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Counter Punching and Boxing – The Difference?

by Fran on April 1, 2012

The great Floyd Mayweather recently stated that he is the best counter punching boxer in the history of the sport. Counter punching aside (just for a moment), I actually believe that Floyd is one of the greatest boxers in history. I won’t go into the reasons for my opinion here, but because I feel that he’s one of the greatest boxers in history this means that by definition he is one of the greatest at counter punching.

In this article I want to explore what counter punching is and how it fits in with boxing. I also want to give 6 tips that will help you to exploit a range of tactics, skills and approaches to become an elite counter punching boxer.

So What is Counter Punching?

The Oxford English dictionary gives the following definition of counter punching:

Counter punching (noun) – Giving a punch for one received.

Now, I for one am not particularly comfortable using this definition. The main reason that I am reluctant to describe counter punching in such a way is that all of us involved in MyBoxingCoach don’t set ourselves up for the kind of style that requires taking a punch to land one. Boxing being the art of self-defence I would much prefer for boxers that I work with to appreciate the importance of effective defence.

There is another problem that I have with the OED definition of counter punching. This issue is a little more subtle, and in fact may be a little controversial. It’s this. Counter punching does not require an incoming punch to qualify as counter punching. Counter punching requires only that your opponent do something. It might be a punch but it might equally be some other kind of action, a hand block for instance, or a duck. This will become clearer as you read on, so try not to assume that I’ve gone slightly mad just yet.

There are any number of sources on the Internet that describe how to become a proficient exponent of the art of counter punching, and this is fine. But, after all of these many years of being a boxing coach I still struggle to properly distinguish between counter punching and, well, boxing. You see for me there is only one type of boxing that doesn’t use counter punching as a fundamental element, and this is the previously described ‘take one to land one’ scenario. Great boxing is great counter punching and great counter punching is great boxing.

Not that I don’t respect the great institution that is the Oxford English Dictionary, but I am proposing a MyBoxingCoach definition for the term counter punching:

Counter punching (noun) – Landing a punch in response to an action or reaction of an opponent.

Now that I’ve provided a slightly alternative view of counter punching it’s time to look at the 6 tips that I think will help you to really improve your boxing and by definition your counter punching.

6 Tips to Master Counter Punching

1.  Make your jab be the best it can possibly be.

We all know the importance of your jab. Range finding, setting up combinations, controlling your space and ultimately breaking your opponent apart. Add to this list the foundation for any range of counter punching techniques. Check out the jab of Wladimir Klitschko to get a demonstration of hammering home that jab so as to make the opponent react. This reaction is then punished.

2. Don’t wait to see what happens, make something happen!

A popular misconception regarding counter punching is that it involves waiting for the opponent to do something so that we can ‘counter’ it. 90% of counter punching exchanges are initiated by the counter puncher. How is this done? A mix of punching (see tip 1) and more often feinting. Brilliance in counter punching requires a thorough understanding of feinting techniques. A great place to start (aside from the article on Feinting in Boxing) is looking at the Roberto Duran Boxing Style Analysis article and checking out his use of the jab to establish counter punching onslaughts.

3. Build pre-set counter punching passages

Drills are incredibly important in any sport, and in boxing they are even more so. If you have taken the opportunity of signing up for the free mobility drills on the site, or indeed becoming a member of the Boxing Training Foundation, then you will know how much importance I place on drills.

The fact is that certain passages of boxing work very well together. For instance, a left hook to the body will create an opening to the head. The threat of a right uppercut may lift the head perfectly for a destructive short range left hook. So, it is very much worth constructing and practising these passages in gym time. You can start off with a couple of simple combinations. The possibilities are limitless:

Counter punching with Power!

Counter punching and side stepping

4. Identify patterns in the opponent’s responses

Set passages and combinations are great. But, this doesn’t mean that you should not study your opponent as you fight. Becoming skilled at spotting flaws takes time but real benefits can be gained quickly. For example, if your opponent brings their hand quite far forward when blocking your jab, this means that at the very moment that the block is taking place they are open to a left hook. It may be repetitive straight line movement, predictable attack methods or defensive frailties on the inside. All of these can be picked up and used in your counter punching strategy.

5. Adapt your counter punching to suit the opponent

This is really about whether you are counter punching on the front foot (going forward and attacking the opponent) or counter punching on the back foot. Most people consider counter punching to be a defensive type of boxing, but again it is not as straightforward as that.

Would you for instance consider Mike Tyson to be a counter punching specialist? Well, he absolutely was. All that jabbing and slipping combined with explosive foot movements and even more explosive punching was counter punching at it’s very best. Tyson never had height or reach over his opponents, so it would have been pointless trying to counter on the retreat. He adapted his boxing (and therefore counter punching) style to suit his opponents.

Not to be too simplistic, but a good general rule of thumb is that if you are facing a taller opponent then you are likely to reap more benefits from an attacking counter punching style. If you are facing a shorter opponent then you are more likely to benefit from a more conservative holding ground/retreating counter punching style.

6. Learn your hand defences and learn them well!

The 6th and final tip is in many ways the most important; make sure that all of your blocks and parries are perfectly executed. An opponent is most vulnerable when they punch. Furthermore, when you block a particular shot, the movements you have undertaken are supportive of your own follow up shot. So, if you block an incoming hook to the right side of your body, you store lots of leverage to unleash your own short range left hook.

Blocking your opponent’s jab means that you are in perfect range to land your own jab. So, a golden rule is when you block or parry, always, always throw your own shot. If you don’t then it’s an opportunity missed, and champs don’t miss opportunities.

And that’s it, a MyBoxingCoach view on counter punching. I have for the sake of this article drawn out the principle of ‘counter punching’, but I remain firmly fixed on the fact that the vast majority of boxers use counter punching extensively and don’t really think of it as counter punching as such. It’s just good boxing, plain and simple.

Let me have your thoughts below.

Cheers

Fran

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Karl April 2, 2012 at 4:25 am

I take my definition of counterpunching from my coach Harry Black, who was apparently known for his particular skill in this area during his years in the fight game. He would say that the raw beginner is (usually) only interested in offense. They want to throw the punch and hit the opponent without any real thought about what is coming back. The next stage is to develop a defensive side to the game, so that you have two weapons in your arsenal – the ability to hit, and the ability to avoid the hit. When watching these guys box you will notice that they are switching from one to the other – defense – offense – defense – offense. He labels the last stage of fighter development ‘the counterpuncher’. The counterpuncher is one who seamlessly blends defense with offense into one continuum. It’s funny that when he talks about this he’ll often bring his hands together and interlaces his fingers in a gesture that represents what he’s talking about. I have a nice video of him explaining the concept. I wish I could upload and share.

To me, what defines the counterpuncher is the opening. Openings come in two varieties, bad technique and offense. Everyone has the occasional slip-up with technique which leaves them open for attack, everyone has heard their corner shout ‘hands up!!!!’. The offensive fighter is one who takes advantage of these openings as the opponent allows them to appear, or he creates the opening with his own attack.

In contrast, the counterpuncher, to my mind, takes advantage of the other type of opening, namely, the one which is 100% guaranteed to be there when the opponent launches an attack AT YOU. Every time you punch you have created a hole in your defense. Knowing where to find that opening is a question of instinct and timing. For me, a good counterpunch is one that lands flush on his chin at the same time that his sails harmlessly over my shoulder.

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Fran April 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Karl

As usual, Harry has a very elegant way of describing the development of the perfect fighting machine. And indeed it’s reassuring to know that my thoughts align with a top-flight coach such as Harry Black. The experienced fighter develops an absolute awareness of threats and opportunities around them. He or she becomes mentally focussed and processes this threat/opportunity information in an effortless way. This underpins exactly the kind of counter punching style that Harry describes; versatile and effective. A Napoleon quote that I’ve used before I think is well worth keeping in mind “Defensive war does not exclude attacking, just as offensive war does not exclude defending…”

As for your view on what a counter puncher is, it’s on the money. It’s less of a challenge to master counter punching an offensive-minded opponent, but setting that trap to draw the lead is still the key to success. An interesting extension then is to consider the challenges of successfully breaking down the defensive-minded opponent with the same type of counter punching. Again the drawing of the lead is vital but this really needs to be combined with explosive foot movements AND punching. So, by definition a slightly more complicated business.

Thanks very much for the input Karl. It’s very useful to me and I’m sure the same is true for the site users.

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tj January 14, 2013 at 2:36 am

A good fighter does not necessarily have many openings (should and could have all knockout points protected) when throwing punches. The first basic skill to this statement is tucking your chin behind your punch thrown side shoulder (with fully turning your punch over). A more advanced outlook on being protected while having extended punches is to have an active non throwing hand (for example: if you have an extended jab then you should have an active rear hand). When doing this you most focus on your opponent and not where your punching is landing or how your technique looks (part of reason why it is advanced because you should not have to think about accuracy or technique when going live… it should be reaction/muscle memory). while looking at opponent the active rear hand is looking to parry/pick/block hook/etc., your extended punch side should be covered (knockout points) by your properly tucked chin and high shoulders (in this case an defensively active lead shoulder is a good skill to possess as well). Example of using this technique: fighter 1 (F1) has been throwing jabs and getting countered by fighter 2 (F2) by parry/jab. F1 knowing this counter by F2 (parry/jab) sticks a jab out expecting it to be parried, but at the same time has his defense active rear hand reading to parry F2′s counter jab. F1 parry’s the F2 counter jab, and now can throw a counter of his/her own. (parry/cross over the top of F2′s jab…parry/lead hook to head or body). defense active non extended side of your body is a great way to avoid counterpunching damage and also to counterpunch the counterpuncher.

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Ivan April 4, 2012 at 7:00 am

Floyd Pretty Boy Money Mayweather is no doubt a great talent and he cashed on it big time, turning his life into a reality show. Here is an example of his counter punching vs. a worthy opponent at 2.20:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MdwkND3ksE
You have expanded (or supplemented) the concept of counter punching and I would try to simplify it by outlining two main types: passive (reactive) – when you react to actions initiated by the opponent and active (proactive) – when you guide the opponent to a certain action/reaction and take advantage of it. I am sure there are subtle borderlines and inter relations that make it all into one with the whole game.
Here is an example of the active type when Tyson countered Bone-crusher Smith’s sense of humor at 35.09:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOZCO3SRmE0

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Fran April 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Good Floyd clip there Ivan. That kind of hand speed and movement speed certainly helps the counter punching process doesn’t it :-)

That lay back/right cross is a great move, real classy scoring shot. And a good simplification if you don’t mind me saying.

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Mo April 4, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Good article Fran, I agree with you on the definition of counter punching.

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Fran April 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Thanks Mo.

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Dave April 5, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Learning, understanding and honing all the technical aspects and expending yourself on your fitness workouts a person learning to box becomes a more technical boxer when he/she starts to gain the craft of being able to “act before you see it and see it before you act”. I say this to my young son who’s just starting out (about a year and 6months now). He’s starting to understand and it shows in his boxing and he’s just scratching the surface!!!
Lovely article we have here Fran… it’s just old time boxing lessons coming back to teach our young boxers of today!
Cheers again coach, Dave ;o)

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Fran April 6, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Good stuff Dave. Experience is such a telling factor exactly in order to “act before you see it and see it before you act”. It always heartens me when I see the rate that boxers learn as they spar and take part in competition. I’m sure that you’ll see that come to the fore with your son. The more involvement he has tackling other boxers the better he will get. Success is definitely a ‘long game’ in the vast majority of cases. Keep them happily learning and they will continue to want to be around the sport.

Great comment. Thanks Dave

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goncalo September 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm

hey fran great article as usual!!what about counterpunching for southpaws?what are your thoughts about the best “weapons” to counterpunch has a left handed?

Best regards
Goncalo

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Fran September 5, 2012 at 8:42 am

Hi Goncalo

Good question. The lead hand blocks and parries, combined with pivots and lead hand hooks are always good for southpaws. There are videos on all of these skill elements on the site, the job is to combine them effectively. Thanks for the comment!

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Anonymous January 29, 2013 at 6:25 am

Gud stuff mate liked the way u put that iv started a boxing club and have trouble with big lads, so I need 2 work on counter punching on the front foot Nd exploding in Tyson style ha cheers wot wud u say 2 be the best way 2 learn kids countering my 7 year old is starting boxing wen he’s 8 he doz tkd Nd panics when punches start cumin 2 him I’m trying 2 learn him how 2 slip duck parry but wen he spars it goz out the window and he drops his hands? Eny thing wot I cud drill with himself cheers

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ruhaan March 2, 2013 at 3:41 am

you are too good

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Fran March 2, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thank you, very flattering.

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markzima June 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Hi Fran,
You wrote: “Not to be too simplistic, but a good general rule of thumb is that if you are facing a taller opponent then you are likely to reap more benefits from an attacking counter punching style. If you are facing a shorter opponent then you are more likely to benefit from a more conservative holding ground/retreating counter punching style.”

Am I wrong to associate the attacking style you mention with more in-fighting, and the conservative style with more trying to keep distance? And is this rule of thumb based on the idea that the taller boxer is likely to often have a reach advantage? What if it happens that reach and height don’t correlate? I ask because in the W. Klitschko v. Rahman fight, Kilitschko was significantly taller, but the announcer said that Rahman still had the longer reach. Even so, it seemed that Klitschko was doing great avoiding in-fighting (still having the more attacking style), despite having the reach disadvantage. Which do you think should generally be more important in affecting what style one should use, height or reach? And why do you think Rahman’s reach advantage seemed to be such a non-factor with regard to Klitschko being comfortable keeping his distance?

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Fran June 13, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Hey Mark. Thanks for the really insightful and thought-provoking question. I will try to answer as best I can.

The attacking style is not strictly in-fighting because if your opponent has a longer reach then you need not necessarily take it to close range to do the damage. In fact, you could probably do most of your damage on the way in, at long and mid range. It’s about neutralising the reach advantage by prompting your opponent to throw a punch (known as ‘drawing the lead’ or triggering the opponent) by using feints and/or punching. Once the opponent throws the shot and you know it’s coming, the reach advantage is pretty much irrelevant.

I would guess that there is generally a correlation between height and reach (Anatomists feel free to correct me here), but there are exceptions. Recently Guillermo Rigondeaux, although giving height away to Nonito Donaire, was adamant that he had a greater reach. However, for me it was Rigondeaux’s beautiful understanding of range that really counts. His precise position in relation to his opponent allowed him to cancel out the (supposed) reach advantage with great skill.

For me, it’s not about reach, it’s about a) perception of range and b) brilliant footwork. Think about it. Generally speaking, any reach advantage is going to be maybe 3-6 inches. That’s about half the length of a human foot. Judgement of range and precise and explosive foot movements can more than make up for that. Wladimir is more than capable of that.

Thanks again for the question Mark, I hope that my response has helped.

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markzima June 16, 2013 at 11:20 am

Thanks Fran, I think this will be productive for me to think about.

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Fran June 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Cheers Mark.

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