Here’s a question I get asked a lot: how effective is boxing for self-defense?
The easy answer: it’s very effective.
It’s just as effective as any combat sport that teaches full power striking, defending against such attacks and then sparring hard to see what it’s like. In a nutshell, those are the three main components that make boxing such an effective tool for self-defense:
- You learn to generate knock out power in both hands with a variety of techniques from different ranges.
- You learn to block, slip, parry, dodge and evade those attacks.
- You practice both of the above in a live fire situation against an opponent who does his best to hurt you.
Those are the critical aspects if you want to use boxing for self-defense. If these three are consistently present in your training, then I believe you have the start of something worthwhile. However, that doesn’t mean you should go out and try to fight in the street exactly like you would in the ring. As I wrote here, here and here, (if you browse through my blog you’ll find many more entries on this topic) you should always consider the context of the art or sport you practice and compare that to the new context in which you want to use it. I’ve written at length about just that so I won’t link to it here. If you want to read all those articles, you might enjoy getting the paper or digital version of my latest book. It has all that and more.
Back on track.
How effective is boxing for self-defense
I’ve said this in the past and I’ll repeat it now: you could do a whole lot worse than to begin your training for self-defense with Western boxing. I’ll even add to this the following: you haven’t been punched until you’ve been hit by a boxer. Nor do you know punching until you’ve learned to box.
Here’s a story from my sordid youth:
After I came back from competing in my last world championships (I’d decided to retire beforehand), I trained with another member from the national team at his boxing gym. He was a boxer at heart before he started with Chinese martial arts and he’d invited me there. It was the kind of gritty, low-rent gym you find in such a bad part of town and I was the only blue-eyed pale-face there. Putting it differently: everybody was highly motivated to spar with me…
To make a long story short: I got my ass handed to me. They landed punches at will and I had a very hard time scoring anything on them. I left that gym tired and sore all over.
I learned a key lesson though: I had been depending on kicking techniques too much and discovered just how much more work I needed to do on my hand techniques. As a result, I spent a lot more time studying boxing techniques and gradually got better. I’ll never be a true boxer (nor do I aim to be one) but at least I can hold my own now.
That one session in a boxing gym taught me the value and strength of Western boxing and I’ve only seen this confirmed ever since. Many people have the bias that Eastern martial arts are more effective than their Western counterparts but I believe this is not entirely accurate. Western boxing is a prime example of that. Just to put this into perspective: the Chinese Army incorporated it into it’s curriculum, at the expense of locally developed training methods.
Given as there were plenty of Chinese martial arts styles available, this is testimony to the effectiveness of Western boxing. Especially if you know just how nationalistic the Chinese can be at times, but I digress again…
I already explained the three main reasons why boxing works so well in the street, but there is more. To illustrate this, here are some videos of actual fights so you get a better idea of what I mean.
The old boxer and the drunk
Take a look at this video and then read my comments below:
The drunk/idiot goes up to “champ” and seems to be looking for trouble. What happens next is an example of a well trained boxer using his techniques effectively for self-defense:
- Ready-postion. Champ is already in a bladed stance before the first blow is thrown. He drops into his fighting stance while he throws the jab.
- Precision. His jab lifts the guy’s head slightly back and sets up a perfectly placed right straight punch, right on the button.
- Combinations. Boxers can throw devastating knock out blows but what makes them so dangerous is that they think in combinations. One punch sets up the next and so on. The basic 1-2 combination you see here is perhaps the first thing every boxer learns and you can see why: it works.
All of these factors combined make this older boxer so effective: he’s ready to strike as soon as his opponent steps into range and when he does, he does so with speed, accuracy and overwhelming force.
The Turkish boxer against the crowd
Here’s another video that’s been making the rounds for a long time now.
Take a look:
In this video, you see a well trained boxer knocking down four attackers, which is impressive by anybody’s standards. Allegedly, the whole fight started over an argument of who has right of way and if this is true, then it’s a stupid way to end up having to fight. That said, I’ll only look at the actual boxing techniques he used and why he is so effective with them:
- Footwork. This boxer has very good footwork: he spends almost the entire fight moving backwards without stumbling or missing his punches. This is extremely difficult; most people start tripping themselves up after a handful of backward steps. This guy even manages to generate decent power while retreating, which is even more difficult.
- Balance. This flows from the footwork but you can see that he is never really off balance. Despite the fact that he moves quickly and backward all the time, he never slips or wobbles. Look at any number of street fights and you’ll see just how rare that is.
- Distancing and timing. This is related to the previous two bullets: his skill in those areas allows him to time his punches correctly and fire them from the right distance. As a result, he knocks people out or down with single blows. Again, while being on the retreat.
Mind you, he’s lucky that nobody pulls a knife and stabs him in the back but you can’t argue that he uses boxing for self-defense in an impressive manner.
The pissed off ex-boxer
This video is a little different, it’s not as much about self-defense as it is about retaliation.
Again, I won’t go into the legalities of this altercation, that’s beyond the scope of this article. I’ll only comment on the technical aspects:
- Body mechanics. An underestimated aspect of Western boxing is the body mechanics it teaches: they are very good. In this case, the boxer uses his hips and structure correctly to generate a lot of power in a relatively short strike. You see the bully’s head snapping backwards and his body still going forward. He’s literally knocked off his feet.
- Connected technique. This is partly because of the body mechanics but it’s worth mentioning specifically: the ex-boxer’s arm doesn’t flail. It doesn’t move independently from the torque he generates with his body. This is the hallmark of good boxing technique and what is very often lacking with traditional martial artists who don’t train like boxers.
Drawbacks of boxing for self-defense
With all this, you might be wondering about the old saw of “You’ll break your hand when you punch a guy in the head so you can’t use boxing for self-defense!” and rightfully so. This is one of the critical flaws in modern boxing: many gyms don’t teach how to strike bare-knuckle anymore. Some still do, I know, but a lot of them have stopped doing so completely thanks to the advances made in manufacturing good boxing gloves and also by taping the hands extensively.
On the street, you won’t have those things to protect your hands so your punches need to be calibrated correctly. This takes specific training. It isn’t difficult, you just have to drill it until you own the technique.
A couple of the other drawbacks are:
- The sports focus. Many of the most effective techniques are fouls in the sport of boxing. What makes you a good boxer is fighting within those rules. Training to ignore those rules and going for all the dirty techniques takes as much practice as not doing so.
- Lack of grappling and leg techniques. In old school boxing, this wasn’t the case but today, boxers don’t focus on grappling and kicking techniques anymore. Instead, they specialize in striking with their fists. This limits their arsenal and potential effectiveness.
- Multiple opponents. Despite the example I gave here above, boxing isn’t meant to be used against multiple opponents. On the contrary, it is a dueling system geared for one-on-one fighting.
- Weapons. Boxing is an unarmed sport; it has no techniques against an armed attacker. This is a crucial element for street self-defense and needs to be addressed.
If you adapt what you learn in a boxing gym with those points in mind, you will quickly find out how to tweak your techniques and skills to improve your game for self-defense. I don’t think this is all too difficult to do but it does take some training. Unfortunately, this kind of training is likely to make you less effective in the ring or could even get you disqualified for fouls. So think wisely before starting on that path.
Is boxing good for self defense? Yes it is.
Boxing is a very pragmatic sport: if it doesn’t work, boxers don’t use it. Sure, you can argue over certain details but as a whole, the sport of boxing is a great base to start your self-defense training. The key factor lies in adapting it to the context of street violence and self-defense as I explained above. Boxers tend to be just as convinced their techniques are applicable in any context than traditional martial artists are. I think that’s a mistake you should try to avoid.
Instead, take whatever you can from boxing and add it to your own training. If you don’t want to do that, at the very least spend some time going to a boxing gym. But most of all: spar with boxers. They will educate you in ways you will not expect and show you the flaws in your skills when you least expect it.
Just one thing though: wear the headgear when you spar. Getting knocked out sucks.
If you’re looking for some additional information on boxing for self-defense, give these books and videos a try.
- Joe Louis’ How to Box by Joe Louis. Some old school boxing methods by Joe Louis. Basic stuff but good for beginners.
- Championship Streetfighting: Boxing As A Martial Art by Ned Beaumont. This is one of the first books on boxing I bought and it helped me a lot to get started. There aren’t a lot of illustrations but the text is clear and detailed.
- Combat Sanshou: The Punishing Chinese Fighting Art: Part One, Striking by, well, me. This video set goes into extensive detail on how to use your arms for self-defense. Part of the base of these techniques is boxing, but it goes well beyond that into the realm of techniques that are illegal in a boxing ring.
- Extreme Boxing: Hardcore Boxing for Self-Defense by Mark Hatmaker. A video that covers all the basics of boxing for self-defense. Nothing fancy, just good basics and a lot of clear instruction with attention to detail.