BOXING FUNDAMENTALS – THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOTWORK
Every task, every skill has a foundation. When it comes to Boxing, and many sports not just combat sports, it is footwork which provides the foundation to a great athlete. When building a house, the foundations must be strong to support the house. A tree will dig its roots deep into the ground and spread them out far and wide underneath. For those with an eye on building themselves a better physique, again it is the basic compound movements which build the foundations to a great physique, the squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press to name but a few. The great Martial Artist and Film star Bruce Lee famously said ‘I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.’ Of course this statement from Bruce Lee has more than one meaning, but the essence is the same, to master a skill you must do the ‘boring’ drills over and over and over again.
For a sport like Boxing, in which everyone sees the hands because of its emphasis on punching with the fists, many will overlook what is going on underneath with the footwork, and it is the footwork which provides the foundation for an accomplished Boxer.
The history of Boxing is full of fighters who were special with their footwork. We all know why Muhammad Ali was so great as a Heavyweight, because he moved his hands and his feet faster than anyone else. Ali’s ability to ‘float like a butterfly’ left his opponents befuddled, unable to close the gap with a Young Ali which often led to them overreaching to compensate and in turn getting countered by Ali as they fell into his trap. But there have been others who were just as good or even better than Ali with their fleet feet, Willie Pep was a master of moving around the ring capable of spinning his opponents as if at a ball dance. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker could have been named ‘Plastic Man’ with his perfect balance. There is also current Super Bantamweight champion Guillermo ‘El Chacal’ Rigondeaux who is an expert at changing direction. Then there is Roman ‘Chocolito’ Gonzalez, viewed by some as the best pound for pound Boxer in the sport today whose silky footwork allows him to effortlessly switch from offense to defense and vice versa. It doesn’t end there, Sugar Ray Robinson, who is most commonly regarded as the finest Boxer the sport has seen, learnt dancing as a child and even helped his mother save for an apartment by earning change dancing for strangers in Times Square. In today’s game we have Vasyl Lomachenko, nicknamed ‘Hi-Tec’ who has been amazing the sport with his skilled footwork and ability to punch off angles, just like Sugar Ray Robinson, Lomachenko also learnt to dance at a young age, his father pulling him out of the gym at age 9 to send him off to dance school for 4yrs. The dance lessons which emphasis footwork and proper balance, clearly paid off for both Sugar Ray and Vasyl Lomachenko. The Boxers named may have had the more appealing to the eye kind of footwork but don’t overlook many greats who may have seemed slow of foot to the casual observer, but also used efficient footwork to stalk their prey and corner their opponent in the ring. The Heavyweight great George Foreman was one such example, he was able to cut off the ring and unleash his heavy hands on his opponents. Another current champion Gennady Golovkin simply walks down his opponent, again using ring craft and savvy footwork to cut off the ring. A boxer who was extremely efficient with his footwork, never wasting a step was Heavyweight great Joe Louis who ruled the division from 1937-1949. James Toney, a three weight World Champion is another example of someone who used efficient footwork.
So we can see here, Boxing is just as much about the feet as it is the hands. The basics of footwork are very simple, when moving forwards, the lead leg moves first and the rear leg follows, when moving backwards, the rear leg moves first and the lead leg follows. For going to the left, your lead leg will go first and your rear leg will follow and for the right, the rear leg moves first followed by the lead leg(orthodox boxers). Walking may be frowned upon in some circles but it is actually an effective tool when used at the right time, which is when you are out of range so you can conserve energy.
When punching, you must still move the feet first before you punch, else your opponent can quicker gauge your distance and better see your punches coming. When I am teaching kids to Box, after the warm up, the session always starts with footwork. It will also always end with footwork. Moving to your left and pivoting, moving to your right and using the shuffle step. When Floyd Mayweather Jnr was asked about beginning to Box, he replied ‘Pivot’. Learn to Pivot as soon as you have learned the basic Boxing steps, ie moving forwards, backwards, left and right. A pivot helps to create an angle, which can allow you to punch from a different angle or simply move out of the way of an incoming punch. It also forces your opponent to reset themselves before attempting to throw a punch because now the angle has changed and they simply cannot continue going forwards punching. A pivot is essentially swinging your rear leg around whilst your lead leg remains planted, your rear leg will end up almost behind your opponents legs(assuming your opponent is facing you) an effective move for example, would be to jab, pivot and follow up with the left hook(orthodox fighters) this is most commonly used when your opponent is on the ropes.
Cutting off the ring is simply mirroring your opponents movement, whichever way they go, you go, if your opponent moves to the left, you move across, if they move to the right, you also move across, thereby ‘cutting’ off space, you do not want to be following your opponent, that is a recipe for disaster because you will never catch them and end up eating their punches or running out of gas.
Common mistakes to avoid – do not move forwards heel first, you want to be moving on the balls of your feet, especially when going forwards. Moving on the balls of your feet allows for greater balance and allows you to shift or change direction much more fluidly. Heels down will lead to you becoming flat footed and slower. Of course having better balance means you will also punch better. Another common mistake is moving back in straight lines, if you do this, you will end up on the last place you want to be and the place your opponent wants you to be – the ropes! When moving backwards, come off the centre line, so move back a couple of steps and then angle away to either the left or the right. Another way to come off the centre line would be to use the L-step, the L-step is to simply move your lead leg back and simultaneously kick across with the rear leg so the whole movement creates an L shape, hence the name.
Aside from drilling in footwork by repetition, is there anything else you can do to help? Jumping rope is probably the movement which most replicates ring movement, so it is a good way to help you achieve the balance and leg strength required for moving around the ring. It also helps you to get into rhythm that much quicker which is very important when sparring/fighting, if your rhythm is off, everything else will be off too, its why you see Boxers bouncing up and down in the ring before the fight, they just want to get into that flow and feel the rhythm before the bell sounds so they are ready to go. If you are feeling too tight in the hips and too stiff in the knees when moving around the ring, then skipping rope should help with this. Footwork is an often overlooked aspect of the game, but give it the time it deserves and it is the quickest way to progress in the ring. It is at the core of everything you do, great balance, power and defense all comes from having sound footwork. Having great footwork allows you to move out of range to avoid a punch and then allows you to come back into range to land your own punches, hit without getting hit – and isn’t that the essence of what Boxing is all about?
Brandon Krause discusses the pivot
Boxing Coach Strength and Conditioning Coach Boxing Writer for the Ringside Report Boxing Author of: (Available for download on Amazon) The Boxing Cheat Sheet - Your Ultimate Guide to Ring Survival Strength and Conditioning for Boxing - Work out Hits to get you Fighting Fit! Forgotten Legends of the Ring - Ten Past Masters of the Squared Circle