Boxing: The Roles of the 4 Basic Punches

For the uninitiated, boxing can be inscrutable. The hype around huge bouts can be alienating, but it’s called “The Sweet Science” for a reason. The best way to fully understand the joy of combat sports, and boxing in particular, is to learn the different types of punches.

When you know why Joe Louis taking a particular big swing and miss at the fast-moving Muhammad Ali gets the crowd going, the sport takes on an entirely new dimension. With combat sports first on the list to return as the coronavirus pandemic abates, now’s a better time than ever to learn the four basic punches used in boxing.

The best defense is a good offense: when to use the humble jab

Variations of one punch make up the core of boxing as a whole: the jab. New boxing fans may question why these short, quick punches are so common when these fighters are often capable of laying out their opponent with a single well-placed hit. But the utility of these punches are immense.

Jabs essentially serve as offense and defense at the same time. Irregular quick jabs keep opponents at bay, making it difficult for them to find an opening for a big hit. They take up little energy. They allow defensive fighters like Floyd Mayweather to deploy winning strategies where they land a few body blows off jabs to keep their score up while walking back.

Some fighters master a more purely offensive version of the jab. Sonny Liston infamously mixed in devastating strength into certain hits of his jab combinations. He once knocked out an opponent’s teeth with this short, immediately retracted punch, reports The Fight City.

Calculated risks, big punch: the heavy cross

Liston’s heaviest jabs bordered on being a totally different type of punch: the heavy cross. The difference is, a real cross has much more body power behind it. The fighter braces their legs, to shift their weight and put immense force behind the punch.

Unlike the jab, a heavy cross inherently leaves the fighter vulnerable. Their legs are locked, and their weight heads in one direction, so whiffing is dangerous. The punch also uses more energy, since more muscle groups and force are involved. But the reward is big damage that pays off in slowing down the opponent. And judges like to see these types of punches land when the scorecard comes due.

A huge hit they won’t see coming: the hook

Constant jabs add up, forcing fighters into defensive tactics. They can choose to walk back, opening up space. Or, they can turtle up and guard, baiting the offensive fighter in to fish for an opportunity.

The big way to cash in is via the hook. These punches take their energy from a sudden hip pivot that transfers energy through an arm held out at shoulder level. The attack comes in from the side, hopefully fast enough to catch a fighter in the middle of a jab combination who isn’t able to guard themselves.

Given the height, hooks are often the punch of choice to straight-up end a fight. But the nature of this exaggerated, powerful punch means the one throwing it is massively exposed. When a fighter like Ryan Garcia notches a K.O. off his devastating left hook, it’s usually the result of many decisions that came before. He had to condition his opponent throughout the round to feel comfortable taking the risk to end it like this.

The move that creates more opportunities: the uppercut


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When most people intuitively come up with the punch they’d throw in a fight, the uppercut is probably the first thing that comes to mind. This nasty, jaw-shattering punch is another full-body punch like the hook. But rather than the energy moving up from the hips, it’s the whole torso that gets lifted by the shoulders.

But uppercuts aren’t necessarily the K.O. attempts that heavy hooks often are. The location of the punch is meant to rattle the opponent, and knock their feet out of place. That’s how knockout king Mike Tyson’s most shocking upset went down. James “Buster Douglas, knocked to the ground by Tyson just minutes before, came back unexpectedly strong. He got his feet back, and made the risky choice of using his remaining energy on a huge uppercut attempt.

It landed. Tyson lost his footing and never recovered. The rest of the round, Douglas leveraged the opportunity opened up by the uppercut, peppering Tyson with combinations until the bout came to a shocking close. Remember: every punch is about opening up another opportunity. Whether it’s about conditioning your opponent mentally, or overwhelming them physically, each punch from a professional boxer has a purpose.