Understanding Boxing Skill

By: Monte Cox

Thanks to Rick Farris for his many contributions made to this article

What attributes make one a masterful boxer? What classifies as boxing “skill”? Contrary to what some fans might think true skill in boxing is not athletic ability. There are two main qualifications that make one skillful in boxing; the first is the ability to think in the ring, and the second is a boxer’s sense of timing and distance. If a boxer has ring smarts and the ability to correctly gauge and judge distance then he has the potential to be a successful boxer. It is these attributes that allow him to use his physical assets and boxing style to be triumphant in the ring.

Legendary trainer Ray Arcel once asked one of his fighter’s “What is your best weapon?” The fighter replied, “My left hook.” “No”, said Arcel. The fighter thought for a moment and said, “Then my left jab, because it sets up all of my other punches.” Arcel again shook his head no. “Then what?” the fighter asked. Arcel pointed to his head to give the correct answer. “Boxing” he said, “is brains over brawn. I don’t care how much ability you’ve got as a fighter. If you can’t think, your just another bum in the park.”

Benny Leonard, the great lightweight champion of the teens and 20's, was just the type of fighter that Ray Arcel considered as one who knew how to think in the ring. “Benny Leonard was a picture,” said Arcel, “He was the one fighter I thought who could name the round with anybody. He could make you do things you didn’t want to do. If you were a counterpuncher, he would make you lead. If you were aggressive, he made you back up. He knew where to hit you. He knew all the vital spots, the solar plexus, and the liver. He knew all the spots. If you look up his record, you will see he always fought good fighters. If you didn’t know how to fight, nobody would match you with Benny Leonard.”

There is an old saying in boxing, a great boxer plays chess and the average boxer plays checkers. The ability to outthink an opponent is a timeless skill and the greatest fighters have this ability. A boxer wants to create doubt in his opponent and make him second-guess himself. A great boxer like a chess master plans his moves by setting up his opponent, takes advantage of tactical errors with pinpoint sharp-shooting, and uses combinations when his opponent is on the defensive. He positions himself where he makes his opponent think he is just out of range and catches him coming into his perfectly timed counterpunches.

A highly skilled boxer is one who is a master of distance. Joe Gans, “The Old Master”, said, “Timing and distance are the two most important words in boxing.” The well-known sportswriter of the period Ben Benjamin described Gans as a master of these qualities writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, “He rarely wastes a blow, his judgment on distance being almost perfect.”

Today, we see a lot of guys who do not really understand the skill of judging distance. They move away with the intention of getting beyond their opponents range, but in doing so, they also place themselves out of the range necessary to score effectively. Younger fans tend to identify the runner as a "boxer" style. This is not true; a boxer is a master of distance, not a marathon runner.

Footwork is important in boxing. One can spring forward with an explosive jab to close distance, or move to one side to keep an opponent from getting set. But footwork is not the only type of movement in boxing. A boxer uses movement to make his opponent miss, and give himself the opportunity to counter. There are many forms of movement in boxing besides just fleet footwork.

Moving the hands, feinting. Moving the head, bobbing and weaving, slipping and ducking by bending at the waist to remain in punching position are all effective types of movement in boxing. Jose Napoles and Roberto Duran are good examples of boxers who used rhythm and motion, without jumping around, while always remaining in position to counter.

There are many forms of defense besides using footwork to get away from punches. There is glove and elbow blocking, parrying, shoulder blocking, slipping and ducking all of which allows one to stay in effective punching range. One of the greatest exponents of glove and elbow blocking was lightweight champion Joe Gans of whom it was said, "There never was a fighter who could block with such skill and precision." Jack Johnson was called by veterans Nat Fleischer, Charley Rose and others as the "greatest defensive heavyweight" because of his skillful glove blocking. Benny Leonard previously mentioned, as well as light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran were also highly skilled at blocking and parrying. Some modern examples of good glove blocking could occassionally be seen in the bouts of Evander Holyfield and Oscar Delahoya. The aged George Foreman showed adept blocking and parrying skills in his second career. Famous fighters who have demonstrated good elbow blocking and shoulder rolling include Archie Moore, and more recently Floyd Mayweather Jr. All of these techniques involve upper body movement and can be used to evade punches while remaining in position to counter.

Some kids think that Muhammad Ali was a “defensive master.” When one hears this it is hard not to laugh. Ali was a phenomenally gifted athlete, but do not mistake his athleticism for boxing skill. Ali had incredible physical gifts, fantastic speed, a great chin and the heart of a warrior, but he had no defense.

Once Ali slowed down and the wheels had gone flat, all Muhammad had was that strong chin, that big heart, and his experience to rely upon. Those were the factors that made Ali great and kept him in the game after his best days. Ali was great, but he was not a great defensive boxer.

Although Ali was very popular and promoted the sport of boxing like no one before him he was also a negative influence on boxing in many ways. Ali was a one of a kind original that could not be duplicated. No one before or since Ali has had his rare combination of physical gifts. Many a young boxer who tried to mimic Ali were setting themselves up for failure.

Ali was a great boxer in that he did understand how to think in the ring, he knew how to cause doubt in his opponent’s. Ali was also a master of judging timing and distance. He was often able to slip punches with the slightest movement of his head. He had great boxing ability but fundamentally he was a flawed masterpiece. He held his hands low and he didn’t know how to block punches. He knew Joe Frazier’s left hook was coming and never did learn to block it. Ali didn’t know how to block a jab. This is evident against even slow-handed fighters like Henry Cooper and particularly in the Ken Norton fights. Ali leaned away from punches, a tactic that could be suicidal against a smart boxer who could feint. He also dropped his right hand before throwing an uppercut from the outside, which is a strict no-no. Ali made so many technical errors, but he got away with it because of his unbelievable gifts. Ali fooled people into thinking that dancing and circling is what comprises good defense in boxing, when good defense involves head movement, skillful blocking, slipping, and other tactics not simply relying on moving away.

Many mistake Ali’s rare natural ability as “running.” But a great boxer isn't a track star; he's a master of deception. He'll make things appear one way, and then will show you something different. A boxer sets traps, a runner avoids contact, and hopes that the frustrated opponent will make a mistake and leave himself open for something. Ali, it must be noted, did far more than dance and run. He was a master of timing and distance. Besides Ali, not many fighters had his natural ability to get away with his unorthodox tactics.

In contrast heavyweight champion Joe Louis was a near fundamentally flawless boxer. Louis held his hands in perfect position, kept his chin down and was never off balance. Because of the success of Ali and a misunderstanding of why he was successful, many boxing observers take Louis lack of quick foot movement to be a fault in his style. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joe was a master of distance and deception. Louis used his footwork to put subtle pressure on his opponent’s and then would take small steps back to draw his opponents into him. By pressing forward he would close the distance and then by stepping back Louis would appear vulnerable, but when his opponent’s moved in they were setting themselves up for his lethal counterpunches. Joe Louis hit you twice as hard as you were coming in.

A runner is not a true “boxer” because he does not understand the nature of boxing. A great boxer is one who understands distance and throws perfectly timed punches, whether he is at close or long range. A great defensive boxer is one who makes an opponent miss and makes him pay, and does so by staying in punching position either by stepping to the side, slipping and countering, or blocking and countering. Those tactics define the sport of boxing.

When a great boxer makes an opponent's punch miss, he follows up on his opportunity with a perfectly timed, perfectly distanced counter that not only scores, but also does heavy damage. Instinct will cause the opponent to hesitate before attempting that same move. Hesitation can be fatal to a boxer, and cost him the fight. Suddenly, the opponent has been disarmed of one of his tools, his instincts will automatically tell him not to try that again. Making them miss and making them pay. Outthinking one’s opponent. That is the essence of understanding skill in boxing.