Punching Technique – When And How To Use Each Punch

‘Straight hitting gets boxers plums’ – Joe Gans

Welcome to our second article on punching. Our first article examined the different punches, their mechanics, and how to generate power while maintaining defense. This time we look at strategy, how to set punches up, and when and why each punch should be used.

Using The Jab

Boxer throwing a jab

Jabs come in a few different forms. They are thrown a lot, often not with the intent of hitting your opponent hard. Though jabs can be powerful, they are more typically used for two alternate reasons.

One is to measure distance. It is your longest weapon (as a boxer) and if you are only just hitting your opponent, you know that you can land with just a short forward movement. Should your jab not need to extend all the way, you know that you are close, and either need to attack or retreat.

The other reason might be to set up other punches or simply distract the opponent to be able to land another punch or combo.

Having measured the distance, you will know what you can land with. If you have already thrown a lot, you can disguise your entry movement with it, jab at the opponent’s eyes to hide your advance, or get a predictable reaction to counter off.

Knowing what your opponent will throw before they throw is important, so getting predictable reactions is extremely valuable – I don’t remember who first said it, but if you’ve seen it, it’s already too late to react to it.

And of course, the jab is a weapon in its own right. It’s not a knockout tool, but if your opponent doesn’t respect it then they’re going to be in trouble. A jab to the face does damage (if just a little). Use them to harass the opponent, and effective offence with the jab often leads to effective offence with other weapons.

The jab should be your most used punch. Develop it, for measuring, for setting up other punches, and for delivering quick blows. It is low energy, low danger, and critical to know.

When to use the rear straight (wrongly called the cross)

Cross punch in boxing

This is your standard power punch. It's a classic and most certainly the second most used technique here. The rear straight trades just a little range and safety of the jab for a dramatic increase in power. It forms an integral part of many combinations, and while very few people have been knocked out by a jab there are a lot that have been knocked out by a rear straight. The main disadvantage of the technique is the distance it has to travel to get to the opponent - this is also the reason that you are able to generate so much more power, so unfortunately this can't be avoided. That distance does make it more easily countered, however, hence the loss of safety, so ensure your rear straights are set up well with jabs. Naked rear straights don't end well.

If you’re not using a jab to set it up, you need to employ the right straight as a counter. This is the classic usage, to ‘cross’ the jab. The options you have for using this as a counter are broad, but generally speaking, you need to rely on head movement (either slipping to the outside or looking to pull and counter) to keep weight on the back leg so that you can properly push into the straight, and to ensure that you are throwing before they are back in position. People will expect you to throw back so you need to beat them to it.

For southpaws, there are slightly different rules (also applicable when fighting southpaws). The open stance created by an orthodox and a southpaw fighter makes a different dynamic, and it becomes about the battle for the lead foot. If your lead foot gets to the outside of theirs, you know not only that you are in position to throw the rear straight, but also that they are out of position to throw their own – the distance and the angle is just off.

As a general rule, use straights (jabs and rear) to advance on an opponent and to keep them off you. They are safer than hooks and keep you out of harm’s way, so if you can land them, throw them. This will also force the opponent into the ropes more effectively, being a more ‘push’ like motion than a hook. If you are being forced to the ropes yourself, look to use straights also. Again, it pushes the opponent, this time off you, and will provide you space to work.


Hook in sparring

Hooks are an interesting tool. On one hand, they are extremely powerful, providing a twisting shot with a high delivery of power. On the other, they are a more drawn-out punch for the distance they operate over and can leave you quite exposed.

For all their danger, the left hook is one of the most used punches in boxing and makes up one of the big three. This is often due to the way it is used. If an opponent is stepping in, they bring themselves nicely into the range of your shot and negate a lot of the hard work. The left hook, now at the correct range (and closer to the opponent than the rear hook) is a very quick punch to launch.

They work beautifully as counters to either right straights, as you can slip to the outside and in an excellent position, or against rear uppercuts, as both punches are at the same range, but the left hook will reach its undefended target sooner, and your arm will get in the way of your opponent’s attack.

One time to not use hooks is when the opponent is retreating. The lead hook is an excellent weapon when you are retreating as you can pull your head out of danger while punching, but your opponent may look to move forwards if you do not keep the pressure on them, and hooks will not provide that pressure. Once you have forced them back with straight hitting, and they are in the ropes or are forced to respond, that’s where the hooks can come into play.


Uppercut punch

Uppercuts are risky punches and need to be employed with care. They accentuate the effects of the hook, with a longer delivery time, but even more potential for damage.

Why a longer delivery time? Well as described in the punching form article, you need to lower your level, lower your hand even further, and launch the punch from there. Bringing your hands this low gives the longest time that your guard will be removed in order to deliver a technique, so you need to be careful when firing it off.

Why more damaging? Well, it moves in a different plane to where guards typically are. Hands and shoulders frame the sides of the face, and as such defend punches coming from the sides and front much easier. If you shoot a naked uppercut the opponent is sure to see it coming, but hiding it as a counter to loop underneath a straight punch is a beautiful way to launch it out of view of the opponent. And that’s the main time I would advise using it – if you are able to slip to the outside of either a jab or a rear straight, and use the uppercut underneath their punch, you will have a fantastic chance of success.

The one time you can launch a naked uppercut is when in very close. This is because you won’t need to track an opponent as far. If they don’t have the time to move away, the distance that your punch covers is significantly less. Therefore, it can be a very effective option to uppercut when your opponent is against the ropes, or if they are covering up and you are able to step in close, the opportunistic uppercut can come.

Body Shots

Boxing bodyshot

I'm going to group both hooks and rips here because strategically there's not much difference between them. The only really differentiators are where they are in relation to you, and where their defenses are.

These are short-range weapons and as such need to be thrown with care. They need to be delivered from close up, often from a clinch, and should you be able to crowd your opponent against the ropes all the better - keeping them in the corner prevents them from moving out of range, and forces them to use short-range attacks of their own. You can use shots to the head to open up body shots, and vice versa.

One interesting quirk of body shots is their stamina-sapping ability. Many people find themselves unable to catch their breath after receiving a few. Consider investing in these early, and it will pay dividends by attacking their ability to do work.

The one punch in this category that might stand out is the left body hook, aka the shovel hook. This targets the liver – a large, vulnerable target in the side of your opponent – and is likely responsible for more finishes than anything other than punches to the head. It’s also safer to throw, as a slip to this side brings you away from major weapons when in close. Ensure you are safe though – your hands still drop to deliver this shot, so you need to be careful about how and when it is done.

Corkscrew Jab

Throwing a corkscrew jab

The reasons to use the corkscrew are twofold. One is to bypass your opponent's guard and work underneath it. It’s not the most powerful shot but it is at an interesting angle and can upset the way that your opponent is looking to carry themselves.

The second reason is as a more deceptive move. The start of loading a corkscrew can look a lot like an uppercut. Any punch that looks like another can mess with how your opponent reads the fight. It’s also a lot quicker to throw than the uppercut - as such, you can use it to gauge reactions, and work out how to advance next. Anything that misleads the opponent is something you want to exploit.

It’s a relatively safe punch and is not likely to knock anyone out, but mixing it in can create some interesting openings and opportunities.

Overhand Right

Overhand punch

The overhand right is not a commonly thrown punch. You need to be careful about when you use it, as the time taken to connect with the target is long despite the punch being relatively straight. Set it up well, and if your opponent is standing too tall and you want something to go over their guard, see if an overhand right will do the trick. Tall standing opponents are sitting ducks for the overhand right, and will soon fall out of that habit. It pairs nicely with the corkscrew as a punch that comes at another odd angle to provide variation to your attacks.

Takeaway Thoughts

Boxer being knocked out

The most useful punches by a mile are the jab, rear straight, and lead hook.

One thing to bear in mind is the differences between your arcing shots and your straight punches. Straight punches are good for applying pressure, for either keeping your foe back or for forcing them into a corner. Looping shots are less safe, but provide more devastating shots at short range and can be brilliant when set up properly. Focus on delivering the straight shots, and the curving ones will come.

When you are punching, always stay defensively sound. That’s why it is so hard to pull off extended body combinations – your guard is not in position. That’s also why you want to focus on the straight punches – they keep you out of danger and are quicker to throw.

Your main target is, naturally, the head, but it is not the only one. Body shots in general will sap your opponent’s stamina, and a left hook to the side of their body will impact the liver, which has ended more than a few fights. Practice, hit what you can, and don’t get hit.

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