Boxing is an ambiguous term. Boxing can refer to the sport of pugilism; strapping on gloves and fighting under Queensbury rules for ten to twelve rounds. Or boxing can mean a specific type of fighting within that context.
David Tua and Kimbo Slice are boxers in that they compete under boxing rules in boxing matches, but I doubt many knowledgeable fans would call them classical boxers in terms of their technique and strategy.
In mixed martial arts it seems that a fighter has good boxing if he has good hands. Nick Diaz and Vitor Belfort are excellent examples of fighters who lack head movement, footwork and ringcraft, but have good enough hands that they are often touted as the best boxers in MMA.
In terms of a technical boxing skill set, you won't see much better in mixed martial arts than that demonstrated by Eddie Alvarez.
At Bellator 106, Eddie Alvarez took a close decision over Michael Chandler in their headlining title bout, and showed en route the difference between punching technique and the art of boxing.
Punching with the Feet
Boxing technique, as with any martial art or sport, is more about placement and the feet than it is about the arms and fists. On the most basic level, when you learn to punch you are taught that the power comes from the legs and the hips.
A line from Patrick McCarthy's translation of the old karate text Bubishi sums this up more poetically.
"Like a cat catching a rat, a tiger pulls down a wild boar with it's body; the claws serve as the means of contact."
To relate that in a less roundabout manner: Power is generated from the feet. They are the be all and end all of boxing, kickboxing and striking technique.
But more than that, the feet provide mobility.
The Running Man
I write constantly about getting to dominant angles on an opponent by use of the feet, but often it is not possible to do this. The ideal situation of being on an opponent's blind side with time to throw strikes is not going to happen all that often.
The majority of dominant angles are achieved off of a big miss from the opponent, or against an opponent who is slowing down. They are so effective that they should be pursued throughout a bout, but it is up to the opponent to prevent them from happening. If the opponent fails or tires, it's a wonderful bonus for the angler and perhaps an early night.
Alvarez was able to land occasionally with his angling right straight, which I made a video breakdown of here.
What Alvarez did so well against Michael Chandler for the most part, though, was to constantly threaten to get to an angle and exhaust Chandler with jabs and body punches as Chandler struggled to keep Alvarez in front of him.
Cutting off the Cage
Cutting off the cage is hard. The Octagon is near enough circular, and the Bellator cage is completely round. There are no significant corners to push an opponent into as there are in a ring.
Alvarez made wonderful use of this, moving around the entire cage throughout the fight. What showed immediately is that despite training with that will o' the wisp, Dominick Cruz, Michael Chandler did not know how to prevent Alvarez from moving freely.
To cut off the ring, it is necessary to step across and meet an opponent each time they circle, rather than simply pivoting to face them in their new position.
This involves widening one's stance and squaring up a bit, making a fighter more hittable. That is the sacrifice one must make to cut off the opponent. One has to create a smothering blanket rather than a hard-to-hit but easy-to-move around target.
Various fighters have used various means to make this safer. Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez both moved their head a lot. George Foreman used the method of his teacher, Sandy Saddler, keeping his palms high in front of him to parry blows.
What doesn't work while cutting off the ring is keeping your hands low. To cut off a ring you must confront an opponent, and they will throw punches at you. If you have your hands down while you do it, they are going to hit you, or you are going to have to make crazy, reactionary head movements to get out of the way.
Chandler opted to keep his hands down as he followed Alvarez around the cage, and this leads us to our next topic.
To Chandler's credit, however, he did try to hit Alvarez as he circled out. A punch is twice as powerful when an opponent is running straight into it, and Chandler was attempting to predict Alvarez's direction well.
Unfortunately Alvarez has been coached well in circling out.
A good deal of fighting is about lies and tricks, not punches and kicks.
Alvarez would feint one way, then immediately go the other. Seems simple, but it completely baffles the vast majority of fighters, even the ranks of boxing.
On other occasions, Alvarez would commit to moving in one direction, anticipate Chandler's hook swinging in at his head and duck out underneath it.
Body punches and kicks are by far the best method of stopping an opponent circling out, for the reason that they cannot be ducked and held in place for a followup.
Something which I didn't mention in the days after Daniel Cormier versus Roy Nelson, but which deserves appreciation, was Cormier's understanding of these same methods.
Nearing the fence, Cormier would circle into Nelson's right hand, then reverse direction as soon as Nelson began to move. Alternatively, he would circle to Nelson's left, reverse and then duck the obvious right hand.
Simple ring circling and changes of direction are something which many boxers, particularly in the amateur ranks, are drilled through long after they think they have "got it". When you see a fighter struggling to cut off the ring and exhausting himself while doing it, you understand why this movement needs to be drilled far beyond the point of boredom.
Reactions versus Habits
Another area of the game in which Alvarez's disciplined boxing technique won him the edge was in head movement.
Alvarez has something of a reputation for being easily hit early in a bout. In truth, you would struggle to find a slower starter in his weight class, but Alvarez is consistent. Just as Joe Frazier was known by most for having 'never won a first round in his life', Alvarez's diligent and consistent head movement only begins to protect him later into the bout.
By being in the habit of moving his head after he throws, or when his opponent steps in, Alvarez can mitigate much of the danger and keep his opponent playing catch up with his aim.
Michael Chandler, meanwhile, was working entirely on reactions. He insisted on that hands down fight stance and intended to prove his skill by bending back at the waist or slipping wildly in response to Alvarez's attacks.
Reacting is hard work. Alvarez didn't see every punch coming, but plenty which he didn't see still missed him. Chandler, however, threw himself off balance to get away from punches which he saw coming, and tired quickly as a result.
By the final two rounds, Chandler was simply eating blows whenever he walked forward.
Boxing in MMA is getting better. It's not up to the professional boxing standard, obviously, because anyone who can box well professionally would be more inclined to make decent money boxing than scraping by as an MMA fighter.
Moreover, elements of the MMA game shut down elements of the boxing game. The few occasions on which Chandler actually used low kicks caused Alvarez to stand still and eat a punch which followed. Another great example is how Cub Swanson and Edson Barboza used the threat of kicks to stand Ross Pearson up and remove the head movement which made him so hard to hit with punches.
What we will begin to see more of over the next few years is fighters using movement as Alvarez did and as Lyoto Machida, Cruz and Frankie Edgar do now. I will be interested to see if anyone other than Anthony Pettis and Cain Velasquez can learn to cut off a circular cage and buck this trend.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.