When boxers pose for fights today before a match and after a weigh-in, they stare down their opponent with an old fashioned fighting stance in place. If you look at fighter from the 1800s many fighters today are still copying their stance for this stare down. You know the one. They are facing sideways with their left arm bent but out from the body, the right arm closer to the body also in a stance ready to punch. Neither arm is protecting the face. In fact, the only thing protecting the face of fighters in the 1800s was usually an oversized mustache. Why was this stance so popular?
The classic boxer pose has been mocked a lot in recent years. We now look at it and laugh with many calling it ‘fisticuffs’. It looks far from a masculine pose and the worst part is that it looks like a terrible idea. To stand like that during a boxing match meant never protecting your face, surely a silly strategy.
While this stance would be a terrible idea based on modern boxing practices it was more than ideal for the boxing matches of the 1800s. Back then no one wore headgear or gloves. This was bare-knuckle boxing at its finest. You can imagine that bare-knuckle boxing is a lot more dangerous than gloved boxing but there were actually far fewer head injuries per fight than compared today. The main reason was that gloves protected the hands. No gloves, no protection from hard skulls. If boxers punched the opponents head as much as they do today and with as much force they would break their hands too often.
This meant that most boxers rarely went for punches to the face. The majority of boxing tactics concentrated on the torso. Head punches were allowed and did still occur but a punch to the head usually came out as a 50-50 move. You likely hurt your opponent’s head but also your hand. Back then fighters fought a few times a week so they had little time to recover. Seriously damaging their hands would mean they couldn’t fight for a few weeks. They relied on these fights to feed their families and so couldn’t afford to take silly risks.
This means the boxing stance we see in the photos makes a lot of sense. The pose protects the body but leaves the face open. Yet still, the one hand stretched out one hand by the side is still a little strange. Back then grappling was a large part of boxing and if you allowed your opponent to come too close they could grab your torso too easily. By keeping one hand outstretched it protected from a grab. By keeping your other hand close to your stomach it protected it from a punch and it was ready to strike itself. The right hand being the dominant hand for most fighters meant it was ready for a swift uppercut or hook.
Looking at the picture, it now makes a lot more sense. Even the strange mustaches look a little cooler. Daniel Mendoza is the fighter credited with this pose as prior to his fight career most fighters were attacking with little thought. He was a short fighter but went undefeated for a long time due to his superior tactics. He later wrote a book on the subject called ‘The Art of Boxing’. His tactics and approach to the game became the playbook for the fighters of the 19th century and are reflected in every photo we see today. While these tactics are now out of date they are still honored in every fighter stance after a weigh-in, even if those modern fighters have no idea why.