clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Boxing for MMA: Fisticuffs for the Freestyle Fighter - Part One: The Guard

New, comments

Bloody Elbow's Connor Ruebusch breaks down the mystifying topic of the guard in this first installment of a new series exploring the art of boxing in the sport of MMA.

Steve Marcus/Getty Images

So, you want to be able to hit people and drag them into a hellish world of suffocating misery on the ground? Then MMA is the sport for you!

Face-punching is a big part of mixed martial arts. Though MMA fighters have at their disposal a whole host of striking weapons, ranging from the balls of the feet to the points of the elbows, there's just no replacing the reliability of a clenched fist. The hands are quicker and more efficient than the legs, and can be thrown effectively from just about every range, even on the ground. Boxing is one of the most important skillsets a mixed martial artist can possess.

It has long been said, however, that boxing for MMA is very different than boxing for . . . well, boxing. The MMA community is very fond of tacking the acronym "MMA" onto any singular skillset, often as a way of explaining a specialist's failure to implement his sport-specific game in the context of MMA. "Yes, Johny Hendricks was a great wrestler, but how is his MMA wrestling?" or "Alistair Overeem may have been a K-1 champion, but his MMA kickboxing needs work," for example.

How valid are statements like these? Are the differences between individual combat sports and MMA really so pronounced, and if so what are the reasons for those distinctions? In this series, we will look to answer these questions as they pertain to boxing for the ring, and boxing for the cage.


If we're talking about boxing, the first thing we have to address is the guard. The concept is widely, almost obsessively discussed in boxing, MMA, and just about every combat sport in which people try to hit each other. For you jiu-jitsu geeks, I am not referring to the fundamental position on the ground; a fistfighter's guard, rather, is the defensive position of his arms. In other words, when you hear someone shouting "hands up," they are asking the fighter to maintain his guard. To many, the basic version looks like this.

    Winky Wright and Ike Quartey admire one another's guards. Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Rather than labelling this as a "boxing guard," or a "Muay Thai guard"--because in truth every combat sport features a wide variety of schools with various ideas on where the hands should be held--we will simply call it a "high guard."

But before we assess the utility of this guard in MMA, where fighters contend with a wide variety of attacks virtually unique to their sport, we ought to discuss it as a tool of boxing in general.

Looking at the image above, one thing is abundantly clear: the high guard prioritizes defense of the head above all else. Covering much of the head with the forearms and gloves decreases the number of targets available to the opponent. There are still holes--no guard can cover everything at once--but wide punches will be deflected, and the path down the center is very narrow. Defense requires activity, of course, and a high guard lends itself well to parries. And by making small twists and turns, a skilled defender can use his guard to intercept incoming blows without even moving his arms.

    Marlon Starling moves his body in order to make his tight, high guard effective.

Pinned as they are to the eyebrows, however, the hands are prioritized for blocking, parrying, and deflecting, rather than punching. While it is true that a high guard places the fists on a level with the head of the opponent, facilitating straight, direct punches to that target, the position also makes the hands plainly visible. It can be difficult to disguise punches when one's hands sit comfortably in the opponent's line of sight (more on that later), and because the arms are held close rather than extended toward the target, it is necessary to cover a great deal of distance in order to find the mark.

In fighting, distance equals time. The more space you have to cover in order to connect, the more time your adversary has to react and defend--or counter.

The very philosophy behind the high guard can also cause difficulties for the offensively minded fighter. You have probably heard it said that the best defense is a good offense. If, however, a fighter feels that he needs his guard to defend himself--if he has been coached to keep his hands up and close to his chin at all times-- he may be reluctant to let his hands go for fear of exposing his jaw. If he is caught by a blow, he may be easily overwhelmed because, rather than throwing back and reminding his adversary to be cautious, he will cover up and allow his swarming opponent ample opportunity to sneak punches around and through the guard with no fear of reprisal.

So, what kind of boxer benefits from a high guard? Well, some excellent counter punchers have made it work over the years. The sensation of a blocked punch can serve as a sort of tripwire: when you feel an impact on your guard, you instantly know that the opponent has exposed his own chin by attacking, and on which side. You know also that he is close enough to hit you, which means he is close enough to be countered. As such, counter fighters--from Marlon Starling, to Winky Wright, to Manny Pacquiao--specialize in what I call "trigger" counters: catch a punch on the glove, and immediately counter on the same side.

Swarmers and pressure fighters have also used the high guard to good effect, though it usually works best in short bursts. Plenty of boxers throw up the high guard when they want to move quickly forward into the pocket, covering up in order to keep from running into any counters. Juan Diaz, as aggressive a fighter as you'll ever see, was very keen on this technique. And though their hand position differed, the cross-armed guards of men like Henry Armstrong, Rocky Marciano, and Gene Fullmer worked much the same way.

A fighter like Roman Gonzalez marries these ideas together perfectly, coupling a high guard with active footwork and upper body movement to facilitate his unique style, which blends together elements of both pressure and counter fighting.


Astute readers will already know that this guard is not so common in MMA. In fact, it is probably one of the sport's most commonly critiqued techniques. Recall the hordes of know-it-all fight fans who criticized Alistair Overeem for shelling up as Travis Browne fired front kicks up through the gap in his defense. (That many of these same people harangued The Reem for dropping his hands versus Bigfoot Silva is a topic for another day.) The point is, MMA fighters use the high guard less frequently than either boxers or kickfighters, and MMA fans know it.

The most obvious explanation is that the gloves are simply too small. When it comes to covering up, four-ounce fingerless gloves like the ones used in the UFC offer half the protection of the eight and ten-ouncers worn by boxers--less than half, even, because boxing gloves are frequently constructed of several layers of light foam. If the primary advantage of the high guard is that it closes off lines of attack, then a 50 percent reduction of surface area is a serious drawback.

Still, this is not enough to invalidate the high guard. Not at all. Indeed, the forearms, elbows, and shoulders are every bit as important as the gloves when it comes to blocking. A small adjustment is often enough to render the little gloves a non-issue. All a fighter needs to do is turn his shoulders or draw his hand toward the back of the head--some call it "answering the phone" or "combing the hair"--and the side of his head is effectively covered. Even bare-knuckle boxers manage to make the high guard work using these subtle maneuvers. If you want to see it done well in MMA, just take a look at the beautiful trigger counter with which Chad Mendes knocked down Jose Aldo in 2014 (GIF).

And yet fighters like Mendes are a relatively rare sight in the Octagon. To understand why, we have to think about the psychology of fistfighting.

Again, the high guard is a defensive position, one which presents very little in the way of threat. A high guard may prevent some punches from landing, but only the most undisciplined combatants are discouraged by such an obstacle. The average fighter, confronted with a static defense, will seek to find ways around it. And because the high guard prioritizes blocking rather than distance management, the attacking fighter will connect. Yes, he may hit mostly arms and gloves, but his punches will land with force.

Put yourself in the shoes (or lack thereof) of a professional fighter. You throw a bomb of a right hand, and your opponent slides away, denying you the impact you crave. By missing big, you throw yourself off balance. To recover, you must forcefully counteract your own momentum, which takes energy. It also hurts your confidence. No one likes to miss.

Now imagine that your opponent stands his ground and catches that overhand on his guard rather than making you miss entirely. This feels much better. You don't have to recover your balance in this scenario, because your punch stops short as it makes contact. Now, instead of pouring stamina into an embarrassing whiff, you can invest that energy in a follow-up attack. And because your adversary's hands are glued to his eyebrows rather than floating around outside your line of sight, you feel safe enough to let that second punch go. Rinse and repeat a few times, and before long you are letting shots go with reckless abandon, each impact encouraging you to create another in hopes of finally finding the mark.

More often than not, a high guard actually invites attack. When a confident aggressor finds himself confronted with a high guard he sees, not an impregnable wall, but a puzzle to be solved. The covered fighter presents a defensive attitude to his opponent; in a word, he looks protective rather than dangerous, vulnerable rather than intimidating. If the opponent's approach is determined by a fight-or-flight response, then a visibly defensive position is more likely to encourage the former.

For the practiced counter puncher, this can be a positive boon. A fighter is always at his most vulnerable as he attacks, when his hands stray far from his chin and his own momentum has him on the verge of falling over. Convincing an opponent to throw and throw hard is a dream come true for a confident boxer with sharp eyes and quick counters.

MMA is different. Unlike the boxer, who has only half of his body to defend and only two fists against which to defend it, MMA fighters must protect every inch of their persons from all manner of attacks. It is dangerous to openly encourage offense when a takedown or leg kick is every bit as likely as a left hook or jab. Thanks to this breadth of options, the high guard in MMA places a premium on perception and reaction time. And while boxers understand that body punches can make the opponent lower his guard a few inches, a double leg takedown forces him to abandon it altogether. If a mixed martial artist relies on his hands for defense, then an overreaction to a faked shot will leave his chin looking like an amateur photograph: badly exposed.


Earlier, we noted that distance equals time in world of combat sports. We have also touched on the concept of "threat." Let's lower our hands for a moment, and expand on those ideas.

Distance is by far the most effective defense. There is simply no way for a fighter standing six feet away from his opponent to land a strike. To do so, he must move forward. As he does so, he telegraphs his intentions to his opponent, who is free to move away in response, creating distance even as the aggressor attempts to close it. Speed and skill can counteract this stalemate, of course, but distance levels the playing field. The larger the gap, the easier it is to avoid damage.

Without threat, however, this gap cannot be enforced. You can retreat, but eventually your back will hit the fence. You can pivot and sidestep, but eventually your opponent will cut off the cage and trap you. And if he doesn't know how, you will someday fight someone who does. All of that distance means nothing if the opponent refuses to respect it.

One way of getting respect is to counter. Run him into a hard strike and your opponent may quickly learn caution. But remember, this is MMA. To counter effectively, you must know what to expect, and that just isn't easy in this sport. Say the opponent closes behind a jab but ducks under as you try to counter over the top. Easy takedown. Say he fakes the shot, but pops up as you throw a knee and cracks you on the chin. Congratulations: you've just been hit hard while standing on one leg. Enjoy spending three weeks alone in a dim room, recovering from your new concussion.

To keep himself safe on the feet, a mixed martial artist cannot merely create distance; he has to control it. The space must be enforced. That's where the guard comes in.

Here you can see a selection of what I would call "typical" MMA guards. As in every other combat sport, the positions differ in a thousand subtle ways, ranging from quite high to very low, from relatively compact to long and loose. Different schools, different styles.

They all share something in common, however: they look threatening. Unlike the static, protective high guard, these longer guards present the image of a man ready to punch. In each example, the left hand is extended, half-cocked and pointed in the direction of the opponent's chin. Even without throwing a punch, a fighter can use a long guard to suggest painful consequences. The message is clear: "This isn't a jab yet, but it very easily could be." With each jab that lands, the threat becomes more convincing, and therefore more effective.

    Locked and loaded. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

As in boxing, the MMA fighter's right hand is typically held closer to home, though this too can take on a threatening appearance with the right posture. Dan Henderson's right hand was always perfectly positioned to cover his chin, but it was no less menacing. Fist closed, knuckles pointed forward, Hendo carried his right hand like a bazooka resting on his shoulder. Doubtless the reputation of his power helped sell the effect, but the appearance mattered. When you fought Dan Henderson, you saw his right hand--and he looked ready to throw it.

Not only can a mixed martial artist benefit by lengthening his guard, but also by lowering it. Once a safe distance is established, it becomes significantly safer for a fighter to let his hands drift below shoulder level and away from the chin.

You have probably heard it said that a low guard facilitates takedown defense. This is true. When a fighter shoots for a double leg, the most frequently attempted takedown in MMA, his goal is to grab hold of his target's legs while simultaneously changing levels, dropping down beneath the level of his hips. If the defender manages to get his arms underneath the wrestler's armpits, however, he can negate the level change. Hauling upward while driving his weight down, a skilled takedown defender can kill the takedown outright. Just as the high guard prioritizes defense of the head, a low guard prioritizes defense of the hips, placing the hands in a position from which they can readily dig for underhooks.

But a low guard can be a potent offensive weapon, too. Earlier I mentioned that the high guard keeps the hands where the opponent can clearly see them. By the same token, a fighter can hide his punches by lowering one or both of his hands. Whether a snapping up-jab or a crushing uppercut, the fists can fly unseen and hit hard when they are untethered from the head. Gegard Mousasi showed just how difficult it can be to predict low-angled attacks in his bout with Ilir Latifi in 2013 (GIF).

The long, low guard has become something of a staple for MMA. Robert Whittaker, Anderson Silva, and Chuck Liddell have used it to peel off takedown attempts and disguise punches. Jose Aldo, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Georges St-Pierre have used it to fence with opponents from long range. The high guard is far from obsolete, of course. Shorter fighters like Brad Pickett and Chad Mendes make excellent use of a tight, high guard in order to pressure and set up short counters, and tall, lanky fighters like Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz use it while resetting and to line up ramrod straight punches.

To throw a punch is to expose oneself; to not throw a punch is to expose oneself. Nothing in fighting is done without risk, and no technique is without fault. The beauty of MMA is that venerable arts like boxing can find new life within the cage. Intelligent, creative fighters and trainers are constantly adapting their approaches in order to stay ahead of the curve. The level of boxing in mixed martial arts has a long way to go, and understanding hand position is but one tiny piece of the puzzle.


There are two reasons that I chose to begin this series by examining the guard. On the one hand, a good guard is widely considered among the most fundamental of techniques. On the other, it is easily the most overrated aspect of boxing.

Wander into your local gym--MMA or boxing--or attend a fight, and you will hear countless cries of "hands up!" Coaches and commentators, mothers and wives, friends and fans--these words can be found on the lips of just about anyone with any connection whatsoever to the fight game.

But what does "hands up" mean, exactly? In this piece alone, we have seen more than a half dozen different guards, not one of them objectively better than the others. Doubtless you have also seen plenty of fighters who manage to protect themselves despite letting both hands hang loosely at their waists. So if any of these methods can be made to work, why the mantra?

People don't bark at fighters to keep their hands up because it is the best possible advice, or even really useful at all. They do it because it's easy. And that's the problem. Fighting isn't easy. If I hold one hand up in front of my face, what's to stop you from just throwing around it? Even a classic high guard requires a great deal of concentration, awareness, and skill to work consistently. I have to react if I want to defend myself. I have to move--hands, head, and feet. And I have to fight back, something I cannot do if I feel compelled to hug my head with both hands at all times.

No matter what guard a fighter uses, it must be flexible. The fighter's mind must be flexible too, even to the point of adopting different guards and stances for different situations. The conclusion, then, is that guard is less important than we've been led to believe. There are dozens and dozens of variations, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses. Where you hold your hands matters less than what you do with them. And, as it turns out, hands are actually good for a lot of things in a fight. A hand can strike, catch, grip, push, pull, block, poke, rake--and occasionally, even shake the hand of an enemy.

When it comes to boxing for MMA, it is best to keep one's options open.

Check back soon for part two of this series: next time we will be looking at stance and body position. If the guard is boxing's most overrated technique, then positioning is almost certainly its most undervalued--and the least understood.