In boxing, the fight starts long before the opening bell rings. It begins in the gym, through weeks of preparation. It unfolds as you devise your strategy and as you research your opponent, looking for ways to exploit his weaknesses. Then, it takes form when you meet your opponent face-to-face for the first time. That’s when you make that initial brush stroke in the art of intimidation. If you want set the proper tone to put your opponent on the defensive from the time the weigh-ins start, through the final bell, there are some very specific tactics you can employ to gain the upper hand and keep it.
First of all, there’s great power in the use of intimidation, but it has to be rooted in genuine confidence or real emotion (fear or anger) and not false bravado. Mike Tyson was the king of intimidation, but mostly because his hate was real. He struck fear into his opponents before they even entered the ring and then topped it off with a center-of-the-ring, before-the-bell stare down that was second to none. Half of his battles were won long before the fight even started. Tyson himself openly admitted that he patterned his ring personae and approach after Sonny Liston and both fighters were unparalleled in the art of intimidation. Tyson and Liston channeled every emotion they had into their fights…the moments leading up to, during the face-off and once the bell sounded. They were scary human beings from start to finish and it was genuine. Even if their anger and bitterness was only on display right then, for that one moment in time, that was enough to get the job done.
Once the bell sounds, being intimidating takes real form. That’s why it’s important to set the tone. You can do this best by throwing the first punch. Even if you don’t fully engage from the onset, at least land that first shot and then move into position or out of range. Landing the first punch doesn’t mean that you’re going to stand in the center of the ring and brawl, but it does send the message that you’re there to fight, you have no fear and are taking the first step to establish your dominance. Your opponent will get the message and he will either, mentally begin to settle in for a long, hard battle or he will decide right then and there, that you are someone that he doesn’t want to mess with. Either way, it forces him to respond and react, not take charge.
Next, don’t rely on power. Time and time again it’s said that the jab wins fights. Well, it also scores points and, even if it doesn’t hurt your opponent, he will know that he’s getting hit…a lot. The sheer volume of rapid fire jabs ricocheting off his forehead will be discouraging and unsettling. So, even if you’re not ringing his bell with every punch you throw, the number of jabs you land will keep his mind preoccupied and focusing more on what you’re doing to him, than what he wants to do to you. Landing clean jabs, often, will send a strong message to him, not to mention, the judges too.
As the fight progresses, work to avoid natural physical and emotional responses. That may sound basic enough, but going against what feels normal and like a natural reaction, actually takes some practice. Try not to flinch when you get hit. Don’t grunt when you take a body shot. Show your opponent that you like it when he hits you clean. If you’re bleeding or cut, don’t wipe at it or show that you’re aware of it or concerned about in any way. Don’t drop your hands when you’re tired. Don’t breath through your mouth when you’re gassed or show obvious signs of fatigue. Go against the grain and act the opposite way than you should or typically would. This will make it hard for your opponent to get a good read on you, plus (again) anything unnatural or unfamiliar is unsettling. It can serve to set your opponent off-balance and on the defensive. That puts YOU in the driver’s seat.
Another good tactic to keep in mind throughout the course of the fight is to try to land the last punch each round before the bell rings. Send your opponent on that long walk back to his corner with something to think about. Sugar Ray Leonard applied this strategy masterfully in his 1987 SuperFight with “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. He punched first, punched fast and landed last. It kept Hagler feeling like he was always one step behind and turned the judges’ focus towards Leonard. In life and in boxing, whether they are good or bad, first impressions and final thoughts have a way of sticking with you.
Finally, touch gloves when the referee instructs you to before the fight starts and touch gloves when the referee instructs you to before the final round. Otherwise, keep your hands up, your chin down and use your fists to punch the other guy, not make friends with him. There are all sorts of examples that could be used of times when fighters were too nice and paid the price. They got busy making friends, making-up or became too focused on being a good sportsman and forgot that this is a sport where you are instructed to “protect yourself at all times.” Granted, touching gloves is a sign of respect, but when it’s not really necessary during the course of the fight, it can also be perceived as a weakness. You should respect your opponent for getting in the ring with you. You should respect him for doing what the majority of the general population would never and could never do. You should respect his fighting abilities regardless, but save the PDA (public display of affection) for after the fight. Give your opponent respect, but don’t show him respect. He’ll only use it against you. Gamesmanship comes before Sportsmanship in the dictionary AND in the ring. Being overly sportsmanlike is admirable, but it’s not intimidating.
Intimidation will be used whether it is subtle or overt, genuine or just for show. It will also be used more effectively by you or your opponent, so practice it like you would any other part of your arsenal. It can serve as your secret weapon. Most spectators will never know you have it. Some inside observers can guess, but no one will ever really see it. And yet, if you unleash it, your opponent will learn quickly that it is potent, powerful and can be a dominating force in setting the tone you want from the first time your opponent lays eyes on you. Remember, “Power perceived is power achieved,” so it’s important from, even before the opening bell sounds, to lay the proper groundwork, otherwise you might find that you have a long road ahead of you come fight night.