by Adam Park
If Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is to be reckoned among the greatest pugilists of all time, it is only because his predecessors did much of the learning for him. In other words, he’s good because others were good before him. But the sweet science has changed a great deal over the millennia. Though much of the changes in boxing technique over time have to do with changes in the rules—like the introduction of a ring, timed rounds, or gloves—some of these changes are the cumulative result of humans learning to use their bodies better for certain tasks. The story of boxing, then, harbors lessons in anatomy, in kinesiology. Assuming you’ve seen Mayweather’s fine work, there are a couple historical points to make regarding 1) footwork and 2) infighting.
Stance and Footwork
Boxers used to move less, and stand differently. Particularly ancient Greek pugilists. According to one scholar, pictorial evidence and tales of boxing in Greek literature “all tell the same story”—that “two men take a firm stand and swing blows at each other’s heads and flanks.” (Imagine Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, if you’re old enough.) The Greeks “stood with the feet about level but well apart,” and “then swung their bodies round from the hips to give impetus to the blow, often rising on the toes of one foot to increase the swing.” As the blows came mostly from the right hand, the left arm was extended out for guarding and the right was contracted closer to the body for hitting. And those rights consisted mostly of “round hitting” hooks, or downward chopping blows. In contemporary parlance, ancient Greek boxers were more willing to “stand and bang.” They stood “square.” They moved in and out less. They circled, or took “the angle” very little. Footwork and “ringcraft” was yet to come. In the words of one scholar, the thing about the ancient Greek boxers is that “they never realized the paramount importance of foot-work.” Presumably, Greek boxers took a lot of damage. It must have been a good show, but a much different one than the more light-footed spectacles common to modern boxing matches like those of Mayweather.
Though the Greeks may have pioneered the sport of hitting with fists, it was the British that pioneered the sport of using one’s feet to hit with fists. But even still, however, much of early English (and American) prizefighting was done with flat feet. Footwork development took a while. And this was in part due to a series of widely-accepted stipulations set forth in 1743 by English boxer and instructor, Jack Broughton, which dictated that each round start with each fighter bringing his toe to the “scratch,” or line drawn on the ground. What this amounted to is that every round started with the fighters “in the pocket,” or within punching range. The stance we see with early prizefighters then was one where the bodyweight was predominately on the rear leg, and the front leg (and scratching toe) was extended out in front, which maximized distance between opponents.
For obvious reasons—and for lack of weight classes—larger pugilists tended to have the advantage. But then there was the 5’ 7’’ Daniel Mendoza. In the words of the boxing historian, Elliott Gorn, Mendoza was “crucial to the ring’s development.” Often shorter than his opponents, Mendoza relied heavily on his footwork; and his footwork was a novelty. The early 19th century sports journalist, Pierce Egan, wrote that Mendoza could “far deprive his opponents of the advantage of their strength.” Mendoza’s opponents tended to rely on the benefits of size and strength, but “by acting on the defensive till the assault in turn could be practiced with success,” Mendoza was often the victor. In his 1789 rematch against Humphries, for instance, Mendoza “stepped in with great neatness [after Humphries missed a powerful “facer”], and returned a sharp blow, that leveled his opponent.” With his fast feet and deft movements, Mendoza was a successful counterpuncher, often returning blows “instantaneously.” Mendoza’s nimble legs allowed him to stay out of the range of longer fighters, and his quick counterpunches were an effective means of turning a disadvantage into an advantage. Such was (and is) a useful technique for the shorter contestant. Compared by Egan, to a “fast-selling vessel, that could perform her maneuvers with more adroitness than a ship of superior metal,” Mendoza changed the game. For “there was more elegance about his positions than an indication of strength.” Mendoza’s unconventional mobility spoke to a ringcraft not of mere strength, but of skill. And having “given more lessons upon the art than any other professor in the kingdom,” his influence was great. Balance and movement were key. Feet were necessary for both defense and offense. As Mendoza wrote in his 1792 boxing manual: “The first principle to be established in Boxing is, to be perfectly master of the equilibrium of the body, so as to be able to change from a right to left-handed position; to advance or retreat striking or parrying; and to throw the body either forward or backward without difficulty or embarrassment.” Smart boxers like Mayweather have heeded his words, and “embarrassed” many foe.
Tie-Ups, Infighting, and Wrestle-Boxing
Early English and American prizefighting was not so purely fistic. Representing a more thorough limitation of combative maneuvers than the previous rules, the London Prize Ring Rules of 1838 prohibited “hair-pulling, head-butting, eye-gouging, gut-kneeing, and neck-throttling”—methods not previously uncommon during a match. Until the later 19th century, according to boxing chronicler, Edward Van Every, “knowledge of wrestling was important to a pugilist.” In the days of bareknuckle fighting under the London Prize Ring Rules, wrestling throws were permitted and commonplace. One could even fall on the thrown opponent, provided one went down with the victim. Consequently, a fall from a throw “would often have more effect on the issue of a fight than a blow.” Boxers had to know how to box, as well as how to dash another human to the ground.
Fighters like John L. Sullivan—the last boxing champion under the London Prize Ring Rules—were well-schooled grapplers. Sullivan’s trainer, William Muldoon, was even a Greco-Roman wrestling champion, and he trained several of the era’s great boxers. Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Jack Dempsey, even considered Muldoon to be the “Father of American Boxing.” So, Muldoon and Sullivan wrestled often. In fact, “the boxer had his shoulders slammed to the floor countless times.” Sullivan’s training paid off in the 1889 fight against Jake Kilrain, where the “Boston Strong Boy” threw Kilrain on several occasions. In a drastically different scenario than contemporary boxing, referees didn’t constantly intervene to separate fighters. It must have been nice.
Early English and American boxing, then, resembled something more akin to a combination of modern “dirty boxing” and Greco-Roman wrestling. Boxing tactics reflected this. Boxers held their hands low. Hard heads were less viable targets for soft, un-gloved hands. A boxer’s “guard” protected his midriff. A boxer’s low hands and arms also protected him from wrestling clinches, or opponents sinking in their “underhooks” underneath the arms to control the torso. Such throws and clinches were frequent in boxing matches until the advent of the “Queensbury Rules” in 1866 and their subsequent adoption in the United States.
The prohibition of throws changed the game. Infighting is handled differently nowadays, and is largely subject to referee discretion and stoppage. In the event of a “tie-up,” so it goes, the officiate steps in to separate the fighters so that they might commence with fists. Boxers like Mayweather have learned how to use this convention to their benefit. To be sure, Mayweather is not much of an inside fighter at all (see Jake LaMotta, for instance). Mayweather, however, still uses a low left hand in his guard (see “the philly shell” or the “shoulder roll”) while he is on the inside. But Mayweather’s low left arm serves a much different purposes than the low lefts of his predecessors. His left elbow pushes his opponents slightly out to provide short space for his loaded right hand. But that’s about it. Mayweather will often just tie up his opponent’s arms when on the inside and wait for the referee to separate. Mayweather’s dominance may very well testify to the rapid antiquation of infighting. If not utilizing wrestling or clinch fighting, learning what to do with one’s hands and fists while entangled may be a thing of the past.
 Gorn, 204. See also, M.P. McCrillis, “Boxing and No-Holds-Barred Fighting,” Black Belt 37:10 (October 1999): 65-69, 167.
 Gorn, The Manly Art, 75.
 Edward Van Every, Muldoon: The Solid Man of Sport (1929), 139.
 Frost, 215.
 Forward to Every’s Muldoon, vii.
 Every, 139.
 Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bareknuckle Prizefighting in America, 24.
 Egan, Boxiana, 256.
 Egan, Boxiana, 256.
 Ibid., 259.
 Egan, Boxiana, 256.
 Egan, 257.
 Ibid., 280.
 Daniel Mendoza, The Art of Boxing, 1.
 K.T. Frost, “Greek Boxing,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 26 (1906): 218.
 Ibid., 218.
 Ibid., 221 and 218.
 Ibid., 218.
Adam Park is a Ph.D. Candidate at Florida State University. He can be found in various places pretending to be like the pugilists that he writes about, or he can be contacted here: email@example.com.
5 thoughts on “Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and a Brief History of Boxing Technique”
Intro Sports History
After reading this article I have a few comments and questions. First, I’d like to say that this post was very informative. I learned a lot about the sport of Boxing, where it originated, how it was first was played, and how it evolved into the game it is today. Crazy to think how it started in Greece and made its way all the way to the US, where some of the greatest boxers of all time are from. My question for the Author of this article are; do you think Floyd would be as dominant a boxer if he was around when it all started? Who would you say is the greatest boxer of all time? Who was the most underrated boxer of all time? Do you think Floyd is all hype? And who is your favorite boxer of all time?
It’s hard to say if Mayweather would have been as dominate a boxer in an earlier time. Boxing was a different game. Literally. The rules were different. And as such, it probably would not have favored his current boxing style. That said, I tend to favor watching the old boxing matches, where fighters were allowed to tie-up a bit more. Rocky Marciano is always fun to watch in that regard. Heck of inside slugger. Didn’t have the best footwork in the business, but his head placement when on the inside was a sight. On the other hand, there’s individuals like Willie Pep, with some of the most beautiful ringcraft and footwork one could ever hope to watch. Always a pleasure to see these guys in action.
Intro to Sports History
I found this blog very interesting. I thoroughly enjoy how it explained boxing from its earlier years and compared it to how it is in current times. I was not aware of the drastic differences between boxing in its original forms and present day boxing. This leads me to believe that if Floyd Mayweather were to compete in the original boxing, he may not have fared as well as he does now. Do you agree with my belief, or do you believe that Mayweather could have adjusted his boxing style to compete evenly against those who relied less on footwork and more on stance and power? Do you believe that any modern day boxer could strongly participate in early years? If so, which boxers and why do you think that?
Pingback: Looking Back on Boxing in 2017 | Sport in American History
Pingback: Looking Back on Boxing in 2017 – Boxing and History