Punching with the Toes: The Secrets of Hitting Hard

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

I am constantly recommending Edwin Haislet's masterpiece, On Boxing to readers who ask for further studying material. I love the text so much, in fact, that I am two articles in to a series examining its key ideas. Look up The Bible of Striking to read those.

But of all the people I have recommended this book to over the years, I would estimate that probably a third get back to me with the same bemused enquiry: “What's the deal with the stance?”

Despite seeming to be a sage in all aspects of the fistic game—from outfighting to infighting, and point fighting to power punching—Haislet advises a stance which is altogether alien to even many of those who have studied the boxing game at length. The traditional fighting stance we are all familiar is a case of “forward and forty-five”, with the lead foot pointing straight ahead and the back foot pointing slightly outwards, in a comfortable position. Haislet's recommended stance is a contorted reversal of that position.

This knock-kneed position is the one which Haislet prescribes as the best for mobility and hitting power, yet if you saw someone in this position without the gloves or shorts, you'd assume they had been in some kind of terrible accident. While I don't believe that such a perfect position exists in any single stance, I do feel that this seemingly archaic method has some important points to teach us about power generation.

Fighting to the Side

We've spoken before about stance, in fact it was the subject of the first episode of Jack Slack's Ringcraft:

But if you've followed the fight game for any time, you will be familiar with fighters who compete with their lead foot pointed across their opponent, rather than straight towards them. These fighters tend to stand in a more side on stance. Particularly in pure boxing competition, you will see many fighters favor this side-on footing because it lengthens the reach from the end of the fist to the center-line. The more side on a fighter can get, the longer his jab becomes and the more bladed a target he is for returns.

The side-on stance puts the fighter's lead shoulder between his head and his opponent's right hand, which is tremendously valuable in any combat sport, but in boxing it also moves all legal targets (as any strikes to the back side of the body are illegal) towards the opponent's left hand. When you see Floyd Mayweather Jr. or his father shoulder rolling blows, you will notice that their lead foot is pointed to their right side and their left hip and shoulder are projected towards the opponent.

As with any decision in martial arts, however, there are downsides to a side on stance. In boxing, a side on stance has the unfortunate downside of taking the right shoulder further away from the opponent. Stand side on enough and you essentially cut off fifty percent of your arsenal, or at least significantly hamper it.

In sports where low kicks are permitted, the side-on stance stops being a defensively sound decision. Watching how Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, BJ Penn, and many of the other more side on fighters in MMA lose their balance whenever they take a low kick should hammer that home to you. Even if you're ready to be low kicked, you have to pick your foot up and turn it all the way around so that the shin points outwards into the kick to have any effect with a check.

For this reason, when kicks are permitted a fighter in a side-on stance must be far more active than in boxing. Each time his opponent moves to kick, he must pick his lead leg up and side kick. It's not always tremendously powerful, but it serves the same purpose as a teep, with a little more bite. It removes the target of the low kick, while striking the opponent as he is on one leg. Men who have successfully done this against low kicks are few and far between, but Ramon Daniels has decent success against all but the upper echelon, and Cung Le was pretty sharp with it back in the day.

Vitali Klitschko did pretty well as an awkward, side-on kickboxer as well:

Toeing Inwards

But a truly side on stance reaps different benefits from a turned in lead toe than a slightly more forward facing one does. The toes turned inward stance has a tremendous effect on that king of counter punches, the left hook.

The British boxers of the early nineteen hundreds were not keen on two handed hitting, and the match up of British outside fighting versus American inside fighting was the narrative which dominated boxing through the first two decades of the twentieth century. Yet Jim Driscoll and Jimmy Wilde, who frequently spoke at length about how the jab is all one needs, both advocated a back leaning left hook to catch opponents coming in after baiting them with a jab. Both Klitschkos have knocked out opponents in a similar manner; it is on of the prettiest traps in outfighting. A beautiful recent example of the same combination by Alexis Arguello.

The act of having the lead foot turned in means that any drive from the lead leg is driving the left hip towards the right side—creating the kind of turning motion required to power the hook. You will know that many of the best hookers pivoted up on the ball of their left foot to turn the knee across the body as they punched. If you start with your lead foot turned in, you're cutting out the pivot on the ball of the foot.

You will notice that Arguello's stance is still narrow, and his lead foot is still turned in, but it is nowhere near as side-on as that almost one-handed style which Floyd Mayweather Sr. used. And that's the curiosity of the left hook—turning the lead foot in is like keeping the finger on the trigger of the lead hook, but the more side-on the stance, the shorter the hook can travel and thus, power is lost. I'm sure everyone is aware that you want to build momentum up to a target and then punch a few inches through it—if your lead shoulder is turned to be directly in front of the opponent's head to begin with, you ain't hooking, you're reaching out behind your shoulder and slapping. Go and try this on a doorframe and see how comfortable or powerful you feel.

Now here's where Haislet's stance comes in—it is an internally rotated stance, with the lead knee turned in, but it is also a wider, more squared stance, with the feet hip width apart and the right foot pointed forwards. And really, the best way to understand the value of the stance is to try it right now (provided you aren't reading this at work, of course).

What you'll notice is that the lead knee being pointed slightly inward almost as like a spring. Square your hips as if you had thrown the right hand or as if to load up the left hook. You will notice that your body is providing resistance. You are coiled and ready to explode into a wicked left hook with tremendous speed and force. It's not as if you are creating force to square yourself up and then stopping and changing direction, your lead hip joint halts your squaring movement and launches you back the other way, you just need to let it go. But equally, throw a right straight and you can get decent pop on it because of the positioning of the rear foot.

This is why Haislet advocated this position. Though he trained amateur competitors, Haislet did so in the days before electronic scoring and head gear, and the one thing which comes through constantly in his writing his the primacy of hitting power. Haislet didn't like combinations, he liked 'set-ups', where the purpose is to land the last blow and hurt with it.

Internally Rotated Stances in Traditional Martial Arts

One of the most fascinating things about internally rotated stances is that they've been hugely important in traditional martial arts for hundreds of years for different reasons altogether. The formal exercise, Sanchin which made its way from mainland China to Okinawa and formed the basis of many systems of quan fa and karate is performed entirely in Sanchin-dachi, a lead foot turned in stance.

Sanchin is both a breathing practice and an exercise in muscular control. The whole form is performed with tremendous effort and is considered a form of Iron Shirt training—developing the body to receive blows. Sanchin is so revered in Chinese and Okinawan martial arts that there are stories of it going back all the way to Bodhidharma—the monk who took Buddhism to China. According to legend, Bodhidharma found his monks in too poor a physical condition to hold up to his meditative practices and so he began them training in what would become the basis of Shaolin's famous quan fa lineage. Every Chinese fighting system bends over backwards to trace its history back to Bodhidharma, though you have to wonder if that's what he'd want to be remembered for.

The sad eyes of a man who just wanted people to breathe.

In the fighting traditions which use Sanchin as their base form, the purpose of the internally rotated stance is to protect the groin. Obviously in a life and death scrap, especially in an era where every martial arts system is teaching to go for the groin and the eyes, protecting the groin is a huge deal. The act of having the lead knee across the path of the most basic kick to the testicles is a game changer. No thought or reaction required, there's going to be a knee or shin in the way—and in a panicked fight fight, that might be a life saver.

The chap on the right is in a good Sanchin-dachi with his knee in the way of the groin kick.

A life-time can be devoted to the study of Sanchin, and the results on the bodies and wills of its devotees really can't be argued with. It's not going to teach you to fight, but if you can find yourself someone who will teach you it, it's like anti-yoga.

The great Kiyohide Shinjo beating the crap out of some poor guy.

Oddly enough, when Gichin Funakoshi was beginning to teach the form, Seisan (which would become Hangetsu in his Shotokan system) in Tokyo, he wasn't a fan of the Sanchin stance, preferring longer ones. And so, Hangetsu-dachi was born, a longer, internally rotated stance.

Looks familiar, right?

Direction of the Feet

What is most interesting about all of this is that the direction of the feet obviously effects  the power of different punches in different ways, and the mobility of the fighter in different ways. Nowhere is this more obvious than in two-handed power hitter, Roy Jones Jr.  Jones' basic stance was one with the lead toes turned in, ready to snap his hip and shoulder into that left hook or uppercut:

Keep an eye on the lead knee if the lead foot is a little fast.

But because Jones fought more square on than many lead-foot-in fighters, he could also fire right hands off the bat. They weren't huge, Tommy Hearns style momentum ones a lot of the time (he had to move his feet to open up his hips and do that), but they were jarring enough.

It's no secret that the art of hitting is about using the feet to drive off of the floor, and that the art of boxing is about hitting and not getting hit. But the combination of the two often seems to involve more complexity in the footwork than the most elaborate of flamencos. That is why the old timers always say, don't look at the hands while you're watching a fight, the hands mean nothing. Now the feet, those are what do the boxing.

Now go outside and play with your footwork.


Check out these related stories:

Interpreting the Bubishi: One Thousand Pounds Falls to the Ground

The Bible of Striking: Elements of Defense

Jack Slack: Four More Strikers Every MMA Fan Should Be Studying