International Kickboxer, Vol.17, no.5
When talking footwork, it is fair to say that fighters can roughly be split into two camps; there are those who want to stand and trade shots, and those who want to hit and run. A combination of both approaches is ideal, because no matter what you prefer, the best fighters can adapt to a situation in order to bring it under their control. The further apart two fighters are in terms of their abilities, the more important it becomes for the less-mobile one to pin the other down. The static fighter wants to prevent the mobile one escaping so he (or she) can set about breaking him up.
To a fight fan watching two fighters at work, the dynamic often appears to be that the one who is running is effectively the dominant one. By hitting and running, the mobile fighter dictates where and when the action takes place, thereby determining the rhythm of the fight. Effective cutting off the ring, however, is all about the static one taking charge and progressively trapping the more agile in a position, in a corner or against the ropes, where he can start to tee off. To cut off the ring, you do not follow. You have to lead.
At risk of this article beginning to read like a dance class, we need to begin talking specifically about which foot goes where. To apply these ideas, it’s going to be much more useful to get into the gym with another person and your trainer to rehearse the basic concepts. From there, you can set about drilling the fundamentals to see how they work for you.
To begin with, it is important for a runner to get his footwork right. This means to distinguish between moving backwards and moving side-to-side. Everybody who has graduated from a karate class to a boxing class will all say the same thing, with the same tone of amazement in their voice; ‘How about that footwork!’ Boxing footwork emphasises the importance of moving around an opponent, rather than simply moving back and forth. Running backwards is when a fighter is at their most vulnerable. They can’t see where they are going, of course, and when the weight is back, it is very difficult to counter.
Once a fighter learns to move left and right, all kinds of possibilities open up. To begin with, in an orthodox stance, moving to your right means that you move to a fighter’s ‘off’ side. From this position, your opponent can’t see or hit you properly. To strike and guard against attack, they have to turn to face you. This means that you are now leading the action. Conversely, moving to the left brings you across your opponent’s field of vision and towards their right side. This is far more dangerous because you are now moving towards their right leg and their right hand, an orthodox fighter’s two most powerful weapons.
Wherever possible, the aggressor should try and force the runner backwards. Essentially, an opponent can’t fight while moving back and it is the quickest way to get them up against the ropes. Failing this, and if they understand the importance of moving laterally, you have to approach the problem a different way.
Remember that the dominant fighter is the one who holds the centre of the ring. Short of the knock out, control of the centre is what you are fighting for. Anchor your right foot on the centre and, as your opponent attempts to move to your left, or ‘off’ side, get your left foot past his right, thereby preventing him from moving in that direction. This will force him to go towards your right. As he does so, move your left foot past his left. This will prevent him from going in any direction other than backwards, towards the ropes. Don’t try to put your right foot past his left, as this will make you vulnerable to attack. These are the essential principles, but like everything to do with fighting, it is far more easily explained than done.
Fighting is primarily about hitting. Consequently, we tend to think of good fighting in terms of how hard and how often. Setting up those opportunities and effectively preventing them, however, is something that comes from good footwork. Non-contact sports like tennis and basketball can teach kickboxers a lot. Basketball players use many footwork-oriented partner drills which can benefit fighters enormously.
One such drill can be done with two people inside the ring. Starting in one corner, the runner has to make his way into the centre. The defender has to prevent him getting there by inhibiting his ability to move left and right. As in basketball, no actual contact, or charging, is allowed. A similar drill can be performed where the object is to make it into the opposite corner of the ring. Practising these drills without the addition of any striking or contact means that you are forced to develop your agility, but also the ability to read an opponent’s body language and to feint and fake so as to deceive them.
With this discussion comes a warning; no successful fighter is successful purely in terms of striking power alone. The best fighters are those who have mastered all aspects of their technique. Cutting off the ring isn’t a substitute for footwork; it is another way of applying it. To cut off an opponent’s retreat and turn it to your advantage means you have to build your capacity to move well and then prevent your opponent from doing the same.
Thanks to both Joe Demicoli and Joe Nader for their assistance in writing this article.