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A Discussion of Boxing Stances Through History

By Ken Pfrenger

A view of Gentleman John Jacksons Boxing Academy in 1821


In Ancient Greece, the stance of the pugilist was to have the left arm held high and bent near the head, while the right arm remained free to hook and thrust with. There was very little science and very little in the way of footwork. When the modern eye, accustomed to seeing the modern sport of boxing, sees a photo or drawing of one of the old time bare knucklers in the strange looking old extended stance that was common before the turn of the 20th century, they may think one or both of the following: "They stood that way because their skills were primitive." "A modern boxer would eat that guy up." Both of these statements prove to be false when you look at the reasons such stances were used and contrast them to the sport of Modern Boxing. Lets work backward through time.

Fig.1
First let's look at the stance of the modern boxer (Fig1) i.e. up on the toes; good mobility, hands held high, front foot turned in slightly ( in theory anyway...many do not do this). I will not lie; this is a good fighting stance and it is the best possible stance, in my opinion, to use while boxing under the modern or Marquis of Queensbury rules. There are several variations on this stance and all work good in the modern ring. With a few moderations the stance can easily be made to configure to the common stance under the Broughton rules, but I am getting a little bit ahead of myself here.

Fig.2 and Fig.3


Now, moving onto the bareknuckle stance that most people are familar with from boxings Golden Age, John L Sullivan, Paddy Ryan, Jem
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Mace, Heenen, Sayers....etc. Fig 2 and 3 show this strange extended lead stance with the arms held relatively low and the legs very straight. It is very different from the modern stance we are so used to seeing. Does this mean it was not as effective as the modern stance? No, it just means that boxing had different rules, and like the modern stance, the older stance catered to the rules of the game. These rules were known as the London Prize Ring Rules, or, to save myself the trouble, the LPR. The LPR took over from the Broughton rules in 1838. They were very similar but slightly more refined than the earlier system. Let's take a quick look at what was deemed illegal under the LPR. No butting No hitting a downed man No hitting below the belt No gouging or biting No kicking or falling on an opponent knees first No grabbing from the waist down All these thing are illegal in modern boxing just as they were in the LPR, but look at the holes these rules leave in regards to grappling and rabbit punching. In the LPR, a round ended whenever a person hit the canvas, or, more often than not, the dirt. (If you ever wondered how boxing matches lasted 90 rounds in the bare knuckle days, now you know. But consider this: If the fight was 90 rounds that meant that someone hit the canvas 90 times.) Various throws, such as the crossbuttock and back heel, were employed with great success if one of the boxers got too close to the other. Infighting was a totally different concept back in the day than it is now. No referee to break up a clinch, only a cheering crowd wanting to see one of the boxers get dumped. This vastly changed the concept of boxing range in the period. Arms were positioned to accomodate the rules since an extended guard is more favorable at the longer range that the fighters found themselves punching from. Boxing under the LPR was very much a range game. Now what about the hands? Why did they hold them vertical or with the knuckles pointing at the other guy? Until the use of gloves became common in the ring, pugilists struck with a vertical fist nearly all the time. Why did they use the vertical fist? First reason is that it is just plain safer to hit with a vertical fist than a horizontal one. There is less chance of injury, especially on any swinging type of punches. They did use a horizontal fist when the target warranted one. The side of the neck is a good example of such a target. Another benefit of the vertical fist is the slight reach advantage you get when using it. It is not a huge difference, maybe just an inch, but every little bit helps. That punch that might have only been a glancing blow with a horizontal fist now catches with a vertical fist. Let's do a little experiment on the difference in reach between a vertical and horizontal fist. I think you will find this interesting. Go to a wall and place your fist horizontally against it with your arm completely extended, as if at the end of a punch. Keep firm pressure on the wall. Now, take your horizontal fist and rotate it clockwise to a vertical position. You should be able to feel your body pushing away from the wall. Now, just for kicks, keep rotating your fist to the palm up position and note the extra little bit of reach that is gained. While you are still at the wall, look at how your hand connects with the flat of the wall. If you have your fist made correctly and your wrist tight, you will notice that the knuckle of your index finger will not touch the wall. Why? Because it does not line up with the bones of the wrist and forearm. In order to get the full benefit of skeletal alignment, punches should land focused on the knuckels of the middle, ring and little finger. This goes against the common idea of hitting with your first two knuckes, but, it gives you proper skeletal alignment which will not only add to the stiffness of your punches, but, will lessen the risk of injuring yourself. When hitting a surface that is not flat, but covered in different curves or angles like the human body is, you will hit with your index finger knuckle; it is unavoidable. Just make sure not to target with the first two knuckles. There are other minor factors in the reasons why the LPR stance is different than the modern, but I will leave them for you to research and discover. We are now going to move on to the stance under the Broughton Rules before this article gets too long.

Fig.4
The stances used under the Broughton Rules look slightly more familiar to the eye than those of the LPR era. Hands are held a little higher than during the LPR. Stance has a little more spring to it. Why was the earlier stance different from the later? The Rules! The Broughton Rules were written up by the great English Pugilist Jack Broughton on August 16, 1743. They stated: "That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down. " Not a whole lot of things were considered illegal when compared to the LPR. No rules against butting, gouging, kicking, or hitting below the belt. Mostly, the rules just kept the boxing match from becoming a wrestling match. One can easily see the need for a higher guard and a
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faster stance than in the LPR days. The seemingly sparse rules do not mean that every boxing match of the era was a gouging, groin punching festival. After all, this still was boxing. Once again, we see the knuckles pointed at the adversary so that when the punch is thrown, the added power of the twist can be added to the vertical fist. A good example of the Broughton era was the fight between Daniel Mendoza and Gentleman John Jackson. Mendoza was a fantastic fighter who weighed in at around 160 lbs. He often fought much heavier opponents and, with his long black hair, was something of an exotic figure in the sport at the time. When he faced the ironically nicknamed Gentleman John Jackson, he found himself caught by the hair very quickly and pummeled into submission in around ten minutes. Needless to say, many fighters during the Broughton era kept their heads either shaved or croppped short. Interestingly, in Thomas Parkyns manual of Close-Hugg wrestling, the 1727 edition, the author gives advice for boxing; soap your hair before a match to make it harder to grab. If only Mendoza would have listened to good advice given nearly seventy years earlier. There are several stances illustrated from the early years of ruled boxing. The one I illustrate above is the middle ground between the others, in my opinion. There is a drawing of Mendoza where he is depicted with his hands held even distances from the body, almost side by side. Another variation shows the lead hand held closer to the LPR stances, yet still held in a higher fashion. The rear hand held lower, with the forearm covering the "mark" or solar plexus. Little is known about the stances and rules before Jack Broughton wrote up his rules in 1743. It is said that Broughton was inspired to write his rules after he killed a fellow pugilist in the ring some years before. Broughton was a student of the great James Figg, who opened his school of boxing in 1719. Figg was a master of fencing and singlestick and he fought many exhibitions and matches, remaining undefeated until he retired in 1730.
Special thanks to Ken Pfrenger for permission to republish this article. 1/12/09

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