For many people, boxing is strictly a waist-up proposition. They contend that any stepping, prancing or lunging is done only to meet or evade an opponent and, thus, is considered secondary to the fighters' upper body skills.

It's a reasonable - but inaccurate conclusion. Unlike mixed martial arts (MMA)  or Muay Thai - another form of boxing that permits kicking, standard boxing is all about the punches. That doesn't mean footwork in boxing serves no specific purpose.

The boxing ring is pretty big and the best fighters make the most of the space available to deploy a variety of strategies, both defensive and offensive. Getting from one side of the ring to another isn't just a matter of advancing or retreating, each footstep is calculated to give maximum advantage to the fighter executing it.

Before getting into how you too can build your footwork technique, let's look at some boxing footwork masters, explain what their style made possible and how footwork is essential, even if you don't aspire to box at their level.

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Boxing Footwork to Study

Believe it or not, many female boxers got into boxing after watching Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Hilary Swank. Have you seen it?

In a pivotal scene, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), gym owner and former boxer trainer, teaches Maggie how to work the speed bag. He instructs her to hit with her weight on her front foot, shift her weight to her back foot and shift her weight forward to hit the bag again. He told her that rhythm is what the speed bag is all about; coordinating your hands' moves with what your feet are doing.

After that bit of tutelage, Maggie became a whiz at hitting the speed bag.

Develop your footwork while you train on the speedbag
Like Maggie, you can develop your footwork as you work the speedbag. Photo credit: trustypics on VisualHunt.com

You might think of boxing footwork as the drums in a band. They set up and maintain the rhythm that the ensemble follows - except, in boxing, the ensemble is the rest of your body.

Tying music and boxing together is Muhammad Ali. So impressive and impactful was his fighting style that musician Derrick Morgan was inspired to write an entire song about him that included the lines: "He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee".

And then, just to drive the point home, the chorus ends with "I'm Ali, catch me if you can!".

Both of those lines are references to this legendary fighter's footwork, until then unseen in the ring. So energetic and light was his footwork that he seemed to be in many places at once, charging his opponents from all angles.

Vasiliy Lomachenko, the Ukrainian fighter and Olympic gold medal winner, provides a current example of such lightning-quick, disorienting footwork. He fairly dances around his opponents, in remarkably close quarters, confusing them so that they don't know where his next blow will come from.

It's not for nothing he's nicknamed The Matrix. Sports analysts often comment on his seeming to be in several places all at once, as Neo is seen doing in the film, moving with such speed that his opponents can't track his movements.

Floyd Mayweather is another boxer with hypnotic footwork. If you only focus on how and where his feet move - not on what his arms are doing, you will be floored by the simple logic of his strategy.

It was most noticeable in his 2015 fight against Manny Pacquiao. Knowing Manny is a southpaw, Mayweather constantly took away his opponent's advantage by pivoting to the left, thereby reducing Manny's ability to get any power behind his punches. Indeed, many felt the much-hyped event was a let-down because Pacquiao could hardly land a punch.

The viewing audience reserved a fair share of their disappointment for what they saw as Mayweather's overwhelmingly defensive strategy, too.

Still, for someone who learned how to box at home, Manny Pacquiao made quite a name for himself in boxing; he should be forgiven for not putting as much emphasis on footwork as he did on his wicked upper body performance.

But you shouldn't make the same omission.

How Footwork Boosts Boxing Wins

Simply put, if your opponent has no idea where you are or will be, they can't aim anything at you.

Again invoking Lomachenko, who has elevated boxing footwork to an art form, he complements his split-second footwork with a technique that involves blocking opponents' fields of vision while stepping into a new position, and then landing another blow.

His fighting technique is arguably the clearest demonstration of 'you can't hit it if you can't see it'.

He provokes his opponent to a defensive posture - gloves up, thus narrowing their field of vision. With only small sightlines on either side of their gloves and a small window straight ahead, Lomachenko further restricts that field of vision by holding his arm or glove in front of their face while quickly sliding to his opponent's other side.

An improper stance could reduce your hits' power and destabilise you
Too wide or too narrow a stance takes power away from your punches and may leave you imbalanced. Photo credit: kate.gardiner on Visualhunt

It's a brilliant and effective strategy but his is not the only way that footwork boosts boxing wins.

Effective footwork training leads to

  • better balance
  • more even weight distribution
  • extra momentum
  • added force to your blows
  • more frequent openings as opponents drop their guard to orient themselves

Some people - this writer included, deplore the attention given to strikes in boxing. For our money, the more impressive feat of boxing is engineering positions to make those strikes most powerful and effective.

When seen in that light, it's easy to understand footwork as the vital component that drives boxing wins.

Types of Boxing Footwork

Whether you are enamoured of Muhammad Ali's classic but relatively simple footwork or find yourself slowing your video player to get a frame-by-frame look at Floyd Mayweather's moves, you'll notice a common denominator: every boxer uses a combination of slides, pivots and shuffling.

You might say that Muhammad Ali's signature move was shuffling. So adept was he at the shuffle that he could move from an opponent's right side to his left at lightning speed and, once in position, step in to land his jab before stepping back again and shuffling to the other side.

Mr Ali was no slouch in the hand speed department, either. That was another factor that allowed him to overwhelm opponents.

The 'step-in, step-out' move Ali used to land his jabs is better known as the slide. It involves taking a quick step forward with your front foot; your back foot will slide forward to follow.

The name 'slide' may be misleading; it's not like the dance move Electric Slide, in which your lagging foot actually drags; in boxing you don't want that drag because the extra friction could slow you down. You definitely don't want anything slowing you down in a fight.

And then, the pivots; maybe the most common move across multiple sports, from basketball to dancing. Pivoting entails planting one foot and pivoting your entire body on that foot.

In boxing, you may pivot so that your hitting arm is facing your opponent when preparing to land a blow and then, pivot back to get out of their reach.

Understand that pivoting is not hopping from facing left to facing right, as you might see in a Muay Thai or UFC contest. In boxing, pivoting entails keeping one foot on the ground and rotating your body up to 180 degrees on that foot.

As you practise shadow boxing at home, you should incorporate these three broad footwork categories so that you can coordinate the rhythm of your feet's moves with the work your upper body is doing.

Keep both feet on the mat as you learn to develop your footwork
As you practise your boxing footwork, do your best to keep both feet on the mat. Photo credit: www.chrisbirds.com on Visualhunt.com

Work on Your Boxing Footwork

Admittedly, footwork is not a skill beginner boxers are encouraged to develop. Once your boxing coach determines you have mastered the basics of boxing, they will incorporate footwork into your training routine. Here's what you can expect from that phase of your boxing training.

First, you'll learn the proper stance: your lead foot should be about eight inches in front of you with your back foot, turned outward, is slightly behind you. Your knees should be slightly bent, with your upper body squarely balanced on your hips. Keep your shoulders loose and tilt your chin toward your chest.

Now, try shifting your weight from your front to your back foot; see how that feels.

And then:

  • develop your posture, keeping your spine as straight as possible.
  • practise the ability to balance and move on the balls of your feet
  • learn to launch yourself from your back foot instead of stepping forward with your front foot
    • remember to slide your back foot up once your front foot is in position to maintain your fighting stance
  • keep your feet on the mat - or as close to it as possible
  • avoid cross-stepping; do not cross your feet

One of the most important takeaways from footwork lessons is that your upper body must remain relaxed. Tensing your upper body makes for more difficult pivots and adds stress to the work your feet have to do. Instead, let your feet guide your movement.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, considering that the blows come to the upper body... but that's just a part of boxers' extraordinary mindset. A great deal of your conditioning as a boxer is learning to lean into the punches, not flinch away from them.

If you're taking private boxing lessons, your coach will surely explain that seeming illogic, even as they work to instil it in you.

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Jess