Boxing Toolkit: Categorising Styles

It’s an old and oft-quoted phrase, but nevertheless it has stood the test of time and remains true to this day: “Styles make fights”.

These three words state that, more frequently than not, the ultimate result of a fight – and the quality of entertainment therein – is dictated by the explicit boxing style of the combatants. The core concepts of the various disciplines of boxing mean that knowledge of a fighter’s style means we can instantly conclude several important things about them, including their favoured strategies, preferred types of opponent, and likely career longevity. When they meet in the ring opposing styles contrast and clash in different ways, with certain clashes producing fireworks whilst others producing snore-fests.

The ability to study and evaluate a boxer’s style is a vital instrument in the toolbox of any boxer, coach, or fight fan. It provides insight into how a single fight or even an entire career might develop. If you’re in the ring with gloves on it can tell you what you need to do to outwit your opponent, and if you’re in the audience it can tell you in which direction a sly wager ought to be placed. To “evaluate a boxer’s style” means to quickly and effectively analyse and summarise it in as concise a manner as possible – to categorise that athlete using a convenient mental model.

There are many ways to categorise and compare boxers, here we’ll examine:

  • Outboxers vs. Sluggers vs. Swarmers
  • Boxers vs. Punchers
  • Long Range vs. Mid Range vs. Close Range
  • Front-Foot vs. Back-Foot

Outboxer vs. Slugger vs. Swarmer

The classic trinity metric. Simply put, all boxers fall into one of three categories: Outboxers, sluggers, or swarmers, and there is a rock/paper/scissors pattern of dominance between each of the types.

Outboxers like to fight on the outside – using reflexes, footwork, jabs and crosses. When they find themselves on the inside they tend to grab and hold-on until the referee splits them, to be reset at their preferred distance. Examples include Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, and Wladimir Klitschko, 

Sluggers are powerful but usually inelegant fighters who fight in that pure-punching range between outside and inside – using strength, hooks, uppercuts and crosses. They are often defensively poor, but make up for this with raw firepower. Examples include Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Vitali Klitschko.

Swarmers like to fight on the inside – using agility, guarding, hooks and uppercuts. They close distance as quickly as possible to find their ideal range, slipping shots on their way inside till. Examples include Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, and Joe Frazier.

Outboxers tend to perform best against sluggers – whom they are faster and more defensively astute than – but worst against swarmers – who rapidly crowd them and nullify their preference for distance. Swarmers tend to perform worst against sluggers – walking onto their big shots as they try to work their way inside.

While it doesn’t quite account for the subtle differences of hybrid and special types (e.g. boxer-punchers and pure counterpunchers) this is a reliable method of categorisation, as old as modern boxing itself. Aficionados come back to it time and again when comparing and contrasting boxers.

Boxers vs. Punchers

Writ simply: a ‘boxer’ is someone who prefers the technical aspects of boxing: establishing the jab, solid footwork, being elusive and defensively adroit – and a ‘puncher’ is someone who prefers the more damaging aspects of the sport: landing power shots, applying pressure, utilising their strength and hunting for knockouts. Think of this as a continuum line, with ‘Pure Boxer’ at one end, and ‘Pure Puncher’ at the other – giving us two absolute extremes.

Most fighters will tend to err toward one end of the spectrum more than the other, providing a simple and concise categorisation method. Many boxers sit on the central pivot point or close-by on either side – being a boxer-puncher, or puncher-boxer, if you prefer – but many fighters will show a clear preference.

Long Range vs. Mid Range vs. Close Range

This categorisation method goes hand in hand with the concept of all boxers being an outboxer, slugger, or swarmer. It states that there are three distinct punching ranges – long, mid and close – and that a combatant will have a preferred range at which they work most effectively. Throughout fights they will endeavour to maximise their time at this range so they can perform to their best, whilst simultaneously trying to prevent an opponent from spending as much time at their preferred range to nullify their attacking threat.

Some boxers are clearly skilled at fighting across multiple ranges, giving them more options and available strategies in which they can fight. Classic boxer-punchers are an example of a mid range puncher who is also comfortable boxing at long range. Meetings between two boxers with the same range preference become a matter of who most effectively fights at that range, thus the better overall boxer should dominate. In cases such as these a cat-and-mouse game might develop whereby the inferior fighter chooses to fight at a range at which they are less effective, purely to deny their opponent the chance to fight at their dominant range. It is therefore sometimes advantageous for a boxer to fight at a non-ideal range, if their opponent is more disadvantaged by this than they are.

Front-Foot vs. Back-Foot

The difference between a front-foot fighter and a back-foot boxer is usually a matter of their level of preference for aggressive pressure.

An aggressive combatant will predominantly want to fight off the front foot, coming forward and instigating exchanges, forcing their opponent to defend and retreat if overwhelmed. A specific range preference is unimportant, as they will always try to press forward and get into their ideal punching range, whatever it is. This is in definite contrast to back-foot boxers, who tend to be long range specialists; looking to maintain distance by retreating constantly and establishing an effective jab or straight back hand. Of course, some boxers are equally comfortable fighting either front-foot or back-foot, and thus might switch between the two styles as opportunities present themselves. Just because a boxer has more of a reactive, back-foot mentality does not mean that they are necessarily defensive in nature; it purely means that they aren’t the aggressor when it comes to closing distance and initiating exchanges.

It’s very unusual to find, say, a back-foot swarmer, as the two style categories are incongruous: it’s impossible to close distance and put pressure on an opponent if retreat is your main concern. The only time this combination might appear is when two swarmers meet, and one of them decides to let the other do the work of distance-closing, by simply sitting back and allowing their opponent to charge forward.

Boxing Strategies: “Deep Water”

The Concept

The concept of taking an opponent “into deep water” refers to the oft-used strategy of forcing a bout to go as long as gruellingly possible, with the aim of exhausting your opponent and disposing of them when they become more vulnerable; to “take them into deep water and drown them”.

Primarily it’s about draining your opponent’s energy whilst optimising your own exertions so as not to leave yourself too exhausted when the time comes to deliver the coup de grâce. It should be needless to say that this strategy does not make sense for four or six round fights, and unless your opponent has truly terrible conditioning it’s difficult to make it work in eight rounds, so this is a ten or twelve round stratagem – it requires time. It is a strategy typically employed when matched against opponents whom you consider to be superior to yourself in boxing’s key technical areas: they’re better jabbers, movers, combination punchers, or simply more elusive and defensively savvy than you. You certainly can’t out-box them, and in a direct shoot-out you’re concerned that you’ll tire too quickly while attempting to penetrate their defences, leaving yourself open to counter attacks.

So for the best chance to win we must take them into deep water – and drown them. 

This strategy is not simply trying to preserve as much energy as possible by dragging out the fight and doing very little until the final round – when you’ll come out all-guns-blazing looking for a stunning sudden knockout. Whilst that is certainly a plan, it lacks the build-up that makes it a proper strategy: you’ve not troubled your opponent throughout the fight so they will likely not be substantially fatigued, thus any knockout that comes is based more on hope than on preparation. The core of the deep water strategy is about continuously initiating exchanges, forcing your opponent to throw punches that will undoubtedly win them rounds, but also drain their energy, with the aim to make them easier to knockout when the time comes. It’s about increasing your chance of securing the knockout, rather than simply hoping you’ll land a lucky shot late in the fight.

The swimming analogy permeates through this strategy, in that you have to force your opponent to defend themselves constantly – to stay afloat, to swim – by lurking constantly within punching range and applying a steady work rate. You might find yourself losing most – if not all – rounds as the fight progresses, but that’s okay. You will need to have a target round in mind (for a twelve round bout maybe around the ninth) where you will begin to turn up the heat and push for a knockout, and you’ll need to have enough fuel in the tank to mount a sustained attack, usually for up to three rounds. There’s no formula to calculate when this decisive shift should occur: only experience can tell you the typical opponent fatigue levels that signal when you can begin to move through the gears, but it’s not an exact science. Some opponents will show signs of being utterly spent as early as the fifth round, and thus (giving another round’s grace to push them a bit further) you might begin to ramp up your attacking pressure from the seventh round. Some opponents will manage their exertions so competently that you have no choice but to leave the onslaught until the eleventh round, giving yourself just six minutes to deliver the knockout. Launching your surge in the final round is a risk – it’s usually too little, too late.

It’s difficult to use the deep water strategy on opponents who have excellent stamina – but only if they know how to manage it. If you’re facing a low work rate, low intensity opponent who has good conditioning then you’ll struggle to tire them out, but there are those who possess high stamina that always look to utilise it to the maximum: throwing a hundred punches every round. It is these latter opponents that can obviously be taken into deep water, so don’t rule out this strategy just because you’re facing someone fitter than you: it’s about who has the superior energy management, not who has the superior stamina.

The Details

  • Stamina and energy. There’s no point taking your opponent into deep water if you yourself are not a strong swimmer. When the time comes to mount your surge you’ll need enough fuel in the tank to increase your attacks for six to nine minutes of fighting, and if you’ve squandered all your energy during the sapping-your-opponent’s-energy stage then you’ll have nothing left to finish them off. You’ll need to budget your energy expenditure round-by-round accordingly, managing its consumption carefully and minimising wastage.
  • Consistent, steady pressure. For most of the fight you’ll need to maintain a pace consisting of a medium/high work rate, very low intensity, with an aggressive, front-foot mentality. You’re aiming to force your opponent into near-constant exchanges, rather than inconsistently hitting them with flurries of shots – you want to trigger them to punch back. You need to establish a constant, metronome-like rhythm, so both you and your opponent are throwing shots for most of the round. You can use the first round to gauge the level of work rate required to maintain constant pressure – a pace that you can easily keep up for the entire fight – and establish this as your baseline. Keep an eye on your energy level; if you come out of the blocks too fast you’ll peter out too soon, and you’ll need to maintain some energy in reserve for later in the fight.
  • Clinching. Effective clinching is a key component of this strategy, and you should do it as often as possible, utilising the opportunity to lean on your opponent to sap their energy and to wrestle them backward into corral-able ring positions. Ideally you won’t need to use clinches to rest – as this would also give your opponent a chance to take a much-needed breather; you should be well-conditioned enough to not need this.
  • Close range. It’s easier to maintain constant pressure and force your opponent to continuously participate in punch exchanges if you’re at close range, plus it’s also easier to facilitate the clinching part of the strategy. The deep water strategy can still be implemented at long and mid range – but you’ll need to adopt a more aggressive mentality to exert the necessary amount of pressure to stay in-range and keep the exchanges flowing.
  • Body punching. Exclusively target your opponent’s body, to stifle their ability to muster energy and hamper their agility and footwork. If a rogue shot up top opens a nasty cut on their face don’t be tempted to change your targeting; it was just a fluke – stick to the plan.
  • A solid, simple defence. Cover-up often, eschew counterpunches, and force clinches where possible. You’ll need to weather a lot of shots through the fight, so durability is a must. Agility, a strong guard, and a tough chin are required.
  • The surge. When the time is right you’ll need to come out of your corner primed to knock out your opponent. Fatigue should have made recovery difficult for them both during and between rounds, and when you make the decision to overwhelm them you need to be decisive. Increasing your intensity by a single notch and shifting your punch mix one notch toward power shots is often enough to make a difference, although you might want to try adjusting just one of these during the initial surge round – increasing intensity, for instance – and then upping your power shots in the following round. Be warned that once you begin your surge you must not down-shift from it: if you do you’ll give your opponent the recovery time they crave, and all the work you’ve done up to this point will have been for nothing. When you shift gears that’s it for the rest of the fight, which is why we need to time the shift to perfection. A consistent, concentrated assault for more than three rounds is tremendously difficult to maintain, so you’re aiming to get your opponent out of there within nine minutes of initiating your attack.

The Counter-Strategy

Assuming that your opponent has all the necessary traits of a deep water fighter (they’re fit, durable and defensively compact) you’re unlikely to be able to knock them out, so taking them the full distance and winning on points is the usual path to victory. Their strategy is to exhaust you, thus your strategy is not to get exhausted – you must find time to rest during the fight, which means you will need to tactically give your opponent rounds, which he won’t be expecting (or even wanting) to win.

Let’s say it’s a twelve round championship fight, and things go by the script: your opponent clinches, body punches, and forces you to maintain a constant, steady work rate just to fend him off, and through this you win the first four rounds. Take round five off – curtail your offences in their entirety, rest, and give your opponent the round. Take round six as before, then give them rounds seven and eight – and when you rest you must commit to it: throw nothing back, not even counterpunches, just grab, hold, cover-up, run and evade. Winning the fight depends on your ability to rest whilst remaining defensively secure.

At this stage you’ll be up on the scorecards by five rounds to three, and your opponent now has a decision to make: I didn’t plan to be in this position – there are just two rounds between us. Should I push myself to close the gap and aim for a decision victory? This would mean abandoning their initial deep water strategy, and if they do then the ring is yours; you’re the better boxer, and you shouldn’t have expended too much energy getting to this point, so taking two of the following four rounds ought to be perfectly feasible: you’ll win the fight seven rounds to five.

If your opponent sticks to their plan and doesn’t abandon the deep water strategy then you should continue as before: take round nine. Your opponent now has to win the final three rounds just to draw the fight, so the decision victory is off the table (barring knockdowns). They’ll need to begin their surge around now, to give themselves enough time to pile on the pressure and knock you out. Give them round ten, then take eleven, and finally armour up to weather the storm in round twelve. Hopefully, if you’ve rested consistently and managed your energy expenditure correctly, you’ll be able to survive and the fight is yours: seven rounds to five.