This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of articles that explore what it takes to build the perfect fighter. These articles will lead you through the processes of laying the proper groundwork in the gym through the various stages of competition. The series will touch on some of the fundamental aspects of boxing, like delivery of punches and ring generalship, but will focus primarily on the mental and philosophical aspects of the sport. The basics are the basics the world over and, although most coaches have their own way of doing things, there is also a science behind the sport and there is little room for interpreting that in any other way than the way nature intended. There is a reason boxing is called the "Sweet Science."
Approaching this series in the same way you would when you're building anything correctly, we'll begin in the same way...starting from the ground up.
A Need for Speed – Proper Footwork
An underutilized resource of many fighters is their footwork. Although they realize how important it is in relation to balance and movement, they fail to understand what a vital role it plays in both offense and defense. As a fighter, quick movements can carry you within your opponents range to connect and rapidly move you out of range before your opponent is able to counter.
A small step on the inside can quickly put you in position where you can hit and not get hit. By constantly moving, this puts your opponent in a reactive mode where he is continually being forced to readjust to be in a position to mount an offensive attack. Using footwork to step to the side of your opponent, you also take away their forward momentum and can then use that against him.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t a great example of many things because he broke countless fundamental rules. His natural athleticism and uncanny awareness of the ring allowed him to use unorthodox techniques to his advantage. He was, however, a premier example of offensive and defensive footwork. To watch Ali’s feet carry him in and out of trouble was a thing of beauty. Even as a heavyweight, his grace of movement and lightness on his feet was an enormous part of his success. A small shuffle, a slight shift in weight, can mean the difference in an opponent’s landing a punch or missing it. Good footwork can dictate the pace of the fight and the distance that war is waged at. Next to a jab, it is the most important weapon in a fighter’s arsenal. It establishes range, positioning and can dictate nearly everything else that happens in the course of a fight. Foot speed can nullify a power punching opponent or neutralize the aggressor. It should be as much of a valued part of your arsenal as any punch, but how many coaches or boxers really focus on developing it to its full capacity?
Of course there are a number of plyometric exercises that can be done to improve foot speed and to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, from box jumps to single leg squats, and those can easily be found online or in standard exercise books. There are also more basic approaches to gaining foot speed, improving lateral movement and strengthening the leg muscles. The first and most effective way to increase foot speed is with the jump rope. By varying the rhythm, stance and jumping style, there is no better way to improve footwork for boxing. The main thing is to be sure to mix it up, alternate feet, vary the speed and keep the movements quick. Don’t overcompensate for the rope. Most ropes are only about ¼” thick and the point is to just jump high enough to clear the rope each time it rotates, so keep the jumps short, intense and fast paced.
Another exercise that is great for developing lateral movement is to do rounds with a medicine ball. Simply hold a medicine ball and use the space, moving back and forward, side to side as quickly and explosively as possible for an entire round. Keep the pace intense, with lots of movement and never let your heels touch the ground. This will strengthen the tendons and ligaments in the feet, build up endurance in the ankles and calf muscles and enhance your ability to shift weight and change direction quickly.
Consisting of balance, proper stance and movement, footwork is fundamental to a boxer’s effectiveness in the ring. You can’t throw effective punches when you’re out of position and you can’t slip, block and counter effectively when you’re off balance. A moving target is not only harder to hit, it can even cause the most aggressive opponent to hesitate. And sometimes that small hesitation, that split second of uncertainty, is all you need to take control. Hand speed and being able to fire off lightning fast combinations, looks good and is impressive, but couple that ability with foot speed and you will be next to untouchable. While amazing hand speed is tough to contend with, it’s even harder for an opponent to deal with foot speed, because it is typically more subtle. It is based on minor adjustments and is out of most fighters’ line of vision so it takes them longer to pick up on the nuances and figure out how to counter quick foot movements. This ultimately leaves them reaching for an opponent that is not there.
In reality, not all fighters are going to have the foot speed of Muhammad Ali or even a fighting style that lends itself to lots of movement, but every fighter can benefit from incorporating more lateral movement, better balance and agility into their approach. Good footwork alone is never going to knock your opponent out, but it can definitely create the perfect angle, establish the proper distance and ensure that you are always in position to get the upper hand.
Doug Ward is the President and Trainer for the Underground Boxing Company.