I'm going to talk briefly today about something which you will see over and over again. A fighter wins or loses, and the forums are flooded with posts about how he has bad footwork. Simultaneously, I see fighters being praised for having good footwork who display obvious flaws.
Here's the problem: There isn't just one method of footwork for everyone.
There are certain things which everyone should be doing. For instance, crossing the feet should be avoided at all costs. But to say that a fighter has horrible footwork just because his doesn't look like another fighter's—whom you decree to have good footwork—is just not a great way to go about things.
Where does this come from? Well, when Muhammad Ali hit the boxing scene he was something to behold. He moved like no-one had ever moved at heavyweight and it attracted a great deal of attention. In talking himself up, Ali also talked down the likes of Joe Louis for what he perceived to be slow, shoddy footwork.
Check out this charming scene between Ali and the late, great Cus D'Amato (trainer of Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres).
Hold on a minute, though. Freddie Roach and many others consider Joe Louis to be one of the finest technical boxers of all time. Yet he had terrible footwork? Well, no. He didn't.
Louis' footwork suited his needs and style. He was a heavy hitter who liked to stay in range for counters. He stayed in his stance with his head off line and shuffled toward his opponent.
Sometimes he would take a slight step back to see if he could bait his opponents in, and eventually they would fall for it, and he would hammer them with big shots. I talk often about creating collisions, and Louis is a beautiful case study.
Ali's footwork, meanwhile, was a means to his end. He too wanted his opponents walking into his punches, but he accomplished this by being elusive and providing a great deal of hyperactive movement, punctuated by flicking jabs.
When he had his opponent annoyed enough to be reaching at him, he'd lower the boom with his favorite right-hand counter, commonly called the Anchor Punch (something which I shall discuss more in my upcoming print book, which is a technical biography of Ali).
Another fighter who was excellent at creating the chase was Willie Pep. It was the same move over and over and over again. He would step his foot back and begin circling with his feet level. As his opponent either turned to face him or moved to cut him off, Pep would step in with his right foot and nail him with a southpaw left straight.
Count how many times Pep does it. It's remarkable.
Sound familiar? Holly Holm does exactly the same thing. And there are plenty of fighters out there who have picked up on baiting the chase. Lyoto Machida is a master of a very karate-esque version of it.
So we have the shuffling footwork and the dancing footwork, but there's more.
A fighter whom Ali also mocked for his footwork was George Foreman. Here's the thing: Foreman (at his best) was considered one of the best ring cutters in the sport. He had bad performances where he got wild, but against Ken Norton and Ali, his feet looked brilliant. To recall that massively overused phrase in any English football broadcast: Foreman had "neat feet for a big man."
Here's Ali's usual eloquent salesmanship, spliced in with George Plimpton and Norman Mailer's more sobering assessment of Foreman, from the film When We Were Kings. If you have 90 minutes, watch the whole movie because it's easily the best fight film ever made.
Remember the Rumble in the Jungle? Why do you think Ali went to the ropes? He didn't have a choice. Foreman could take a shot with the best of them, his hands were always all over his opponent's hands and checking punches pre-emptively—something we saw a little of in Lawler vs. Hendricks—and when he got near enough the ropes, he often just pushed his opponent into them.
The aforementioned Pep had the exact same trouble in his incredible quartet of bouts with Sandy Saddler. Saddler also adopted the hands out in front "mummy" style of fighting and cut off the ring with the best of them. In addition, he butted, elbowed and generally fought dirtier than Foreman. A couple of decades later, he taught a young Foreman the same style.
Let's not forget the greatest of ring cutters, Julio Cesar Chavez. He too squared up to his opponents, offering more of a target, but moved them to the ropes anyway.
Louis wanted to waltz his opponent into punches, Ali wanted to peck and bait the chase, and Foreman wanted to push his way to the ropes and then get to work.
So which one had the bad footwork?
None of them. Refusal to dance is not bad footwork. Shuffling is not bad footwork. Squaring up and plodding in is not bad footwork—if you use that footwork to achieve your ends.
A quick example would be how the Diaz brothers and Fabio Maldonado love to fight against the fence—and are brilliant once they get there—but cannot follow an opponent who uses lateral movement. Their long, side-on stance does not fit well with cutting off the cage. Even in a ring, with lovely 90-degree corners, it is necessary to square up a little in order to trap someone there.
My purpose in this short piece was not to point to examples of bad footwork, however. I intended to highlight that a fighter's footwork is not about looking like another fighter's. Before Ali won his first world title, plenty of people said that Ali's footwork was horrible because it didn't look like Louis'. And there are plenty today who think that dancing is the pinnacle of footwork.
The truth is that different strokes work for different folks. If a fighter's footwork is conducive to his best fighting method, it is effective. If it is letting opponents escape while cutting off the ring, running them onto the fence too often or leaving them off balance so that they fall each time they are clipped, then it is problematic.
But whether it's beautiful or ugly, the results matter—not the looks.