There’s an old saying in baseball that the two hardest things to do in the sport are hitting the ball…and stopping the other guy from hitting the ball. Boxing suffers no such dichotomy. Beating someone up is so easy a child can do it, as anyone who’s ever seen a schoolyard bully knows. Not getting hit? Well, that’s a whole different can of worms entirely. You can block, you can dodge, but unless you’ve got a plan in place for what to do after you’ve stopped the other guy’s attack, all those moves are is a temporary respite before you have to worry about the next punch coming at you, and one of those is going to get through and put your sorry ass on the ground.
The conventional wisdom is that there are two ways to avoid a punch—you can block it or you can duck out of the way. Teddy Atlas always says there are three ways. He includes the counter-punch as part of defense, and I couldn’t agree more. The counter is what turns defense from survival into success. But even the best counter puncher, a fighter who is Floyd Mayweather and Pernell Whitaker and Willie Pep rolled into one, can’t rely exclusively on beating his opponent—especially a fast-handed opponent—to the punch. So let’s backtrack a bit here. We’ll get back to the counter in a minute.
The simplest way to stop a punch from landing is to block it. Put your hands up, keep your elbows in tight to the body, and your opponent is going to hit your gloves and your arms or else have to stray low and start going the Abner Mares/Andrew Golota route if he’s to land anything. The block will stop most of the force of the blow and can lead to your opponent punching himself out a little bit, at which point you go on the attack. Alternately, late in a round, blocking can get you back to your corner in one piece after the bell rings.
The block has plenty of weaknesses, however. For starters, it’s usually not possible to cover one’s entire punchable area with one’s hands and arms. Protect your head and you’re vulnerable to stomach punches. Put your elbows too wide to protect your sides and your opponent can throw an uppercut and “split the guard” as the trainers say, which for you the fighter means taking a knuckle sandwich directly on the chin. Watch Chris Arreola’s KO of Kendrick Releford from May of this year for a prime example of the cumulative effects of poorly-executed blocking. Finally, blocking a punch leaves you in no position to throw punches back, which makes you look vulnerable and gives the referee plenty of cause to stop the fight once a punch does get over, under, or around the guard and lands cleanly.
Anyone who’s ever played the old NES game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! knows what dodging can do for a fighter. If you can slip a punch, now you’ve put yourself in a much better defensive position because your opponent is off-balance and vulnerable. The bob, in which you move your torso laterally without changing the altitude of your fists so you can throw back to the head, can make for great knockouts, but move the wrong way and you might slip the left hand only to be hit by the right hand coming right behind it. Bobbing a jab is dangerous if the opponent throws a cross behind it and trying to counter too quickly leaves you open to a hook as you get back into position; you’re essentially letting your momentum do half of your opponent’s work for him. Bobbing an overhand punch, on the other hand, will almost assuredly lead to a counter opportunity that can, in concert with a perfectly-thrown combination, turn your enemy’s offense against him.
Cousin to the bob but requiring more abdominal strength to do right is the weave. It’s a circular motion like a 12-6 curveball in baseball, perfect for getting under a hook or an overhand and leaving your opponent’s body just waiting to be chopped down. Trouble is, you weave into a body shot, you’re sending your head to do your rib cage’s job, which is generally not considered a wise idea.
The overall point is that dodging punches is harder than simply blocking them, but the risk-reward calculation holds here as well. You might get hit, and if you do get hit it’ll be harder than if you’d simply stopped or deflected the shot, but an off-balance opponent is a potential KO victim.
Finally, there’s the counter-punch. This is the stuff that the FNF Fight Plan is made of, and it requires ring smarts, anticipation, quick reflexes, and fast hands in order to work properly. A perfectly executed counter shot as an opponent is coming in has the same physics effect as the difference between hitting a fastball vs. hitting a ball off a tee.
A lazy jab (as opposed to a snapping jab; see last week’s lesson for the difference) can be countered by throwing an overhand right over it. For southpaws, countering the lazy jab from an orthodox fighter is even easier, since snapping a jab over a lazy jab or even throwing a quick hook over it is faster (thanks to the lead hand being that much closer to the enemy) and can do more damage with far less risk of ending up out of position.
Speaking of the hook, not for nothing do the three words “counter left hook” go together like the words “ice”, “cold”, and “beer”. Against a cross, the hook will, if thrown tightly enough (a wide, looping punch is a whole other matter), arrive a split-second faster than the enemy’s punch since it has a shorter distance to travel. Sure, as a rule of thumb straight punches beat round ones (more on this in a minute), but the deciding factor is not the angle but the overall distance the punch must travel to reach its destination. Since the cross is starting from further back, the hook uses the advantage of the lead hand and makes maximum impact against the opponent’s forward momentum.
As well, if the hook is coming at you, you’ve got two choices, and they’re dependent in large part on whether your opponent throws tight hooks or round, looping punches. The looping punch can be countered by either the jab or the overhand right, while a tighter hook calls for a jab simply because of the reason just described in the last paragraph. The looping-hook counter is all about making the opponent pay for using poor technique, which the short-hook counter is about forcing the opponent to respect the jab and letting him know that he will not be able to dictate the pace of the fight.
You may also find yourself in a position where you are trying to counter an uppercut—some fighters are foolish enough to lead with it. Jab, hook, the choice is yours, but there are other ways to both bait an opponent into choosing an uppercut at an inopportune time and taking maximum advantage of that incoming punch to change the game. But, in the words of Alton Brown, “that’s another show.”
Next Week: Advanced Defense and Countering.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays, and the Boxing 101 series will appear on Fridays throughout the FNF offseason. Fan mail, hate mail, and counter left hooks can be sent to email@example.com.
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