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Boxing’s Fighting Styles: The Rock-Paper-Scissors of Pugilism 

Publish Date: 01/10/2024
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

In the realm of Boxing, it is generally agreed that four basic styles of fighting exist: classical boxers,  sluggers, swarmers, and boxer-punchers. There are multiple, if not infinite, variations of these styles,  as individuals combine various elements into their own unique method of combat. The classical boxer  utilizes the textbook science and strategy of the sport and its four basic punches: left jab, left hook,  straight right (or right cross), and the uppercut. (Obviously, a southpaw will reverse these, throwing a  right jab, left cross, and so on). These punches can be thrown to the body or head and are often used  together in quick combinations. Classical boxers are strong in terms of defense, counterpunching, and  strategy, and usually have good mobility. The slugger is self-explanatory; they concentrate on raw  striking power and thus, usually have not bothered to develop a lot of accuracy or skill.

The swarmer is by definition a volume puncher, scoring points and wearing down opponents with  flurries of blows. The style is usually dictated by the short height and stubby arms of a fighter, which  necessitates him getting in close to his foe. They are usually strong infighters, but the prime of a  swarmer is rather brief, as the volume of punches and the pace they must maintain tends to burn them  out in a relatively short time. In the lighter divisions, they are generally not bombers, but among  heavyweights, the best have been heavy strikers. Examples of top heavyweight swarmers are Tom  Sharkey, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, and Joe Goddard, before he came to the United States.

Notable among those lacking a potent punch in the division was Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, a  contender during the reigns of Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Jackson was also an exception because  he was tall (about 6′3″) and had a long reach (80″). Leon Spinks is another who might be classified as  a swarmer, though he lacked a hammer and a granite chin. Derek “War” Chisora had good, but not  great, punching power. You’d better have a stout beard and the ability to take it if you want to succeed  with this mode of attack! The boxer-puncher combines a good amount of boxing skill with a strong  punch, the ratio of skill to power varying from one fighter to another.

Often, these styles are not purely defined. For instance, John L. Sullivan had terrific hand and foot  speed for a slugger and sometimes swarmed all over his adversaries. Jim Jeffries and Sonny Liston are  often classified as sluggers, but both possessed enough boxing ability to probably rate as boxer punchers. The three swarmers, Sharkey, Marciano, and Frazier, each had a strong enough punch to  possibly qualify as sluggers. Classic boxers like Jack Johnson and Larry Holmes hit hard enough, when  they wished, to potentially rate as boxer-punchers. As to how the various styles perform against each  other, there is a tendency for the “rock/paper/scissors” effect to hold force.

Though only a trend, this is how it works: The classic boxer usually avoids the heavy punches of  the slugger, either winning a decision or “wearing the stone down with a trickle of water,” and stopping his man late. The slugger will often knock out the swarmer, landing howitzers to exploit the latter’s  weakness to counterpunches. This was best exemplified by a vintage George Foreman blasting the

shorter (and stubby-armed) Joe Frazier into helplessness. Jim Jeffries twice defeated Tom Sharkey via  decision, first over 20 rounds, then 25. Had Jeff not had sore hands in their initial encounter and a  badly injured left in their second, there is little doubt he would have stopped Tom, or at least won by  a wider margin. The swarmer will, all things being equal, maintain such a grueling pace and hurl so  many punches that the classic boxer cannot avoid enough to emerge victorious. As examples:  Marciano stopped classic boxer Roland LaStarza in 11 rounds in a 1953 title defense, Frazier halted  Eddie Machen in 1966 in 10 and, while still at his peak, won a 15-round verdict over Muhammad Ali.  How the boxer-puncher fares against the other three styles depends largely upon the amount of skill  and power he possesses, as well as individual strengths and weaknesses.

Another factor to consider in comparing a given fighter with those of other time periods, is the  matter of punching technique. Early (Marquess of Queensberry era) books on boxing instruction and  method show practitioners throwing punches with the back of the fists facing outward (thumb on  top) rather than turning the fist over on impact, as is done today, with the back of the hand facing  upward. Without this last-moment twist of the wrist and the snap it imparts, substantially less power  is generated. When compared to the same blows thrown in modern times, perhaps 10-20% power was  lost in a left jab, 15-25% in a straight right. The hooks depicted in these old photos seemed to be thrown in arcs too long to retain optimum effectiveness. Only a short, tight hook, with proper hip  sway and weight transfer from the back foot to the front, imparts full punching force. The sloppiness  of these punches puts their target beyond the point of maximum power and can open up the striker  to counterpunches. Even the uppercuts thrown by early boxers appear wider and launched from  further out than in later decades. As this punch was meant to be thrown during infighting or close mid-range, an incorrectly executed shot leaves one open to a counter.

During the 1910s, fighters appeared to be throwing these punches correctly, by and large. From  the beginning of the Queensberry era to the 1910s, something led these pugilists to evolve the major  blows of their profession. Perhaps a battler like “Kid” McCoy, with the sharp twist he gave his  “corkscrew” punches, contributed to this evolution. Joe Choynski and Tommy Ryan threw a version  of the modern left hook. The transition to what we see today seems rather instantaneous, rather than  incremental, whatever the cause.6Still, to a large extent a punch is a punch, and the stamina, toughness,  and willpower of a pugilist means about as much as anything.

Some archetypes and proponents of each boxing style are: Classic Boxer: Jim Corbett, Willie “Will  o’ the Wisp” Pep, and Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker. Muhammad Ali is a standard entry, though in  truth, his style was not “textbook,” as he would lean away from punches and use other, unorthodox  tactics. Nonetheless, Ali was a great and effective boxer with phenomenal speed and agility. Slugger:

Earnie Shavers, David Tua, (a young) George Foreman. Swarmer: Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong.  These two fought in the lighter divisions, and, while lacking in punching force, came at their foes like  human wheat threshers. Punch counters would go crazy trying to follow the number of blows they  threw. Boxer-Puncher: Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski, Tommy Ryan, Sam Langford, Joe Louis,  “Sugar” Ray Leonard, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Tommy Hearns, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.

6 “A Comment on the Evolution of Punching Technique from the Gaslight Era Forward” by Christopher  J. LaForce, IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) newsletter number 69; March 23, 2001. Two  of the manuals referred to were Scientific Boxing by James J. Corbett (1912) and Donovan’s Science of Boxing by  Doyle Studio Press (1996 reprint of original 1893 book by “Professor” Mike Donovan).

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