Boxing for self-defense, is it effective?

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.

boxing for self-defense

 

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.

Here goes:

 

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.

Conclusion

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 theflaws in your skills when you least expect it.

Just one thing though: wear the headgear when you spar. Getting knocked out sucks.

 

UPDATE:

Lots of you asked me for more about this topic and I’m happy to announce that my Boxing for Self-Defense book will be released soon. Go here to be notified of when it comes out and how to get it at the discounted introductory price. To wet your appetite, here’s the latest test cover:

Boxing for Self-Defense

“Boxing for Self-Defense”, coming soon!

Resources:

If you’re looking for some additional information on boxing for self-defense other than my book, 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.

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Comments

  1. Charles James says:

    Once, many years ago, a golden glove boxer joined my karate dojo. He wanted to spar real bad. He waited the time I wanted to make sure this was not just some boxer wanting to get in some practice at my expense.

    We squared off and began sparring. He came at me as a boxer so I reciprocated. After a few minutes he stopped it, smiled and said he was very happy to join my dojo and stayed for about a year.

    I was lucky I boxed for a bit as a youth in Florida. We got along really well and we both learned a great deal together.

    I still think I got lucky he didn’t knock me out but that bob and weave type thing helped a lot and so did my karate training.

    Great Post,

    Charles

  2. Gye Greene says:

    MIldly surprised that you didn’t mention that Bruce Lee respected western boxing highly: he apparently studied footage of Mohammad Ali, and made boxing of the the core of Jeet Kune Do — hardly a “traditional” martial art. ;)

    –GG

  3. Great Post Wim. I am glad to see a favorable detailed review of these points because Western Boxing can so easily be taken for granted. In fact, it’s fundamentals are fundamental and you did a great job of highlighting that.

    I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had a cousin, 6 years older and a Goldern Gloves boxer, who taught me to box as a teen. When I went to work in his service station my home work was 500 jabs with each hand with a large (heavy) bolt and nut each day.

    And now when I teach 7 Stair Step I point out that the forward step-push entails the body mechanics of a right/left cross. (Some may disagree with minute details but that takes the conversation beyond the needs of either me or my students.)

    Boxing training is beautiful to me and I have loved watching it my whole life. The head shots are not worth it though and I would never again train with that as a part of the deal, nor would I recommend it for someone who wants to avoid brain trauma.

    Lastly, I disagree. Bruce’s punches were very much informed by and reflect a Western Boxing influence… you can even see the Ali in them: the ability to generate force from a total sudden whole body tension that forms the “root” as much as from a contact through the actual feet which is an Ali classic.

    You did a great job of selecting clips that demonstrate the massive force generation, and your commentary highlights aspects not always appreciated by the masses. Thanks!

    • I have a friend who started boxing when he was 8. He’s in his fifties now and you still don’t want to take a punch from him. Western boxing is in no way shape or form inferior to Eastern arts. But I guess a lot of people still have the “Expert from afar” view on martial arts…

      Not knocking Bruce, I just didn’t want to bring him into the discussion as the focus was on Western arts and as soon as you mention him, most people stop thinking logically. :-)

  4. vindicator says:

    Hi there, just thought I’d make a comment on this blog after lurking and reading your articules for a while.

    Where to start………………………..? Oh I know
    “Boxing for self-defense, is it effective?”
    I’ll have to say: Yeah pretty much.
    No martial art is beating boxing when it comes to punching, not Muay Thai (or any other Southeast Asian kickboxing style), Not Wing Chun (even though it’s got great hand strikes for self defence), not Karate, nothing.
    And the reason is pretty simple. Boxing has only punches and 4 (some say 5) for of them at that: The Jab, The Cross, The Hook, The Uppercut, (some say the overhand is a different punch) and that’s it. Boxers will spend their time constantly working these punches on focus mitts, heavy bags etc.
    So boxing “attacks” are great for self defence.

    However I find that their defensive techniques and footwork aren’t all that effective for self defence.
    Stuff like peek-a-boo covering (I’ve noticed that a lot RBSD and sport martial arts are putting far more emphasis on covering type blocking! Not that it’s a bad thing,necessarily but there are many flaws in it, that don’t seem to get addressed), the bouncy type footwork, bobbing and weaving are far more suited to the boxing ring and will only get you serious hurt on the street.

    All in all Western boxing is a wonderful martial art, that does have some very effective techniques for self defence (the 1-2 or jab, cross is defo one of the most effective techniques to use in the street.) but like all martial arts it has it’s flaws.

    I defo agree with this part though
    “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.”

    I’ve been shook up more than once by boxers. Don’t worry I’ve also shaken up many boxers as well.

    P.S.
    I love your blog!

    • Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog. I agree, there is some work to be done re. boxing defense when adapting it to the street, that’s why I mentioned it in the article. It’s not impossible, just takes a little tweaking.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the caveat of gloves and wraps. Punching with closed fists to the head is usually going to get them damaged. Even Mike Tyson broke his hand in a street altercation with Mitch Green.

    And boxers usually have no idea of what to do against low kicks and knee strikes.

    So, like with many other martial arts, modifications have to be made to make it more street effective.

    • It depends, it’s not black or white. You can hurt your hands just as bad using open hand strikes to the head. This is the subject of an upcoming blog post in which I’ll go into more detail.

  6. Anonymous says:

    There is a reason why most combatives systems advocate edge of hand or heel of hand blows as opposed to closed fists. The danger of damage is far less.

    But I look forward to reading your article.

    • Ah, so if combatives systems advocate it, it must be true… I’ll include pictures of my scars from the surgery, along with the still misaligned knuckle just so you can see I’m not talking hypothetical stuff.

      • Anonymous says:

        In my experience if Fairbairn and Applegate and Cestari and McCann all recommend something then it’s usually a good idea to pay attention. As far as practicality is concerned.

        But again, I do look forward to your blog post. It should be interesting.

  7. Great post, Sir! And great comment Mr. Vindicator.

    I’d say since most folks seem to prefer head-hunting punches, boxing is a major plus. Arguing about techniques doesn’t even matter… If you don’t have experience seeing and feeling real punches, nothing is going to work for you anyway. At least not consistently.

    So, full agreement with: SPAR WITH BOXERS. You don’t have to BE one to BEAT one. But you should MEET one!

  8. j. a. mullins says:

    Boxing for self defense, hell yeah!!!

    there are still old school boxing advocates out there. find one, train hard, and have the time of your life.

    real boxing teaches a very complete system of combatives; footwork, striking, relaxation, breathing, flexibility, body mechanics, targeting, reading an opponent, offensive and defensive strategy, conditioning, and so on.

    good boxing includes an understanding of, using, or dealing with elbow, knee, footstomp, clinch, choke, and push techniques, old school boxing could be quite rough inside the ring and outright deadly outside of it. the proper manner of punching with a closed fist, sans gloves, was taught of course, but many old school guys knew the benefit of a palm slap, finger jab, or a trapping move.

    further more, western boxing has a lineage originating in the pragmatic and combat oriented traditions of europe, back to the romans and greeks. that is a fighting lineage as long as any asian martial system. boxing, like all really effective systems, is kept simple enough to be easily learned, complex enough to be adaptable, and capable of being a very enjoyable hobby for most anyone.

    I studied boxing with a man named Marco Salvia Torres from rio de janario. I met him in clarksville, tn outside of fort campbell and the things he taught me really
    changed how i viewed fighting, Marco was a very practical man, he was fifty one when we met, and he taught boxing and perfsev.

    the manner that he taught in was very effective; technique work, conditioning, sparring, and chalkboard sessions. it was very eye opening to be knocked around by something you formerly looked down your nose at. Marco had scars on his scars, stories of so-an-so who did this or that, and you generally got it that this guy was probably from the wrong side of rio’s tough street so he had plenty of practical lessons to teach his fighters.

    sadly, i haven’t kept in touch with the man in the last 15 years. but, his boxing legacy has stuck with me. i am a huge fan of hsing-i chuan, i can find the lessens i learned in Marco’s studio all through hsing-i. depth of penetration, aggressiveness, striking power, striking fluency, combinations, evasiveness, balance, and so on.

  9. Nice article. I’ve been a student of “Americanized” eastern martial arts for 30 years ( JKD, Kajukenbo) but have become really interested in Western martial arts over the past couple of years. You’ve done a great job of describing the multitude of benefits boxing has to offer the martial artist.

    I’d open up a couple of additional thoughts along this same line. I’d stack up Savate against most any Asian kicking style any day. Especially if we’re talking about street self defense with shoe/boots on.

    With regards to weapons look at English quarterstaff, the French art of la canne, or the almost extinct game of single stick. Of course the system of Western fencing surpasses most Asian weapon systems in that it can be trained full speed, full “contact” in a safe manner ( a huge advantage that is a characteristic of many Western arts). No “I’ll pretend to hit you and you pretend to hit me back” stuff.

    The American/European system of catch wrestling rivals Jiu jitsu in terms of array of submissions and mental/physical toughness. I could go on, but you get the idea.

    I’d say if you’re interested in practical skills, fitness and character development, don’t be too quick to skip over the boxing or wrestling gym in favor of a more exotic looking method. If you want to idolize a warrior culture, skip the Shaolin monks and Ninjas ( most of which is mythology) and check out the USMC, Delta force, SEALS etc.

    • j. a. mullins says:

      one thought on warrior culture, as an former ranger and contractor, is that most people do not understand what it means to be a warrior.

      i caution against rigorous training, reading military biographies, and studying hopology and thinking yourself a warrior. warriors fight wars, the key concept being to go out and find and kill someone else with cold detachment. it is a lifestyle that requires decision making standards not suited for life outside of a war.

      i know their is all this talk about warrior culture nowadays, but that mostly comes from westernized views of modern budo culture from japan before and right after wwII. don’t be a warrior, be a man. the results are better for all of us a whole.

      as for the other martial arts you mentioned, savate is neat and it used british boxing (after a while in the early 1800s) to punch. catch wrestling was a brutal sport, but it is more a body of knowledge than a highly defined system (like jailhouse rock) that stemmed from colonial america.
      if you like single stick look into the irish martial arts, they loved to brawl and stick fight (it is the faction fighting common to the irish depicted in gangs of new york). modern fencing isn’t the same of traditional fencing, great big differences there. la canne is neat as well, also check out jogo du pau for more stick fighting.

      there is a resurgence of sorts in traditional western martial arts, a side benefit of mma i believe, so it shouldnt be to hard to find something you like out there.

  10. Don’t forget to attributes boxing brings. Body toughness, stamina, speed, power///
    Don’t get that from practicing katas all day..

  11. Etienne says:

    As you might remember, Wim, I started training with you because i was into western boxing and wanted to improve/adapt the sport to real life situation.
    At the end of the day, we only had time to study the basics and in particular: protecting the head more comprehensively.
    Not much really. It only saved my life!
    Hope you’re well
    Etienne

  12. Great article, but my issue with martial artists is when they claim a boxer can’t fight against multiple attackers, and a martial artist can. They say the same thing about jiu jitsu.

    But be honest…. i trained in kenpo before boxing, and in my dojo, and every video I’ve seen of martial artist training against multiple attackers, the guys portraying the “multiple attackers” all wait in turn and attack the guy in the middle one at a time.

    One attacker comes, the martial artist does his technique, the attacker “goes down”, then the second one Attacks, And it keeps going. That’s not fighting multiple attackers, that’s fighting 4 dudes one at a time. And the attackers aren’t even going hard…we do this in boxing, we call it the sharktank. The one in the middle fights 2 or 3 guys (hard, all out boxing) and every 30 seconds the attacker stops and the new one comes in.

    They even do it in martial art movies. The hero, up against 20 guys, who all attack 1 by 1, never 2 or 3 or more at once.

    • Hi Patrick,

      I’ve been practicing martial arts for 30+ years. The first thing I taught my son was boxing. Just to give you some insight in my perspective on it.
      That said, boxing is primarily a dueling sport in which the fight is one-on-one and the techniques, strategies and tactics reflect this. The vast majority of boxing gyms teach the art as such. I’m well aware that in some gyms, there is more of a focus on self-defense and they also train against multiple attackers. But those are the exception, not the rule.