“The ropes are halfway house to the floor” - George Plimpton, When We Were Kings
Until about a century ago, there was simply no need for a scientific approach to cornering an opponent because the man was there to fight and getting hit was an accepted part of that. Fighters from ancient times to the days of the London Prize Ring were not in the ring to pick up a pay check. They were fighting for money placed in side bets by their sponsors (usually rakes) in the case of the latter, or because they were enslaved and commanded to.
The line between simply running away from engagement and being a movement based boxer is a fine one and consequently few had attempted the method of scientific boxing demonstrated by James J. Corbett when he fought for the world heavyweight title in 1892. In the years before boxing became a respected sport and was more a test of masculinity there was no point in moving away from blows as one would simply lose face. It was Corbett who realized that firstly, he did not want to be hit by men like John L. Sullivan and secondly, if he avoided Sullivan's blows the champion would soon wear himself out.
It is not nearly as exhausting to avoid a man as it is to chase him and miss with powerful swings. You need only watch a heavyweight mixed martial arts match, where exhaustion is commonplace, to notice that every missed punch after about the five minute mark throws the fighter off balance and completely exposes him to retaliation.
When Corbett came to the fore and defeated Sullivan he was at first despised. Sullivan had been the only man to wear the new world heavyweight title and had transcended sport to become easily the most famous man in America. Soon the public came to adore Corbett as the “Dancing Master” and the foremost proponent of scientific boxing. Corbett was so passionate about his method that Gene Tunney, who idolized the heavyweight champ, later recalled that Corbett would draw pages of diagrams and constantly re-examine his footwork.
When Corbett lost to Robert Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries it was not against the ropes, it was in the middle of the ring where he ended up due to fatigue. Both of those fighters took a great many punches en route to wearing down Corbett, neither of them directly challenged his use of footwork but rather waited for him to tire and tried to hit him as he stepped in.
Even the great Jack Dempsey, thirty years after Corbett beat Sullivan, was known as a fantastic infighter when he got close and did excellent work along the ropes, but was easily flustered by the lateral movement of Gene Tunney. Dempsey struggled throughout their two bouts to get Tunney to the ropes and instead got lit up with jabs in the centre of the ring.
One of the first great ring cutters who comes to mind is Sandy Saddler. Saddler was a great featherweight and is perhaps most famous for his rivalry with Willie Pep, his hard punching, and his dirty tactics. If ever there were a qualification in offensive ringcraft, a win over Willie Pep has to be considered equivalent to a PhD. Pep was one of the most elusive boxers of all time, and became known as Will o' the Wisp for his ringcraft.
Pep once reportedly won a round without throwing a single punch but simply feinting and moving without allowing the opponent to ever come close to him. As a featherweight, certainly until he met Saddler, Pep was considered peerless. The two engaged in a number of all out wars as Pep looked to box and Saddler looked to get a hold of the smaller man and batter him with his vicious salvoes.
What Saddler did so masterfully in his bouts was something which he later instilled in his student, George Foreman, many years down the line. Saddler came in with his right hand (as an orthodox fighter this was his rear hand) extended well in front of him, checking the opponent's jab.
From here Saddler would square up slightly before unleashing a stiff jab or left hook to the body or head. Then Saddler would swing his right hand and if at all possible catch a hold behind his opponent's neck. With a hold of the opponent, Saddler would land short left uppercuts. Absolutely illegal under boxing's rules as it was holding and hitting, but something which he routinely got away with regardless.
However great a fighter Sandy Saddler was he was nowhere near the destructive force that his student, George Foreman became. Foreman was a fighter whom heavyweights actively ran from and whom the press loved as both a great fighter and an excellent bad guy for the heavyweight division's narrative. Foreman's record is packed with knockouts and his power was enough (with the help of wily coaches and great durability) to even regain the heavyweight title from Michael Moorer at the age of 40.
The difficulty in cutting off the ring comes, again, from the flaw in the basic pivot. That pivot around the lead foot is a valuable mechanic which rotates a fighter back onto his guard—hiding him behind his stance again. The problem is that the pivot is a defensive movement. Each time a fighter pivots to keep his opponent in front of him, his back leg swings around behind him and away from the opponent. Where the job of a ring cutter is to get in close and physically obstruct his opponent's path around the ring, traditional pivoting provides space for the opponent to move freely.
Once you know about it, it will drive you crazy when watching fights. Instead of cutting off the ring, you'll notice a man following and turning to face. It is the difference between a hunt and a chase. There is always a period of moving around, but the chase is wild—there is no control and it relies on raw speed from the pursuer or a stumble from the pursued party. A hunt is about positioning.
The adept offensive ring general is not about immediately pushing his opponent to the ropes, or chasing him there, he is about circling the ring with his man for a little while, taking away distance with each few steps. Real estate in ring holds a similar value to that in down town Tokyo—it is almost priceless. Distance is the buffer zone for the outfighter, the time to react and the space to keep the contest from becoming a grinding infight and trade of two-handed salvoes. A ring cutter doesn't need to rush through that, he only needs to reduce it until he can smother it and get to work with his own blows.
In cutting off the ring taking up space is of crucial importance, meaning that finest ring cutters have always used a more squared stance than the great counter punchers and jabbers. Sandy Saddler and George Foreman used a smothering, hands forward, palms-out stance which led to Muhammad Ali mockingly nicknaming Foreman “The Mummy”. But Ali couldn't stop it, at no point in the famous Rumble in the Jungle was Ali able to out manoeuvre Foreman or out-box him. It was Ali's clinch work and durability which saved him that day.
Carrying the hands so far forward limits the offensive output of a fighter, but it creates a window in front of the body through which the opponent must punch at range. Carrying the hands so far forward makes the slapping down and parrying of straight punches—the jab and right straight which would normally serve to keep the infighter at bay—far easier. In fact, much of the time Foreman and Saddler were close enough that their right hand would actively obstruct the path of their opponent's lead hand. If their opponent started trying to swing around Foreman or Saddler's outstretched hands, the longer path gave the ring cutters plenty of time to react, get down behind their elbows or shoulders, and then suddenly the fight had turned into a two handed exchange, exactly what they wanted.
But the hands forward guard is just one method which proved effective. Plenty of ring cutters have had success with the classic “earmuffs” guard, or a peek-a-boo guard, and so forth. The one factor which is vital to any attempt to cut off the ring is the ability to step across, to break stance, to move with both feet.
Because in many boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts gyms footwork is taught as if it should be the same for all occasions, many fighters form the habit of one foot moves, then the other foot drags in behind. Outside foot, inside foot. Push off on foot, then pull it back into the stance. The best ring generals have been the ones who were able to move both of their feet to accomplish the task.
The most obvious example of this is as the opponent circles around to his left side as shown in Figure 1.
If the pursuing fighter pivots around his lead foot and follows, as in Figure 2, he will provide space for the circling fighter to follow the ropes and then move back out into centre ring. You will see this happen dozens of times even in the professional boxing ranks. The ring cutter wants to use the ropes, and his body, to force the circling fighter to move through punching range and, ultimately, get pinned down in it.
This time, in Figure 3, when the circling fighter moves around and along the far ropes, our ring cutter performs an offensive side step with his right foot. He has taken away some of the space and now he, or rather the threat of his punching, is obstructing that path along the ropes.
The circling fighter is forced, by the pressure produced by the ring cutter, to change direction. Occasionally a fighter will attempt to run right through, but he is moving straight through his opponent's hitting range. Many fighters, like George Foreman or the kickboxer, Ray Sefo, would use a stepping right hook to pin a running opponent down or knock them out. In this instance, and in most instances, the circling fighter reverses direction in an attempt to avoid resistance.
Figure 4 demonstrates the follow up from the ring cutter as he drives his left foot across to cut the ring again, bringing his right foot in behind. Whether the circling fighter gets caught on the ropes or in the corner just depends on where he gets cut off. The key is that every step should take away some of the distance between the fighters, and reduce the size of the area which the circling fighter can work in. Cutting down the ring from its full size, to a half of its size, to a quarter—and then the circling fighter is basically in the corner at all times.
That cutting step is the crucial part of cornering an opponent. It makes the ring cutter a good deal easier to hit, but that is why he must develop smothering hands—a la Saddler and Foreman—or constant head movement as Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez. The ring cutter is going to get hit, he is going to let his man escape the corner at times, and he is going to have to keep starting the process over. But it's not meant to be flawless or pretty, he is attempting to force a fight rather than a boxing match.
If the ring cutter can trap his opponent on the ropes / fence, or in a corner, he has several options. He can wing away with flurries, he can wait for the opponent to try to fight his way off the fence (as the opponent will likely be hurrying under pressure) and counter, or he can transition to that art form which separates the men from the boys, infighting.
It will rarely be simple, the difficulty is in not overcommitting on the cutting step to obstruct the opponent's path and force the direction change. If the ring cutter steps too deeply to obstruct his opponent's path, the opponent will be free to escape out the other side. Really, ring cutting is using the body and the threat of punching to hold a bubble under water.
The best defensive ring strategists are the ones who use feints and direction changes along the ropes to force a ring cutter to mistime their steps. The best ring cutters are those who can assess when it is appropriate to commit. And this is where the world of boxing leaves the cold and technical and moves into the realms of psychology.
The ropes are a power puncher's best friend because they can be used to herd his opponent into blows. As soon as a fighter's back is to the ropes, his possible directions of movement have cut down from a possible 360 degrees to just 180 degrees. A good deal of those options are also blocked by the fighter who is cutting the ring.
Essentially the fighter along the ropes is given three choices—move left, move right, or stand and fight—as shown in Figure 6. The latter simply means that the ring cutter can start working with flurries and move to the infight—flattening the stance of the man on the ropes and removing his punching power. Movement to the left or right is the expected response to the danger of getting trapped on the ropes and that leads into the herding game.
Essentially all power hitting is about creating collisions. Rather than one man's punching power, a knockout punch is a product of two forces. The hardest hitter in the world isn't half as effective if his opponent is moving in the same direction as his punches. That is the purpose of rolling with punches—to take the force off of them by moving with them.
A quality ring cutter has a double threat—two techniques which will punish his opponent for moving right or left. In boxing, the best ring cutters must have a quality left and right hand. In kickboxing and MMA, many fighters have a solid left hook and a strong right round kick. Some even use a right round kick if their opponent circles right.
If the fighter who is trying to escape the ropes circles into a strike, he will effectively double the force of it. Many of the best one punch knockouts have come as a fighter circles out into a left hook or an overhand right which he just didn't see coming. But if he blocks the punch? That's fine, he cannot physically move through the strike, so it will serve to pin him in place while the puncher follows with combinations.
George Foreman used to cut across his opponent and as they attempted to escape to his left, he'd hammer them with a left hook as in Figure 7. This pinned them in place as he loaded up his terrific right hook or uppercut.
When Foreman's opponent circled out to his right, Foreman would throw his right hook to the body as in Figure 8. Against a side on opponent, Foreman was happy to catch the kidney, but against most it would catch the ribs or land on the elbow. The primary objective—standing Foreman's opponent still for the coming storm—was achieved either way. If he caught and broke their rib in the process, even better.
Sports can often be boiled down to one important fight to get the upper hand. In chess it is often control of the centre, in wrestling it is dominating the tie ups, in Judo it is getting the right grips. In the case of striking based sports, the key fight is where the bout takes place. The man who ends up on the ropes or against the fence is at a tremendous disadvantage.
But before we discuss the infight it is important that we consider the other side of the equation. How does angling combat ring cutting? While ring cutting may be the answer to outside fighting, it is not as simple as that and the direction of the fight is never simply in one direction—through the outfight, to the ropes, to the infight and the clinch. A bout is still a fight after all and nothing that is recognised as significant is given up without a struggle, ring position is constantly fought for, won, and lost again because that is the nature of competing against a living, breathing opponent.
The first countermeasure to ring cutting is awareness. By remaining cognisant of the ropes a fighter does himself a lot of favours even if his ring positioning and generalship lets him down. The lesson hammered into young boxers is that the ropes are on fire. If a fighter is working from a set stance and moving in a textbook manner, his rear ankle will often graze the ropes before he is truly put against them. If he is up on his toes dancing and leaving his set stance to side step, he might feel the ropes on his shoulders or back first. Whatever bare skin meets the ropes first, the fighter should treat the contact as though he has touched his flesh to a hot iron and immediately get away. This kind of attitude builds the awareness and urgency that a fighter needs to have when cornered. Just as crossing the road is a complex and cautious process for a child and a casual side thought as an adult, a fighter can grow to be more comfortable escaping the ropes or even working on them, but it is best to start out treating them with the respect they demand.
It is possible to get by on simply speeding up and continuing to circle along the ropes, until you meet very dangerous and competent ring cutters. At that point some deception becomes necessary. The trick that will carry a fighter out of bad spots even against the world’s best ring cutters is the direction change. Simply side stepping one way, driving off the leading foot, and going back the other way.
The technique is simple but effective application requires some nuance. It all comes down to anticipation of the opponent and ability to fake him out. The ring cutter wants to use his presence to crowd and fluster the outfighter but is trying to hold them underwater like a bubble—knowing that if he leans too heavy on one side, they will slip out to the surface on the other. The outfighter’s task is to convince the ring cutter to commit himself to a direction before he needs to.
If the outfighter isn’t going to make the mistake of stopping along the ropes, the ring cutter has to engage at some point and good ring cutters tend to do this by intercepting their opponent. We have already discussed how George Foreman and others used the stepping right hook to intercept opponents circling to their right and stepped deep to throw the left hook against opponents circling to their left. In mixed martial arts and kickboxing, fighters use the fence to time turning techniques such as wheel kicks and spinning back kicks as the opponent circles into the path. All of these techniques involve putting a lead on the opponent and catching them circling. The master ring general circles until he sees his opponent stepping out to swing or turning for a back kick, and changes direction to leave the opponent swinging at air and completely committed to one side.
The wonderful Jersey Joe Walcott was a master of broken rhythm and playing with expectations and he became a major inspiration on Muhammad Ali. Walcott would fight side-on to his opponent and circle the ring by performing that backward jog you will have seen Ali do. Walcott would hang his hands low and flick out jabs while he did this but he would often let his right hand drape along the top rope behind him as he circled. When the spirit moved him, Walcott would catch a hold of the rope mid-step and use it to pull him back into a direction change even though his feet might not have been in position to do so. It seemed to something Walcott did for fun as much as it was a necessary technique, but it left a lot of his opponents looking confused and that is never a bad thing in a fight.
The better the ring cutter, the more you have to do to deceive them. Willie Pep had trouble losing Sandy Saddler with his feet alone so in their bouts he would circle one way and then deliberately circle back into Saddler’s firing line to draw a swing and duck under it, escaping all the way out to the other side. Combining the direction change with a level change at the knees or a weave at the hips is a brilliant way to avoid getting tricked into running a marathon in trying to escape the ropes. Saddler’s answer to this was to focus exclusively on Pep’s body when Pep changed directions, because the body cannot duck.
Whether the ring cutter has to drag the outfighter into exchanges kicking and screaming, or the outfighter realizes it would benefit him to work the inside game on his own terms, the next phase of the fight is reached when the two fighters meet head-on inside of punching range: the infight.