How Boxing Works

A simple description for boxing is that it is a fist fight that happens in a ring during a series of rounds.
Public Domain
Ricardo Dominguez (left) rallied late to win the fight over Oregon's Rafael Ortiz.

Boxing is one of the simplest and oldest sports. Two people (usually men) fight each other with their fists until one of them is knocked unconscious. Add a history that spans centuries, a host of outrageous characters, a potent dose of controversy and corruption, and the ever-present possibility of glory or tragedy, you're left with something even more compelling than a basic test of strength and will.

In this article, we'll look at the basics of boxing, how you win or lose, the ranks, divisions and titles, the science behind it, boxing history and the danger of the sport.

Boxing Basics
A boxing match is not a brawl or a street fight. There are rules to designate a winner, keep the match interesting for fans and reduce the chance of serious injury to the boxers. The rules vary in some ways between amateur (Olympic) boxing and professional boxing, and even between pro boxing organizations. Before a major match, a rules meeting is held in which all the rules particular to the upcoming match are explained.

­The boxing ring itself is a raised, s­quare platform with a canvas surface over roughly an inch of padding. Flexible ropes enclose the ring, secured to steel posts at all four corners. The exact dimensions of the ring depend on the organization sanctioning the fight. Rings in smaller venues may only be 16 feet to a side, while Olympic boxing allows rings up to 20 feet in diameter. A few professional organizations allow rings up to 25 feet.

There are a number of things a boxer is not allowed to do inside the ring -- this helps prevent injury and keeps matches from degenerating into an uncontrolled brawl. Boxers may not do any of the following:

  • Strike below the belt
  • Strike when an opponent is down on the canvas
  • Kick
  • Strike with elbows, forearms or the inside of the hand (slap)
  • Head butt
  • Bite ears (you wouldn't think this rule needed to be spelled out, but Mike Tyson proved that wrong)
  • Grab onto the ropes
  • Poke the eye with a thumb (in the post-fight interview after defeating George Foreman in 1974’s "Rumble in the Jungle," Muhammad Ali's right eye was red and swollen from a Foreman eye poke)
  • Wrestle, grapple or hold him excessively
Up Next

Committing any of these acts may result in a foul, which can cause the deduction of points by the judges. Committing a foul repeatedly or very flagrantly will result in a disqualification by the referee.

A boxing match is divided into rounds of two or three minutes, with a one-minute rest period in between. Professional matches are 12 rounds at the championship level (they used to go for 15). Ten rounds or less may be scheduled at lower rankings. Amateur matches have only three, four or five rounds, with rounds lasting two minutes. Junior divisions can have even shorter rounds.

Boxing gloves are made from padded leather, designed to protect the hands as well as reduce the damage done to an opponent. Under the gloves, the hands are carefully wrapped in athletic bandages -- this wrapping is closely regulated. Amateur boxers also wear headgear that primarily protects against cuts and scrapes.


Goals of Boxing

If there isn't a knock out, judges will award points based on scoring punches.  The boxer with the most points at the end, wins.
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Marines
If there isn't a knock out, judges will award points based on scoring punches. The boxer with the most points at the end, wins.

A boxer's goal is to knock his opponent down, stunning him so severely that he can not regain his feet before the referee counts to ten. This is called a knockout (KO), and results in a victory for the boxer still standing. When a boxer knocks his opponent down, he must retreat to a neutral corner, i.e., not one of the corners where the boxers' trainers wait to assist them between rounds.

If the knocked-down boxer can stand quickly enough, the referee (the only person allowed in the ring other than the boxers) makes sure he's OK and able to defend himself, and the fight goes on. Sometimes the rules call for a mandatory eight count. That is, even if the boxer jumps to his feet immediately, the referee makes him wait until he's counted to eight to rejoin the fight. In some rules systems, if a boxer is knocked down three times in one fight, the result is a technical knockout (TKO). This is usually recorded as a KO on the winning boxer's record. A TKO may also occur when the referee, a ringside doctor, a boxer's trainer or the boxer himself decides that he is too injured to carry on with the fight.

Some rules allow a knocked-down boxer to be "saved by the bell." If the round ends while he is down, but before the referee finished his ten count, the boxer can return to his corner and get the one-minute rest period. Other rules systems do not allow this -- the ten count continues even after the round ends.

Often, a match will end without either fighter being KOed. In this case, the winner of the match will be determined by judges, and the result is known as a decision. Professional matches use three judges (or sometimes two judges plus the referee). Olympic boxing uses five judges. There are variations in scoring systems, as well, but they all boil down to this: the judges watch each round and determine which boxer won that round. They assign points to each boxer for winning a round. The points for all the judges are tallied at the end of the match, and the boxer with the most points (or rounds) is declared the winner.

In the next section, we'll take a look at the boxing scoring system.


Boxing Scoring

If there isn't a knock out, judges will award points based on scoring punches.  The boxer with the most points at the end, wins.
Photo Courtesy of the US Marines
1st Lt. Alan Singleton lays in the ropes as team officials rush to his aid following his knock out by Lance Cpl. Charles Davis.

Who won the round is mostly based on counting "scoring punches" -- punches with the knuckle side of the fist that strike the front or sides of the opponent's body (above the belt) or head. Olympic judges use a device to track who lands more scoring punches in a round. Fouls are also tracked and affect the scoring (when a boxer commits a foul, his opponent is given two extra punches for the round). Judging a pro boxing match can be more subjective. The judges may count punches, but they also take into consideration aggression, control of the ring, control of the tempo of the fight and damage inflicted. For example, if the red boxer lands a dozen decent jabs in a round, but his opponent, the blue boxer, nails him with two hard hooks late in the round that leave the red boxer dazed and staggered, the judges could very well award the round to the blue boxer. In fact, in such a case, different judges may score the round differently.

Great Fighters:
Mike Tyson
During the prime years of his career, in the mid to late 1980s, Mike Tyson terrorized the ring. His combination of speed and crushing punching power left most opponents with few options. He rampaged through the pro ranks until heavyweight fighters were afraid to face him, taking the WBC heavyweight title in 1986 and successfully defending it for several years. However, fame and money affected Tyson's focus. He changed trainers and was distracted by personal problems when he met Buster Douglas in Japan in 1990. Douglas, who had personal problems of his own, was instead fueled by them. In one of boxing's most stunning upsets, Douglas knocked Tyson out (for the first time ever) in the tenth round. Tyson's career then spiraled into a period of jail time and increasingly bizarre behavior.

The points themselves are based on five-, 10- or 20-point systems, but they all work the same. In a 10-point system, the boxer who wins a round is given 10 points, and the other boxer gets nine points. If there was a knockdown in the round, or one boxer utterly dominated the round, the score may be 10-8. If a judge can't decide who won the round, it is scored 10-10.

There are four possible decisions:

  • Unanimous decision -- All three judges score the same boxer as the winner.
  • Split decision -- Two judges score in favor of one boxer (the winner), and one judge scores in favor of the other.
  • Majority decision -- Two judges score for one boxer (the winner) and one judge scores the match a draw.
  • Draw -- One judge scores in favor of one boxer, one judge scores in favor of the other, and one judge scores the match a draw. Neither boxer wins the match.

There is a very rare result known as a majority draw, when two judges score a draw and one judge scores in favor of one boxer.


Ranks, Divisions and Titles

Weight Divisions
105 lbs.
(IBF and WBO name -- Mini Flyweight)
Light Flyweight
108 lbs.
(IBF and WBO name -- Jr. Flyweight)
112 lbs.
Super flyweight
115 lbs.
118 lbs.
Super Bantamweight
122 lbs.
126 lbs.
Super Featherweight
130 lbs.
135 lbs.
Super Lightweight
140 lbs.
147 lbs.
Super Welterweight
154 lbs.
160 lbs.
Super Middleweight
168 lbs.
Light Heavyweight
175 lbs.
200 lbs.
anything over 200 lbs.

Source: World Boxing Association

For the last 100 years or so, boxers have been divided into weight divisions. This provides safety and ensures even fights. Because the power of a punch is derived from a boxer's weight and muscle mass, a match between a 200-lb. man and a 140-lb. man would be lopsided and could result in serious injury. The weight divisions are mostly uniform worldwide, although some sanctioning bodies recognize intermediate divisions (ones that fall in between other divisions). These are the weight divisions currently recognized by the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the World Boxing Council (WBC). Note that the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO) refer to the "super" divisions as "junior" divisions of the weight class below. For example, Super Bantamweight is called Jr. Featherweight by the IBF. The weight noted is the upper limit for that division.

Within each division, there is one World Champion crowned by a given sanctioning body. The championship is represented by a decorative belt. Different sanctioning bodies each have their own world titles in each division, so it is often quite confusing to determine who is truly the world champion. There may be a WBA Featherweight World Champion and a different IBF Featherweight World Champion. Whom you regard as the "true" champion depends on which organization you feel is more prestigious. When this occurs, promoters will often try to set up "unification matches." These are matches between fighters who hold championship belts in different organizations. The winner becomes champion of both organizations, "unifying" the championship in that weight division. The WBA, WBO, WBC and IBF, regarded by many to be the primary boxing organizations in the world, recognize each other's championships and confer titles on boxers who unite two or more belts. Someone who holds two belts within a division is a Unified Champion; three belts is a Super Champion; holding all four belts in a division grants the boxer the title Undisputed Champion.

In the next section, we'll find out what it takes to get a shot at a boxing title.


Getting a Title Shot

Great Fighters:
Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson's career was at its peak from 1908 to 1914, which offers a clue as to why he is such a significant fighter. Johnson was black. There was never a black world champion before him, because white fighters refused to fight against black men. When he finally got his chance and won, he endured all the bitter, racist hatred the world could muster, and eventually lost the title in a match he claimed he threw.

There is no single sanctioning or governing body recognized worldwide as the "primary" boxing association. The influence held by the WBA, WBO, WBC and IBF varies regionally and may be superseded by a local governing body, such as the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) or the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). However, these local groups and state regulatory boards usually have a set of regulations that the other governing bodies must follow while in their territory, but don't publish rankings of their own. There are also dozens of other, smaller boxing organizations worldwide.

So how does a boxer get a chance to fight for the title? He has to work his way up through the ranks. A boxing organization publishes monthly rankings of their top boxers. The current champion in the weight division is listed at the top, and then the contenders are listed. A boxer moves through the ranks by fighting progressively tougher opponents. The rankings are influenced by a boxer's win-loss record, the difficulty of the opponents he's beaten, and how convincing his victories were.

The top contenders have a chance to challenge for the championship. The current title holder is obligated by the organization to defend his belt on a regular basis. This can range from once every nine months to once every year. If one contender stands out above the rest, the current title holder (the defender) and the contender must negotiate the terms of the fight (actually, their managers and the fight promoter take care of this). If several contenders seem like they all have an equal shot at the title, they will fight each other in a series of elimination matches held over the course of several months to determine one true challenger for the title.


Boxing Punches

There's a lot more to boxing than just stepping into a ring and throwing some punches. There are boxers who fight that way, but their careers don't last long.

The two main elements of boxing are attack and defense. Defense begins with the stance: feet shoulder-width apart, right foot slightly behind the left foot (this discussion assumes a right-handed boxer; simply reverse left with right if the boxer is a "southpaw," or left-handed). The right hand is held beside the chin, elbow down along the body. The left hand is held out a few inches in front of the face, elbow bent. This gives the boxer an opportunity to block or dodge most punches thrown at him and good base to fire punches from. It is common to see fighters holding their gloves much lower than this traditional stance. This can be done for strategic reasons (to throw their opponent off or be able to make quick body punches) or because they are getting tired or lazy.

Most boxers "bob and weave," especially early in the match. They bounce slightly and move from side to side by pushing off slightly on one foot, then the other. This offers the opponent a moving target that is harder to focus on and hit. In virtually all matches that last more than six or seven rounds, bobbing and weaving decreases tremendously late in the match as the boxers tire.

While it seems like there is an infinite variety of ways to throw a punch, a modern boxer's arsenal generally consists of four main punches:

  • Jab – A straight, low-power punch with the leading (left) hand. Often used to test an opponent or "find the range" of the opponent. Enough jabs can eventually wear an opponent down.
  • Hook – A powerful punch in which the fist arcs out to the side before swinging back in and connecting with the side of the body or head. Can be thrown with either hand.
  • Uppercut – Almost always thrown with the right hand. The arm drops with the elbow pulled back, and the fist is thrown out and up in an arc that connects with the opponent's face. Useful for getting under an opponent's defense or when the boxers are close together.
  • Cross – The right fist is thrown from the standard stance (where it is held near the chin), crossing from right to left in a straight line toward the opponent's face. The boxer shifts his weight and right shoulder forward to add power to the punch.

Any of these punches can be devastating on their own, but they are most effective in combinations. A combination is any series of two or more punches in quick succession. For example, the jab-cross combo is very common.

In the next section, we'll look at some different fighting styles. 


Boxing Styles

Great Fighters:
Jack Dempsey
Dempsey was one of the first big celebrity fighters of the 20th century. His brawling talent and hard-luck story caught the public's attention and raised the profile of the entire sport. One of Dempsey's fights was the first ever to bring in gate receipts of $1 million.

While all boxers utilize different moves and punches to some extent, the specific way they fight is called their style. There are three main styles, though different people call them by different names, and most boxers can incorporate elements of more than one style into their fighting:

  • The Boxer – A technical fighter who uses skill and strategy combined with agility and speed to win fights, often by decision. Also known as an outside fighter because he tends to move around the outside of the ring, beyond the reach of his opponent. He waits for an opening and jumps in quickly to fire off a few punches, and then moves back out of range. Sugar Ray Leonard was a boxer, as was the legendary Muhammad Ali.
  • The Slugger – Relies almost entirely on the brutal, smashing power of his punches. He throws far fewer punches than most other boxers, but often only needs one punch to connect to end the match. Almost always wins by KO. George Foreman and Mike Tyson (particularly late in his career) were known as sluggers.
  • Inside Fighter – Moves in quickly toward his opponent, probably taking a few shots on the way. Once inside, he unleashes a barrage of punches, many of them quite powerful. This style is very aggressive, and may also be referred to as swarming. In his prime, Mike Tyson was an exemplary inside fighter, as were Joe Frazier and Roberto Duran.

[Source: How-To-Box]

There are numerous montages in Hollywood films depicting a boxer training. A boxer needs tremendous physical endurance. Try throwing fast punches at the air for three minutes straight, then see how winded you are and how your arms feel. Then do it while jogging in place. That's why boxers start their training with lots and lots of running. Other traditional training exercises include skipping rope to improve agility, using a punching bag or pads on a trainer's hands to build punching strength, weight lifting for strength, mass and endurance, and sparring to gain ring experience. Today, many boxers work out in modern facilities with carefully designed diets and training regimes involving computers, expensive workout machines and even ballet classes.


Boxing History

Great Fights: Rumble in the Jungle
Muhammad Ali had been champion, but lost the belt. He was trying to regain it against Foreman, a monster in the ring who obliterated opponents with massive blows. Usually known for an agility-based style, Ali stepped into the ring in the African nation of Zaire in 1974 with a different plan. In what would become known as the "rope-a-dope" style, Ali spent most of the match casually leaning back against the ropes, allowing Foreman to rain blows on him. Because of Ali's physical condition and solid defense, the monsoon of punches had little effect. As the rounds wore on, Foreman grew tired, his punches even less effective. In the 8th round, Ali put the final part of his plan into action, turning on the exhausted Foreman and nailing him with a two-punch combo that sent the champ to the canvas.

There are historical records of boxing matches going back to the Hellenic Era (323-146 B.C.). These bare fisted matches were included in the earliest Olympic Games. Fist-fighting later evolved into a brutal gladiatorial blood sport for the Romans, including hand wraps studded with metal spikes. Fights usually went to the death.

Organized fisticuffs virtually disappeared until a revival in England in the 18th century. For several decades, there were few rules and fights more closely resembled the ultimate fighting competitions that modern fight fans may be familiar with. James Figg was the first legend of the ring (which was initially a bare wood platform surrounded by a wood fence), followed by Jack Broughton, considered the father of boxing rules. Broughton invented gloves to be used in training and established some other rudimentary rules, as well as introducing an element of technique to the fights. However, it was not until 1866 that a British boxing fan called the Marquis of Queensberry sponsored a fight under a set of rules that included a ten-second count for knockdowns, three-minute rounds, the use of padded gloves and the banning of wrestling-style moves. The rules were gradually adopted worldwide.

The popularity of boxing has waxed and waned throughout its long history. It has always been strong in England, where the modern sport was founded, and in the United States, where its popularity peaked in the 1930s. The latter half of the 20th century saw the attempted formation of a worldwide boxing organization. However, so many competing groups sprang up that no single one ever took primacy. Even as of 2007 there is still a confusing patchwork of competing boxing organizations. Also in the 20th century, the center of boxing in the United States shifted from its traditional home in New York City, where multiple fights were once held each week at Madison Square Garden, to Las Vegas, where legal sports betting added a lucrative side business. That infusion of money lead to the era of multi-million dollar fight purses and pay-per-view TV.


Boxing Injuries and Deaths

Jack Broughton is thought to be the founder of boxing rules.  Yet those rules do not protect the sport from injury and corruption.
Public Domain
Bare knuckle boxer John Lawrence Sullivan

Boxing is one of the few sports in which a competitor's success is determined largely by the amount of harm he inflicts on his opponent. When a boxer is knocked down, quite often he hasn't been merely knocked off balance. Chances are he has been struck in the head so hard and so many times in the match that he is dazed and disoriented at the least, and possibly knocked completely unconscious. Even one such incident can cause permanent damage, but professional boxers may fight dozens of times in their career. In fact, boxing is considered by some to be so dangerous that numerous medical organizations around the world have called for it to be banned. The British Medical Association, American Medical Association and Australian Medical Association all have standing policies that call for the complete banning of the sport.

There are two primary concerns with boxing injuries – acute injury, which can lead to death, and long-term cumulative brain damage. There are numerous cases in which a boxer has died in the ring or shortly after a fight as a result of injuries sustained in the ring. They include Gerald Mclellan, Leavander Johnson, Jimmy Doyle, Duk-Koo Kim (both the referee who officiated the match and Kim's mother committed suicide in the aftermath), Benny Paret, Randie Carver and female boxer Becky Zerlentes [sources: BBC News, MAX Boxing]. As of December, 2006, more than 1,300 boxers have died as a result of fighting injuries [source: Journal of Combative Sport].

Harder to quantify are the fighters whose lives have been altered when their brains deteriorate after they retire. There is enough medical evidence to support the claim that boxing leads to long-term brain damage [source: Science Daily].

Boxing is also dogged by corruption. Ever since the first bare-fisted fights in England, there have been charges that one fighter "threw," or intentionally lost a fight, usually to satisfy someone who had placed a large bet on the other fighter. Corruption in boxing seems to go hand in hand with gambling, and the legal gambling that surrounds the high-profile fights in Vegas certainly does nothing to limit the perception (if not the actual presence) of corruption in the sport. Add to that the perception that managers and promoters make huge sums while putting poor, urban kids through a grueling, brutal career and the complex web of bribes and payoffs to promoters and gaming officials in many areas, and it's no wonder there are many vocal critics of the entire sport.

For lots more information on boxing and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Boxing FAQ

What moves are illegal in boxing?
Striking below the belt, striking when an opponent is down on the canvas, kicking, striking with elbows or forearms, slapping, head butting, biting ears, grabbing onto the ropes, poke the eye with a thumb, wrestling, grappling or holding opponent excessively.
What are the main styles of boxing?
There are three main styles: The Boxer, The Slugger and The Inside Fighter.
How much did Mike Tyson make in his career?
Forbes reports Mike Tyson made a whopping $685 million throughout his career.
Can boxing kill you?
There are numerous cases in which a boxer has died in the ring or shortly after a fight as a result of injuries sustained in the ring. Between 1890 and 2019, 1,876 boxers died as a direct result of injuries sustained in bouts.
Why is boxing so popular?
The center of boxing in the United States shifted from its traditional home in New York City to Las Vegas, where legal sports betting added a lucrative side business. That infusion of money led to the era of multi-million dollar fight purses and pay-per-view TV.

Lots More Information

More Great Links


  • Andrea, Sam and Fleischer, Nat. An Illustrated History of Boxing. Citadel, (January 11, 2002). 978-0806522012.
  • Australian Medical Association. "Boxing ring no place for kids – AMA."
  • BBC Sport. "US woman dies after boxing match." April 5, 2005.
  • British Medical Association. "Boxing – the BMA's position." August 2006 briefing.
  • Durant, John. The Heavyweight Champions. Hastings House, 1976. 978-8038302037.
  • Elliot, Victoria Stagg. "AMA pulls no punches, reiterates boxing ban." American Medical News, July 2002.
  • Gerbasi, Thomas. "For Those Who Died." Jan. 10, 2003.
  • Luhning, Aaron. "Boxing Styles: Swarmer, Slugger, Boxer, Boxer-Puncher."
  • Mullan, Harry. Boxing: The Complete Illustrated Guide. Carlton Publishing Group (August 1, 2003). 978-1842228098.
  • Svinth, Joseph R. "Death under the Spotlight: The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection." Journal of Combative Sport, Jan. 2007.
  • U.S.A. Boxing. "Technical Rules."
  • World Boxing Association. "Official Ratings As of February 2007."
  • "Amateur Boxing Linked To Brain Cell Injury." Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 18, 2006.