Throughout the history of gloved boxing styles, techniques and strategies have changed to varying degrees. Ring conditions, promoter demands, teaching techniques, and the influence of successful boxers are some of the reasons styles and strategies have fluctuated.
One reason why research in this area is complex is because boxing itself is a complex endeavor where no person is psychologically, mentally, or physiologically exact. No era had strange holds on particular styles of boxing. Prevailing techniques of one era overlap into prevailing styles of another as well as coming full circle around.
Stylistic exceptions to an era’s prevailing style have always existed, sometimes to a marked degree. A second reason why research is hindered is due to the comparative lack of film footage prior to the 1920’s. Here existing films as well teaching guides and other written material will be applied, but it will not be nearly as complete as later era observations. I will give a brief overview of a particular era and give some examples of an era’s particular strategy as well as exceptions.
From the beginning of the gloved era to the late 1910’s one of the most prevalent stances from the welterweight division on up was the stand up British style of boxing held over from the bareknuckle era. Boxers tended to stand erect, hands held low at long distance, often but not always, brought up higher as range shifted, weight often but certainly not always, more on the rear leg. With exceptions such as Jim Corbett, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, others, lateral movement was infrequently employed. Balance, foot placement, feinting, drawing leads, counterpunching, tieing up and mixing it with body shots along with 1,2’s, were prevalent. Two to four punch combinations along with flurries were utilized, but not at a sustained rate nor of common usage. Straight punching was used and used well, with good execution but short, compact punching was not well executed with hooks tending to be wide not tight. With technical exceptions such as Corbett and his use of lateral movement, Bob Fitzsimmons with his short punches, Jim Jeffries with his couch and compact punching, Jack Johnson with his great balance, body positioning and great defensive skills, and boxer-puncher Sam Langford who came up from the lighter weight classes; boxing remained elemental in both technique and strategy until the late 1910’s; in the welter and above weight classes.
This 1902 photo of Terry McGovern demonstrates body punching by angling outside of an opponent's blow.
There are some reasons why strategies and styles were developed by the boxers of these weight classes prior to the late 1910’s. Boxing with gloves was comparatively new and skills were still in the maturing stage, but evolving rapidly. Those boxers who did help move this along were in the lighter weight divisions where techniques have greater importance. Before 1905, boxers tended to have less professional fights than in some later eras, with limited amateur experience, and with much more scheduled 20 round bouts (or more) than later generations. (Champions who won their titles from 1900-1910 approximated 87 career bouts with at the very least 12 twenty round scheduled bouts as some ended early and not recorded to be 20 rounds; champions from 1910-20 approximated 155 bouts per career with 2.6 20 round bouts or more.) Boxers of this period did tend to be most highly regarded for their toughness, gameness, ability to “stand the gaff” to go at a fast, grueling 25 rounds or more. Power was important, skill less so; guts, steel like toughness, and endurance essential. Skill training was used less for these boxers whereas conditioning was strongly emphasized. As the heavier weight class boxers gained more experience, light weight skills came up, and the abolishment of 45 round bouts, more complex skills then began to be taught and assimilated, very quickly.
In almost stark contrast, many boxers from circa 1905 through the late 1910’s in the lightweight or below divisions often demonstrated performances of exceptional skill, as well as toughness. Stances varied from stand-up to a low crouch and everything in between. Hand placement tended to be low, but almost always brought up as needed. Lateral movement, when used, was used effectively but generally not nearly as often by circa 1920; due to length of the bouts that were filmed at that time. More lateral movement was used for scheduled 10 round bouts. One-two’s, combinations were used often with excellent execution, and then as in later eras, tended to be in the 2 and 3 punch series. Combinations and one-twos were sustained but the combinations lacked the versatility of the 1920’s and later eras. Four or more punch combinations were employed, but very infrequently. Feinting, sidestepping, cutting off the ring, body punching and flurrying were all well developed. Slipping, ducking, stopping of blows while countering with 2 or more blows were skills extremely well utilized by most of these boxers. Due to a relative lack of footwork combined with the toughness that the ring conditions demanded as well as boxing often from a short middle range, incessant trading of blows as well as the evasion of them necessitated excellent balance, body and foot positioning and proper head movement. In all these respects, as well as hard, fast, short counters to the opponents body and head with great smoothness of execution; these performances were as advanced as any in the ability to “stand on a handkerchief” to hit and not get hit too much so, as well as to withstand the punishment that came their way: round after round. As the long distance bouts faded away, so did some of the short middle “within range” boxing, lessening in its necessity and usage.
Lightweight champion Bat Nelson demonstrates a jab parry and counter-jab in this 1909 photo.
Famous boxing figure Charley Rose explained the art of in-fighting practiced in the gyms on a daily basis in the early 1910’s. “Fighters back then fought two and three times a week and couldn’t afford to get busted up. So every day they practiced how to fight on the inside – how to move in and out of clinches.” He stated, “Every fighter was taught how to edge their left or front foot towards the right, or edge their right foot forward and over to the left, while simultaneously sloping their head towards the right or left so that if the two fighters hit heads, they would come in contact with the side of the skull from the ear up which is pretty solid. Even if the skin did break, it wouldn’t affect anything as vital as eyesight. Every fighter practiced these maneuvers in the gym daily until it became habit.” This practice led to better defensive fighters that were less likely to get cut.
Veteran fighter and trainer Charley Goldman stated that boxers from his era had tougher skin for two reasons: (1) they didn’t use headgear, and (2) they’d bathe their face in brine. He said, “It doesn’t make sense to train with headgear if you fight without them. I never wore headgear and I must have had 300 fights. I don’t remember getting cut but once.” “It’s simple,” he said, “you cover something up, you protect it, it becomes tender, that’s what happens to the skin around a fighter’s eyes. His second point, “The use of brine was prevalent. Fighters such as Terry McGovern would bathe their face with brine before and after every workout. Their skin got to be real leathery. It had to be or those fellows never would have been able to fight 25 and 30 rounds.” Dr Vincent Nardiello stated, “others used a solution of water and rock salt.” Dr Nardiello also commented on headgear stating his own personal reflection when he boxed under the name of Jimmy Sheppard to earn his way through medical school. “Speaking from my own experience, when I started, there were a few times when I butted heads in the gym, and because I didn’t have a headguard, I felt it plenty. As a result, I made darn sure of my technique the next time I moved so it wouldn’t happen again. It stands to reason, that a fighter would learn the proper technique if they didn’t go in there wearing football helmets ”
By the late 1910’s, all that remained in boxing techniques to be further explored or polished were lateral movement, combination punching, and hand placement. Defense, ring generalship, feinting, counterpunching, slipping and countering, rolling, blocking, body punching, infighting, etc. already had been mastered.
By the late 1910’s, all the weight classes had these techniques and fighters were able to spend more time skill training and were no longer required to be quite so tough or conditioned, generically. By the late 1920’s combination punching or as phrased at the time, “combination fighters, “ had been further developed in both variation and an increased usage of 4 punch combinations. The final added touch of 5 or more combinations were effectively completed by 1940, as Ray Robinson turned pro. Lateral movement was immediately employed more often by the late 1910’s, as 10-15 rounds were the limit and this tactic has not shown any overall increase in usage since that time perhaps until the mid 1980’s. Compact hand placement became more normative by the late 1930’s, that is, keeping the hands high during the entire course of a bout, rather than lowering and bringing up as in range as previously employed. The looser style, with right hand in blocking position, left held lower is also still widely used to facilitate foot, body, head movement, drawing and feinting – strategically and technically from the lighter weight classes of 1905 to circa 1985, there was a mixture of aggression, counterpunching, fighting, parrying, body punching, infighting, flurrying, combinations and toe to toe exchanges. Great emphasis was placed on balancing the fluidity of offense and defense, thinking, wearing down, out smarting and/or out fighting an opponent. Many fighters tended to be well-rounded performers.
Vince Dundee shows proper form in this stance in 1929 photo.
Starting in the 1960’s, but only reaching saturation by the mid to late 1980’s, there came a different shift in strategy and technique.
From the mid 1950’s until the 1960’s, many professional fight club venues began to close. Boxers began to get more experience in the amateur ranks and turn professional at later age. Often acquiring 100 amateur bouts, most boxers received most of their experience as well as skills, in the amateurs. Combination punching, headhunting, lateral movement became increasingly emphasized while infighting, body punching, short and short middle range techniques, compact punching and a mixture of fighting and boxing began to erode. What was once fluidity and adaptation in bouts in overall offense and defensive skills had become predictable and rigid. Head shots with combinations tended to be the main course of action as one opponent would throw his combination and then his opponent his. This comparative lack of style and technical versatility remains today, as while there are many great exceptions to this strategy, there is no doubt in objective observation that prevailing “amateur” style has produced less well rounded performers and performances.
The research for this article comprised mostly of film analysis of hundreds of fights and fighters from circa 1905 to 2004. For those readers who may like to do research in this area, I have some suggestions. When possible do try to take the color out of the film by transferring film to video and then delete the color, as even color can divert attention. Sound should also be taken off. This provides much more clarity in movement, punches and overall kinetic viewing. Review all films in both slow motion study and normal speed as they both reveal insights but only a combination of the two yield satisfactory results. To do any research at all, one must constantly be reminded to simply analyze what the performers are doing and/or not doing.
The late Ray Arcel has always been my guiding light on knowledge and expertise. Further articles will be forth coming, detailing more of an individual and era’s contributions to boxing technique, style and strategy.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dan Cuoco and Tracy Callis for their valuable insights and critique of this article.
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