Solving Styles: Reverse Engineering Archie Moore and the Lock, part 1

The Ring Magazine | Getty Images

In this new series, BE's striking analyst Connor Ruebusch delves into history and more to explore some of boxing's most recognizable fighting systems. Archie Moore's famous cross-armed guard is featured in this first installment.

This is part one of a two-part article. You can find part two right here.

There is an old and, frankly, overused saying in combat sports that "styles make fights." Like most cliches, the phrase persists because it contains a universal truth.  The same fighter can beat a champion one day and lose to a mere journeyman the next, simply because the journeyman had a style that he didn't quite know how to solve. It is this enigma that makes history's greatest fighters all the more impressive, because they are the ones who solve every opponent put in front of them.

It's rarely an accident, however, that these legends manage to beat all comers. In fact, more often than not, it's the result of intelligent, systematic fighting, which means intelligent, systematic training. Systematic is the key word here; there is a difference, you see, between a system and a style. Whereas "style" denotes the way one likes to fight, "system" denotes the various tools that allow one to do so. A system is all about solving problems that athleticism and personality alone can't crack.

I'll share with you a quote from my mentor Luis Monda that sums it up perfectly.

"When a fighter is trying to hit you, he's asking a question. Your punches are responses. In [a system], there are specific answers to most questions."

In short, styles make fights, but systems solve styles.

In this series I will aim to break down some of history's most iconic systems, as used by their most famous practitioners. Like taking apart a powerful engine, it is my hope that by "reverse engineering" these systems we might gain not only a greater understanding of them, but a greater appreciation for what these fighters accomplished.

In this first installment, we examine Archie Moore's famous cross-armed guard.

What is the Lock?

Let's first examine the most iconic element of Moore's system, the so-called "cross-armed guard" or, as Archie's son Billy Moore terms it, "the Lock." To do that, we'll have to delve into the mists of boxing history.

The exact historical origin of this technique is not easy to suss out, but it's clear that it did not start with Moore. Throughout his career Archie was quick to sing the praises of his trainer, Hiawatha Grey, so perhaps it was he who first taught Moore the technique. This seems likely, given that Grey was a relic of bare-knuckle boxing where, as we'll soon see, this technique has its origins, though it clearly predates even him. Grey's last verified fight took place in 1930, and the cross-armed guard, or at least the barebones concept behind it, is much older than that.

The most notable attribute of Moore's defensive shell, namely the "cross-armed" aspect, is certainly a very old technique. Here a similar maneuver is illustrated in a manual ca. 1825.

A Celebrated Pugilist, The Art and Practice of Boxing, 1825

The manual refers to this technique as "barring a blow", and it describes a motion wherein the arm is thrown across the spot where an incoming punch is expected to land, to both stop it and carry it off-line, hopefully off-balancing the attacker and even exposing him to counters.

In these days combination punching was not highly emphasized. Boxers were taught to throw their full weight forward into their strikes, making it difficult to follow one committed attack with another (you can see this from the attacker in the example above). As such, defense was comprised mostly of blocks and parries, and pugilists would attempt to pick off each blow as they saw it coming.

By the end of the 19th century, however, boxers were learning that they could bypass the opponent's defenses by throwing two, three, or more punches in quick succession. Feinting was already common practice (this is the reasoning behind the constant "windmilling" of the arms you see in very old fight footage), but by following their first strike with another, and another, early prizefighters found they could land even after one or two successful defenses. Thus, around the turn of the century we begin to see a higher occurrence of "double guards," or covers, such as the high guard still common today, and prototypes of the cross-armed guard used by Moore.

gus ruhlin double guard.png
Professor Donovan, The Art of Boxing and Self-Defense, 1902

Here a cross-armed guard is modeled by heavyweight Gus Ruhlin, who fought both Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzimmons, two of the most important names in boxing history, in the span of one year (losing to both, but there's no shame in that). Professor Donovan, the author of the manual containing this image, advises boxers that such a guard "should be rarely used; and is only really necessary when your opponent brings both hands to play simultaneously or in rapid succession", driving home the point that effective combination punching was still something of a novelty at the time.

Looking at it, it really is a practical guard. Unlike the typical high guard of today, this cross-armed guard places a higher emphasis on stopping straight punches. The right arm, thrown across the face with the hand on the left shoulder, protects the entire jawline as well as the nose and mouth (particularly when the chin is held a bit lower than by Mr. Ruhlin here), leaving only the hard dome of the skull exposed. Also unlike today's high guard, peripheral vision is unimpeded, enhancing one's ability to make active defensive adjustments. The left arm, meanwhile, is placed across the stomach, covering the most vulnerable parts of the torso: the spleen, the liver, and the solar plexus. The last was a primary target in the bare-knuckle days--the straight punch to the solar plexus was such a sought-after blow that this part of the body was referred to by boxers as "the mark"--so it's no surprise that many early guards strove to protect it.

Moore improved on this already comprehensive design by adjusting the positioning of his body, furthering the ability of his arms to cover and protect. Pulling his head back and sinking into his right hip, Moore could bring his left shoulder and elbow up to cover the line of his chin, or he could shift to his left hip and raise his right elbow to defeat an incoming left hook. Moore also discovered that by changing levels, crouching and rolling with his upper body, his head, shoulders, and crossed arms would obstruct the opponent's line of sight, enabling him to sneak punches in from unexpected angles.

This ability to obfuscate and disguise intentions is perhaps the best and most underappreciated element of Archie's Lock. For we can't ignore the fact that, with both arms crossed over the body, a boxer is not in prime position to attack. "Barring" was more immediately viable in the bare-knuckle days whence it came to prominence, because Broughton's Rules, which governed the sport, allowed virtually every kind of hand strike.

Donald Walker, Defensive Exercises, 1840

Here, a boxer bars a straight right from his opponent, leaning back as he does so. Note that the knuckles of his right hand are turned out as he draws his hand fully across, over his left shoulder. The author of this manual, Donald Walker, writes that this position is especially useful for "the Mendoza style", by which he means Daniel Mendoza, arguably the very first "scientific" boxer. Mendoza was well known by his fondness for a blow called "the Chopper," a backfist which was brought swinging down onto the face of the opponent from precisely the position shown above.

By the 1880s, glove boxing and the new Queensbury Rules that governed it put an end to such "unmanful" strikes as the Chopper, prohibiting boxers from striking with any part of the hand but the fore-knuckles. The most obvious counter from the cross-armed guard illegalized, another method of attacking from this defensive shell would need to be devised for it to remain viable.

Back we go to Moore's adaptation, or rather the adaptation of Moore's era, as boxers like Paolino Uzcudun were using similar tactics years before the Old Mongoose came to prominence. As I mentioned above, Moore's system was based on body movement. Ducking, rolling, turning, and slipping, Moore would hide his weapons from his opponent's sight. Turning to his right, he would hide his right hand behind his left shoulder. Turning left, he would lower his head and hide his left under his right arm. He would also use his crossed arms from this position to lever his opponent on the inside, creating space to throw his punches.

If one were really desperate for historical comparisons, one could trace this facet of Moore's style all the way back to sword and buckler fencing, in which the buckler, a small shield, was used less for static defense and more as a means of hiding one's sword from the opponent, thus preventing him from reading the attack. This folio, from Royal Armouries Manuscript, shows the concept clearly.

Unknown, Royal Armouries MS I.33, folio 11v, ca. 1320

Many of the bare-knuckle boxing manuals referenced already contain sections on swordplay, so this connection isn't as much of a stretch as it may seem at first. Given the fact that English boxing stemmed directly from rapier and smallsword fencing, however, not sword and buckler, and the fact that there were several well-established schools of pure boxing by the end of the 19th century, it is more likely that Moore's application of the cross-armed guard developed wholly within the sport of boxing itself. Still, the connection is intriguing.

So ends part one of this analysis. With the history of the Lock out of the way, tomorrow I will be using videos and GIFs of Moore and his various stylistic descendants to analyze the facets of his particular system. At the risk of making it sound too exciting, I'll tell you this: there's a flow chart. Make sure to check back tomorrow morning for that!

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