This post looks at the differences and relative advantages/disadvantages of the a boxing punch compared with a traditional martial arts (Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) punch.
Firstly, the disclaimer part
I want to make it clear that this for informational/interest purposes and is not meant to be an attack or criticism of any fighting system and is just my opinion. Anybody who can punch well is going to be a tough opponent on the street or in the ring regardless of which system they train in. Although I would argue that some systems are optimised for certain purposes (ie: sport or self defence, etc), that is not say that they are not capable of being used for other purposes as well.
Traditional martial arts have a large variety of different punches. Furthermore, within each art there can also be some differences in how they are performed, with some people sticking strictly to the traditional way whilst others have adopted more of a boxing approach. Certainly Kickboxers punch more like boxers than like strict traditional martial artists, and Kickboxing has influenced many traditional martial arts.
So for the sake of the post, I’ll be focusing on the basic Shotokan Karate extended punch (kizami zuki) and reverse punch (gyaku zuki) with the “corkscrew” twist of the forearm at the end of the punch as Shotokan is my primary style. These punches are however common to many other martial arts and are demonstrated below:
Although many styles of Kung Fu use these (or very similar) punches, some Kung Fu styles (such as Wing Chun) do not use this type of punch at all. Their method of punching is beyond the scope of this post.
Boxing fortunately is a bit more standardised without the vast array of different punches (though they do have variations on a theme). The boxing equivalent of the 2 martial arts punches shown above are the jab and cross, demonstrated below. You will see a lot of similarities:
If we look at the technical differences first, then we can examine what uses these different variations are optimised for.
Probably the most obvious difference is that the Karateka pulls their non-punching hand back to the hip, whereas the boxer keeps theirs in a high guard around the head. I’ll come back to that later, but a more important difference (in my opinion) is the way the shoulders are used. In the start position the boxers shoulders are hunched very slightly upwards and forwards, which making the chest very slightly concave, minimising any potential target areas. The gloved hands are also held much closer to the head and head is tilted forward slightly protecting the facial features more.
The Karateka on the other hand, keeps the shoulders lower and more relaxed, the chest in a more neutral position, the hands further forward and the head is kept more erect.
Part of the reason for these differences is quite simply the use of gloves (though there is more to it than that, which I’ll come to in a minute). When fighting with gloves, the hands are effectively much bigger. This means 2 relatively large gloved hands have to get through 2 other relatively large gloved hands!
When defending, you don’t really have to worry too much about blocking and parrying as you can absorb the opponents blows on your forearms and gloves! Glove to glove is not going to hurt and even glove to forearm is not going to do much damage. Keeping the head down and the chest slightly concave allows you to “hide” most of you upper body and head behind your forearms and gloves. The lower body is quite well muscled (boxers always do a lot of conditioning before going in the ring) and there is no punching below the belt!
The Karateka and most traditional martial artists however do not use gloves. So trying to absorb bare knuckle blows to your forearms will be more painful. Granted, it is still preferable to absorbing the blows with your head, but it can soon damage your resolve and weaken your guard. Rather than trying to absorb the blows of bony knuckles, the hands are held further forward to give more opportunity to block or parry incoming blows.
The hands are also . . . . well . . . . hand size, making it easier to slip a punch through somebody else’s guard, when your hands are small enough to slip in between their guard and their hands are not big enough to “hide behind”.
In Karate (and most other martial arts) competition you are also not allowed to kick/punch below the belt. However, anybody who trains for self defence must take low shots into account, hence the Karateka holds his hands lower than his boxing counterpart.
Another influencing factor is when you consider the difference between a fight and self protection. In a fight (sport or street) 2 people agree to have a go. With self protection, you do not agree to fight yet you have a physical altercation forced upon you. Even if you are severely provoked, the moment you agree to “step outside” or to “sort it out”, you have left the self protection realm and agreed to enter into a fight.
Boxing is all about fighting. It is designed as a sport where 2 people enter a ring with a referee. They will be in the same weight category and usually have a similar level of ability. As such there is no surprise attacks, sucker punches or pre-emptive strikes. They only fight when both are ready and prepared.
Many traditional martial arts have become sports and have a similar approach. However, they were originally designed for self protection where you can use (or encounter from others) surprise attacks, sucker punches and pre-emptive strikes.
The more erect position of the Karateka’s head may seem to be more vulnerable at first glance, but from a self protection point of view can have some advantages. A bully or thug will often try to intimidate with a lot of threats and abuse. They will often be “peacocking” whilst they do this (puffing themselves up to make themselves look bigger). Whilst peacocking, they actually leave themselves very open with a lot of vulnerable targets. As soon as you agree to a fight, or show any intention or capability of fighting, they will usually go into a similar stance to the boxer and close of those vulnerable targets. If you keep the head erect, the shoulders low and relaxed; but instead of making a proper stance and fists, you face your opponent with hands open/palms down, you can mask any intention that you are preparing to defend yourself. The bully is therefore more likely to keep peacocking leaving plenty of good targets. This allows you to take a nice clear pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target and hopefully end the situation in one go.
Also, having the hands in a more forward position means that they are actually closer to your assailant. So when you do launch a pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target, your assailant has less chance of stopping it.
Many traditional martial arts also have a whip like effect to their punches. This requires a rapid rotation of the spine, which is more easily achieved with the spine straight. This is another reason why the head is held upright. Lowering the head (like a boxer) puts a slight curvature at the top of the spine which creates a slight amount of tension in the upper body, which works against the whip effect.
Furthermore, big gloves spread out and dampen the impact (which is necessary when 2 people are hitting each other full contact for a number of rounds). So a whip like snap punch will not work quite so well for a boxer wearing gloves, so they needs to go for a more deeply penetrating punch rather than the snap/impact of a traditional martial arts punch. This necessitates more commitment of the shoulder to achieve that extra penetration.
Now this is where we come back to the traditional martial artist pulling the non-punching hand back to the hip. This is very often explained as a way to increase the power of the punch, but when you see how powerful boxers are without it, then there has to be a bit more to it. The non punching hand is called “Hikite” in Japanese, meaning “pulling hand”. It can be used to grab the opponent and pull them off balance whilst striking them with the other hand. Again, this works better with a straight spine, hence another reason for the head being erect.
Although boxing has obviously been developed as a sport, it is all about fighting. Once a situation has become a fight (in the ring or in the street, it is a very simple and pragmatic system. It is very effective, very powerful and generally speaking boxers train to absorb more punishment then most traditional martial artists do.
The traditional martial arts punch is more optimised to self protection scenarios. Having said that, many instructors are not very good at teaching self protection and teach more for sport fighting anyway!
But like I said at the beginning, this is only my opinion and there are only a few degrees of differences between the 2 types of punches anyway.
Please leave your own comments below and build on my observations.