“Against those skilled in attack, an enemy does not know where to defend; against experts in defence, an enemy does not know where to attack.” Sun Tzu
Defensive boxing is one of the most impressive things to watch. Savage KOs make for great highlight videos, and a bottomless gas tank is brilliantly impressive athleticism, but there’s something about the slick movement and skill of defensive boxing that is beautiful to watch. Just take a look at Pernell Whitaker or Floyd Mayweather Jr. We’re going to look at some key defensive movements, explain the differences between them all, and look at drills you can use to learn these skills.
Guard, Stance, and Short Rhythm
I’ve grouped these aspects together because together they describe the way you carry yourself throughout the fight.
Stance is an expression of how you move, and how you deliver and receive punches. Evasion is a valid defense, but even more fundamentally you just need to keep yourself out of the firing line. Always move to somewhere safe, and carry yourself ready to absorb a punch.
After movement, your guard is your next line of defence. There are various ways to hold a guard, from the Philly shell to the peekaboo style. You need to find the one that works for you, but the less your hands protect your head the more you have to be vigilant and move. An interesting trade-off though is the visual aspect, whereby the more you are able to see what your opponent does, the less your hands are protecting you. The more you can see through, the more you are able to respond. Find a balance that works for you.
Short rhythm is more of a passive movement to keep you safe, and is akin to an idle movement in video games. Your opponent will have a much harder time picking a target if it is on the move, so make sure to keep bobbing and moving, just a little, to throw them off. Stillness will do you no favors.
How to drill these though? Sparring. But a lot of people will spar heavy far too much, in all combat sports. One might argue that you need to get used to taking heavy shots and testing your defenses under pressure, and I agree, but only to an extent. When someone is really trying to take your head off and you’re being pushed, you need to use your A-game to counter it. If you’re trying to learn new skills, this is not the way. You need a level where you can succeed somewhere between 60% and 90% of the time. If you’re under such pressure that your new skill is failing more than that, or if you are going to get knocked out if you fail and that happens even 10% of the time, you’re never going to try something new. Build up new skills slowly, under only slight pressure to begin with, and only increase the pressure once you’ve built up the confidence to do so. Going balls to the wall each time is not a fast track to success.
Ringcraft in boxing is the art of being in the right place at the right time. It’s being on the correct angle so that you can attack while your opponent can’t, it’s circling to stay off the ropes, and it’s being able to move to avoid being put into the corner, all while maintaining good defense and being able to strike at your opponent. Ringcraft carries over to offence as well, by putting you in a position to attack, and allowing you to control the positioning of your opponent.
In terms of drills, this is best done with a partner and inside a ring. You need to get a feel for the space and the shape, and to be able to know when you’re almost on the ropes without having to touch them. Have your partner move aggressively on you and work out the best ways to step to avoid them pinning and cornering you, and work on knowing where you are at all times.
This goes hand in hand with ringcraft. You need to be where you are strong, and where the opponent is weak, and if they are strong at certain ranges you want to spend as little time there as possible. Distance management is key to providing you with a strategic advantage.
Backing up is a perfectly valid (and almost foolproof) defense against any attack. To get out of range means complete safety, but you can’t overuse it. Backing up too much will be showing timidity and will have you penalized by the judges. Back up too far, and you will hit the ropes and be in an even worse position, which is one of the reasons you might see evasion and backing away as a more common tactic in combat sports with a more circular arena (think an octagon in MMA, versus a square boxing ring). Managing distance, therefore, comes with good ringcraft and footwork, being aware of when you need to step off at an angle and being able to do so. If you need more advice on that, check out our footwork drills post.
Aside from the ringcraft drill above, you can look to have your opponent focus on either long or short-range attacks. Practice staying at whatever distance they are not using attacks at, either stepping in to launch short-range strikes of your own, or staying far enough to be out of harm’s way.
For a fighter who wants to maintain distance, someone closing them down is massively disruptive. But clinching provides an excellent loophole in the rules, allowing them to shut down short-range offense and make the ref break action. It’s not exactly looked on favorably, but that never stopped Mayweather. Don’t be afraid to exploit the rules when you need to. Boxing is a sport after all.
Avoiding the punch
So, there are various ways to stay in range while keeping yourself out of the way. The first is ducking. Ducking is a small movement that allows you to keep your eyes on your opponent and have a minimal change in stance and guard, but is a little riskier as you will move closer in range of your opponent. It’s also only useful against straight punches – for hooks you need to weave, which we’ll look at in a second. Make sure to keep most of the movement in your legs, keep your guard up, and dip forwards a little to come under the straight punch. Most of all though, look out for the uppercut. It won’t end well if you duck into that.
PS! In the Heavy Bag Pro app, we call all the bobs and weaves simply ducks (rear and lead duck).
So, for dodging hooks you need to look at weaves. A weave is a bigger movement than a duck, and involves some lateral evasion. As the punch comes in, look to drop your level by using your legs, and then once under the level of the punch move laterally in the opposite direction to pop up behind the opponent’s elbow as it passes you overhead. You should be in an excellent position for a cross counter or a hook counter, depending on what punch you dodged. Again, don’t bend too far at the waist. It’s a common mistake that people will do, but it reduces your ability to move, puts you in a worse position to counter, and makes you very vulnerable to the uppercut. Move with the legs, not with the waist.
Pulls are a little more subtle than a weave. This is more to get out of range of a shot, whilst keeping your level the same and not having to move your feet. It would be used to avoid a rear straight, but could also get you out of the way of any other punches, to an extent. For a pull, simply move your weight back onto your rear leg whilst leaning your torso a little backwards to move your head out of range. You don’t want to make this too extreme though, as excessively moving your weight to the back leg will make it difficult to retreat any further without toppling over – this is just a little movement. If the opponent decides to chase you down, you want to be able to retreat further. A classic use of this is after a 1-2 combo, to move out of range of your opponent’s counter, before launching a cross counter of your own. With your weight in your back leg and still in an upright, striking position, you are in the perfect spot for launching a rear straight.
Slips are an excellent way to bring yourself into range for a hook or an uppercut, whilst dodging an incoming shot. Against a straight punch, lean forwards a little and pivot to the outside. This should bring you out of the line of fire of a punch, whilst also moving you closer to the opponent, and bringing your weight onto the leg you are leaning towards. From there, it is an excellent position to launch a hook or an uppercut, which can be used before the opponent returns to their guard and is ready to take the blow. Many an opponent has been caught by a looping blow sneaking around their straight punch. If in doubt, lean to the jabbing side of your opponent – if it’s a lead straight you have dodged well, and if it’s a rear straight you should be out of range.
And how to drill? Well outside of sparring light, you’ve got two key methods. With a partner, have them attack the head, slowly to begin with, and bring the speed up as you go. Coaches will often use foam rods instead of pads for this to avoid hitting their students hard, which is an excellent way to progress this. Just simulate the motion of punches, and be clear about which punch is which.
If you want something a bit faster paced, take a look at working with tennis balls and a partner. Dodging balls thrown at your head is an excellent way to develop quick reflexes and coordination, again without the threat of head trauma.
Without a partner, you can always suspend a tennis ball from a string and swing it, or use a spinning bar if you want to incorporate punches. We’ve got an article on training accessories as well if you need more guidance on that front.
A parry is a small movement, just a little tap with your gloves to change the course of an incoming strike. This will work best versus a straight punch. You just want to time your parry at the right moment, and with the correct hand. You want to use the hand on the same side as the opponent i.e. if both are orthodox, and they throw a jab, parry with your rear hand. Doing so will disrupt the guard and allow you to throw in a short, quick punch, bypassing their defenses.
If a parry is a subtle change of direction, a block is a full barrier. This will be much more useful against a hook or an uppercut, whether to the body or the head. There’s no way to gently tap this offline, so just get your glove in the way and brace. You do need to be wary of this, however, as simply putting your glove on the side of your head to absorb the blow will mean the shock comes through anyway. You want to create a structure that absorbs the energy without transferring it to the target, so make sure there’s some space between your arm and your head or body. Once the strike impacts, remember that your arm is coiled and their guard is out of position – it’s an excellent time to counter with an uppercut if blocking a body shot, or a hook if blocking the head.
Regarding drilling these, you again need a partner launching soft strikes at you. It doesn’t matter if it’s with pads, foam sticks, or just light punches, you just need to be able to clearly see what punches are coming and build up slowly. There’s no sense in shattering someone’s confidence early on, so make sure to start light and build up.
Boxing defense combos
The best boxing defense is combining it with offense. There are a lot of such combinations available in the Heavy Bag Pro app. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones:
- 1-2-pull-2: throw a jab-cross, now pull back from the opponent’s punch, finish with a power cross.
- Lead slip-3B-3: step and slip to the lead side avoiding opponent’s rear straight punch, now when you are close, throw the lead body hook, followed by a lead hook to the head. Add a rear hand punch if you like.
- Lead duck-3-rear duck-4: the opponent throws a rear hook, you duck to the lead side, when coming up, throw a lead hook yourself. Now the opponent throws a lead hook, you duck, and answer with the rear hook.
- 1-lead slip-1-rear slip-2: throw a jab, opponent answers with a cross. You slip to the lead side, throw another jab, opponent answers with a jab. Slip to the rear side and finish with a powerful rear cross or hook.