Explaining the Most Frequently Used Boxing Buzzwords
All sports have their own unique vocabulary, and boxing's is deeper than most. The high drama of the ring is accented by the colorful language from fans and commentators. The richness of the lexicon is probably a large part of what has attracted literary giants like Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to the sport.
To cover all the buzzwords a fan is likely to hear during a broadcast or while reading would require a small pamphlet. You could fill pages with phrases that are more or less unique to ESPN's Teddy Atlas. There are a number of good boxing glossaries on the web, with Ringside by Gus providing a particularly interesting one.
This slideshow will cover some of the phrases and terms I find most useful or interesting for the new fan who is trying to keep up.
In the old days of boxing, fights were often "to the finish," meaning that they went on for round after round until one man was either knocked unconscious or otherwise rendered physically unable to continue.
But in the modern era, for the protection of fighters and in order to win the status of civilized sport, boxing matches have been fought for a set number of rounds, with each round scored individually by three judges sitting on different sides of the ring. When neither fighter is stopped during the fight, the bout "goes to the judges' scorecards."
When scoring each round, a judge must award at least one fighter 10 points for winning the round. Technically, a judge can score a very close round a 10-10 draw, but in practice it is rare. I personally believe we might see more accurate cards if judges scored 10-10 more often.
While the winner gets 10 points for winning a round, the loser gets nine points or less. A close round is scored 10-9. A round with a single knockdown is scored 10-8 for the winner.
A two-knockdown round is scored 10-7, and a three-knockdown round is scored 10-6. A fighter can be awarded a 10-8 round for inflicting heavy damage without knocking his opponent down.
A lack of understanding of how boxing is scored is a source of some frustration for casual fans, because a fighter can suffer more damage than his opponent in one or two rounds while still deserving the victory based on winning more individual rounds.
As a person who has trained and watched a lot of mixed martial arts, I feel that sport's adoption of the 10-point-must system is unfortunate. With action continuing on the ground after a knockdown, there is no clear basis for scoring a round 10-8, and judges' individual subjectivity becomes even more problematic than it is in boxing.
Types of Decisions
When a fighter is knocked down by a blow and unable to make it back to his feet by the count of 10, the winner is awarded a victory by knockout. If a fight is stopped by the referee, the ringside doctor or a fighter's own team, in order to protect the losing fighter from further damage, it is counted as a technical knockout.
When all three judges score a victory for the same fighter, the fighter is awarded a unanimous decision. If one judge disagrees with the other two, it is a split decision. If one judge scores the fight even and two score it for the same fighter, it is a majority decision.
If all three judges score a fight even, it is a draw. If two judges score a fight even and one scores it in favor of one fighter, it is a majority draw. If two judges score the fight for opposing fighters while the third scores it even, it is a split-decision draw.
A referee can disqualify a fighter for fouling or using illegal tactics, although this is generally done after at least a few verbal warnings and one or two point deductions. But it can be done immediately, especially if the foul renders the opponent unable to continue.
If a fighter is rendered unable to continue as a result of an accidental foul, such as a clash of heads that opens a nasty cut, the fight goes to the scorecards for a technical decision, so long as four rounds have been completed.
Robberies and Home Cooking
Since judging a round of boxing is ultimately subjective, disagreement and controversy inevitably follow some judges' decisions. It is not uncommon to hear boxing fans complain that a fighter was "robbed" when they disagree with a decision.
Anybody who has seriously studied the history of boxing knows that a certain amount of corruption has always shadowed the sport and that robberies do in fact happen. But most of the time fights that are called robberies are very close fights where an argument could be made for either fighter.
It's important to remember, as well, that each judge is sitting in a unique spot around the ring and therefore sees a different perspective on the fight. Judges are also scoring between rounds without the benefit of instant replay and punch-stat numbers.
But I think it's also undeniable that the fighter with the greater reputation much more often ends up getting the benefit of the doubt in close rounds. A lot of judges seem to score based on what they are expecting to see rather than what is happening in the ring.
Many controversial decisions are the result of what is called "home cooking." These are decisions where a fighter performing in his hometown or nation is awarded a decision that he clearly seems not to deserve.
But fights in front of a partisan crowd are particularly tough to score. Action in a boxing match often occurs very quickly, and the difference between a landed and missed punch can be far less than an inch of space. When the crowd is cheering wildly for everything one fighter does, it can be difficult to accurately judge how effective he's truly being.
Still, at the end of the day, you would have to be more naive than the average Cub Scout not to understand that some judges truly are crooked, and that more than a few are grossly incompetent.
"Alphabet soup" refers to the various sanctioning bodies in the sport of boxing that recognize world champions.
In the old days of the sport, there was usually only one world champion in each weight class. Today, there are four major sanctioning bodies whose world champions are considered "true" by the boxing media and fans; however, even many of these champions are accurately dismissed as "paper champions" who haven't really fought and beaten any world championship-quality opponents.
In the 1960s, the World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Council (WBC) both emerged as sanctioning organizations. In the 1980s the International Boxing Federation (IBF) came on the scene, with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) arriving in the 1990s.
There are also smaller, less respected sanctioning bodies like the International Boxing Organization (IBO) World Boxing Federation (WBF) and International Boxing Association (IBA).
With all these competing claims and confusing letter abbreviations thrown around, the world-title picture is often no easier to read than an actual bowl of alphabet soup, with all its letter-shaped noodles floating in broth.
Types of Punches
The four most basic punches are the jab, cross, hook and uppercut.
The jab is thrown with the lead hand, which is usually the fighter's non-dominant hand and the hand that is closest to the opponent.
While some fighters like Wladimir Klitschko or Sergey Kovalev have extremely powerful jabs, in most cases, the jab is a tactical punch more than a punishing one. A fighter uses the jab to set up his power punches.
The jab helps the fighter to gauge his punching range and distracts his opponent. Most punching combinations start with the jab.
Teddy Atlas often refers to jabbing as "putting bugs on the windshield." In other words, blocking the opponent's vision so he can't see the bigger punch coming behind it.
The cross is a straight punch delivered with the fighter's rear hand, which is usually the dominant one. Power is generated by planting the back foot into the canvas and driving through the puncher's entire torso.
A "one-two combination" is when a fighter throws a jab and cross in succession. A cross is an overhand punch, although an "overhand left" or "overhand right" more frequently refers to a punch with a more looping arc.
The hook is a punch thrown from the side. By planting and twisting on the lead foot, a fighter can recruit power from his entire body into a hook thrown with the lead hand. A "one-two-three" combination is a jab-cross-lead hook combination.
The uppercut is an underhand punch thrown from close range. To generate power, the fighter drives up from the ground. An uppercut that lands flush beneath the chin from close range can be a skull-rattling punch.
A skilled boxer will throw a variety of punches in crisp, fluid combinations. A trained boxer can be very hard to catch with a single shot, so often a fighter throwing a multi-punch combination is really hoping to land with the third or fourth punch in the series.
Shoulder Rolling, Slipping and Covering Up
As much as he can, a boxer needs to avoid getting hit. But he also needs to remain in position to hit his opponent. So much of the time, it's better to be missed by a half-inch than it is by a foot.
To slip—or avoid—a punch, a fighter moves his head only slightly. One of the toughest things for a person taking up the art of boxing is to train himself to only slightly move his head away from an oncoming punch, rather than following natural instinct and jerking it wildly out of the way.
Often when slipping a punch, a fighter will roll his shoulder up and forward while tucking his chin to his chest. When a fighter rolls his shoulder, it usually shifts his weight into good position to punch in return. It also allows him to catch the punch on his meaty shoulder or upper arm, rather than his chin or nose.
The best defensive fighters make an entire science out of the shoulder roll. Defensive geniuses like Floyd Mayweather and Pernell Whitaker used slight slips, shoulder rolls, and bobbing and weaving to escape from violent exchanges nearly untouched.
Sometimes instead of avoiding a punch by slipping or rolling, a fighter will cover up behind his arms and gloves. A traditional high-guard defense involves a fighter keeping his arms up in front of his face and torso, providing a shield against punches.
A fighter behind his guard often employs a "catch-and-return" technique of absorbing his opponent's punches on his arms and then firing back with his own.
In large part, counterpunching is what most immediately distinguishes practitioners of the Sweet Science from two Toughman contestants hammering away at each other. When you unload your punches on your opponent with unrestrained aggression, you're a brawler. It can be a successful strategy, but it's still brawling.
But when you stand in front of your opponent's aggression, avoid it and then punish him for it, you're boxing.
A counterpuncher will use slips or shoulder rolls to avoid getting hit and then land quickly on his opponent while there's still an opening. Just when his opponent thinks he's about to land a big punch, the counterpuncher rattles his brain.
There have been plenty of great fighters in boxing history who have dominated fights by coming forward and absorbing punishment before unloading their own heavy artillery. And most of the best fighters in history have been able to go on the offensive when necessary.
But the majority of all-time greats were also excellent counterpunchers.
Fighting on the Outside and Pressure Fighters
A boxer who fights on the outside uses his jab, cross and foot movement to engage his opponent at the full extension of his punches. A fighter who specializes in fighting on the outside is usually one with very good speed and length.
"Stick and move" is a related term, referring to when a fighter uses lateral movement behind his jab to avoid his opponent's power shots and wait for the opportunity to deliver his own.
The opposite of a boxer who fights on the outside is a pressure fighter. A pressure fighter will attempt to cut off the ring on his opponent and move into close range, where he can score with hooks, uppercuts and looping overhands.
To get into range, a pressure fighter will often "bob and weave," which means moving up and down or side to side with his head while moving forward in order to give his opponent a difficult target to hit with straight punches.
This one sounds self-explanatory to a fan of my age, but since public payphones are quickly going the way of the dodo bird, perhaps that's not the case. I saw an actual, old-school telephone booth at a campground when I was on vacation last week and realized it was the first one I had seen in years.
A phone-booth fight is one where both combatants have committed to fighting at close range. There might be some bobbing and weaving and some slipping of punches or covering up to avoid them, but both men are remaining in range to be hit.
Phone-booth fights are considered "fan-friendly." Roberto Duran vs. Iran Barkley, included here, is a good example. It was The Ring's Fight of the Year for 1989.
Chin, Whiskers and Glass Jaws
When boxing people use the term "chin," they might be talking about the specific body part. But more likely they are talking about a fighter's overall ability to take a punch.
A fighter who can take a very hard punch is said to have a "great chin" or a "granite chin." Or fans might say "he's got whiskers."
A great chin is a gift from God. A fighter either has one or doesn't. You can't train your chin.
However, particularly skilled fighters can position themselves to at least get a better view of a punch coming at them and make minuscule adjustments to negate the impact. In the latter half of his career, Muhammad Ali made a high art of this.
Still, some fighters are cursed with poor chins. No matter what other talents they possess, they are always vulnerable to a big punch that catches them flush. These guys are said to have "glass jaws."
Ring generalship is a somewhat vague but absolutely crucial concept when it comes to scoring a boxing match. Just as a great military general will make sure to control the time and place where his army engages the enemy, a great ring general will control the pace of the fight and range at which the action is waged.
A great ring general will slow and quicken the tempo of a fight to deny opponents the opportunity to establish their own rhythm. The ring general will keep himself positioned in a manner that denies opponents the opportunity to get off with their own offense while slipping into position to score heavily in return. He will use the timing of his own punches to disrupt his opponent.
In the loosest terms, a great ring general dictates the terms of the fight. He will make it a tactical boxing match if that's the kind of fight that favors him. He will force a wild brawl when that's his best shot to win.
A fighter with great ring generalship will often be able to beat a quicker, stronger or larger opponent. Manny Pacquiao is a far more explosive athlete than Juan Manuel Marquez; however, Marquez has been Pacman's greatest rival because he is an outstanding ring general.
Champs, Contenders, Journeymen, Trial Horses and Palookas
The goal of every young fighter is to become a champion. But not everybody becomes a champion. Before the proliferation of alphabet-soup titles, many legitimately great fighters never became champs.
So from an old-school perspective, the true goal is to be a contender. A contender might not be a champion, but he has the skill and talent to be discussed as a potential challenger for championship gold.
Below the level of contender is the journeyman. A journeyman has skill and experience but lacks some essential aspect required to reach true contender status. It might be innate athletic talent or the right promotional connections.
Journeymen in boxing are like journeymen in the building trades. They are fully educated in their profession and craft. For the most part, they make a living competing against better fighters who are establishing themselves as contenders.
True fans understand that journeymen are the heart of the sport and have tremendous respect for them. A journeyman does not go into the ring planning to lose and if he'll expose an overhyped rising prospect if he gets the opportunity.
Below the journeymen are the trial horses. A trial horse is an experienced fighter with some ability. He gets matched against rising prospects to give them experience and help their handlers evaluate if the young fighter is ready to move up in class.
Some journeymen are former contenders or even develop into them. And the line between journeyman and trial horse is flexible. Some fighters reach contender status only to drop through the years and end their careers as trial horses.
But trial horses and journeymen both generally fight to win. I've seen guys with 3-8 records fight with everything they had and push 5-0 prospects to their limit. I've seen 7-7 guys beat guys who were 10-0.
A palooka is a different matter. Named for the old-time cartoon character, Joe Palooka—a punch-drunk boxer—a palooka gets paid to lose. He might not actually throw a fight, but he knows he's there to pad his opponent's record and probably hasn't trained very hard, if at all, for the fight.