when I was asked to spar with one of the black belts. This particular gentleman spent about five minutes explaining to the class why I was going to be dazzled and defeated by his technique. Apparently he was attempting to illustrate the fact that boxing is grossly inferior as a fighting art.

I actually made a sincere effort to bow out of the sparring session. I really had no desire to get into a testosterone-induced test of skill and manhood. I was assured that he would “go easy on me”. I decided to go with the flow and see what happened. My opponent had size over me; I’ll admit that much. He came straightforward with well planned and well telegraphed strikes. He didn’t really use much in the way of movement or combination punching though, just a lot of screaming (what the hell is all that about, anyways?) and head hunting.

The end came pretty quick, I’m sorry to say. I slipped one of his haymakers to my left, and countered with a tight left hook to the body. Now, I was being pretty kind here as I kept my hands loose inside my gloves and just threw with the intention of making contact. Think of tapping here folks, not hammering! Anyways, it didn’t matter; he went down like a bag of dirt. I was so shocked that my soft pedaling body punch dropped him that I just stood there for a second, he was right…I truly was dazzled! I quickly came to my senses and helped him up. I thanked him for the lesson and beat feet out of his gym. I don’t think I’ll be going back there any time soon, even if I’m invited.

If I had one piece of advice for this gentleman or any other aspiring fighter for that matter, it would be this: Do your sit-ups and your roadwork, and watch some of Mickey Ward’s fights on tape. Where I come from the only belts that matter say things like “MIDDLEWEIGHT WORLD CHAMPION” on them and you gotta earn those the hard way. As my friend Ross Enamait likes to say: “No teammates, no timeouts, no place to hide”. Who can argue with that?

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