The Technical Jab – From Joe Gans to Larry Holmes & Beyond
The jab takes antecedence in all of boxing offense.
It is accepted orthodoxy that the jab is the most important punch in boxing.
We have all heard this statement.
What does that really mean? Why is it so? What are some practical examples where this statement can be applied?
In this piece, I hope to answer these questions by examining the most common methods for using the jab, some ‘history' and practical case studies wherein we examine certain fighters in the rich history of the sport who use this potent weapon with the most efficacy.
Joe Gans – The Old Master & Innovator
Gans was born in Baltimore, Maryland on the 24th of November, in 1874 on Thanksgiving Eve.
So capable was Gans - a Lightweight that his skills even moved the first ever heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, a brute of a man and unapologetic racist to opine in 1906:
I never liked a Negro as a fighting man…but Gans is the greatest lightweight the ring ever saw. He could lick them all on their best day. Gans is easily the fastest and cleverest man of his weight in the world. He can hit like a mule kicking with either hand.
Aside from being the first African American world champion Gans' technical acumen was peerless for his time. Among his innovations – committed body punching, an expert at feinting, was his use of the jab.
While it's impossible to identify who invented the jab Gans' employment of the lead hand punch was key to his success and one the few if only to construct a strategy for the ring that used the jab exclusively as the back bone of that strategy.
This is apparent when you watch what little grainy footage exists of Gans' match on the 1st of January 1907 against Herman Landfield AKA Kid Herman. This was Gans' 188th fight and The Old Master bewildered his younger challenger from the opening bell.
Like a Macedonian soldier in King Phillip's Phalanx army, Gans used his jab as the tip of the spear, out maneuvering and physically dominating his opponent in a variety of ways while staying safe himself.
He used the jab as a true range finder to gauge enemy distance to set up his other powerful attacks. Gans jabbed Herman with impunity and was hardly touched himself. Gans used his jab and ability to feint concurrently. Thereby confusing Herman and making him fearful of recklessly engaging Gans. Often Herman was simply frozen and frustrated by Gans' jab or the mere threat of his jab allowing Gans to land to the body or tie up Herman smothering his offense.
As the fight wore on disarmed and tiring Gans stalked Herman along the ropes in the 8th round.
One can observe in the grainy film footage the perfect balance of Gans as he shuffles forward – lead foot, trailing foot – the heel of the trailing foot lifted slightly off the canvas to enable weight shifting in the event of employing defensive body movement, countering or exploding with offense.
The Old Master had taken the young man into deep water and he was now going to drown him.
Herman swung with a desperate looping punch, Gans rode the blow, his perfect balance enabled Gans to transfer his weight onto his front foot to sit down on the counter right hand knocking the boy out in the 8th round.
I have written before that boxing in a way is the most reductive of the fighting arts. In the end, the sport consists of two competitors each alike in form and countenance. Each dawn a pair of gloves with the goal of beating their opponent with nothing more than those two fists.
However, at its core Boxing is a martial art, a means of self-defense and the sport of boxing has watered down this aspect to an extent. The Old Master like Joe Gans and others of his ilk - we can name them: Jack Johnson, Sam Langford, Jack Blackburn, right up to Archie Moore and other did not forget this and how could they – for black boxers opportunities were few unless they fought amongst themselves and their purses were a pittance. They fought dozens of times a month to make ends meet. If at all.
Mastering the technical aspects of boxing was integral to survival as much as ensuring their ability to continue to earn a living.
Fighters from Benny Leonard to Ali to Mayweather owe their progenitors like Gans and the men they fought and taught a debt of gratitude for their technical contributions.
Larry Holmes – The Best Defense is Offense
Larry Holmes will not win any popularity contests nor is his name frequently mentioned as a candidate for Greatest of All Time Heavyweight and perhaps justifiably so. However, slowly but surely the profile of Holmes has gone through some restoration. Appreciation has grown over time of his skill and tenacity.
He may never live down the contempt fans had for him after beating a well past prime Ali and Holmes himself did his legacy no favors by coming back out of retirement for freak show fights. Yet, one aspect of his game is beyond reproach and that is the Larry Holmes jab. One of the most potent weapons seen in boxing and one which Holmes would develop and over time refine taking him to multiple world heavyweight titles.
Holmes was a middling amateur, a record of 19-3 with no wins of note.
Holmes was not given much chance in the professional ranks and one reporter, Michael Katz of the New York Times wrote of Holmes that he was a frightened boxer — the word often used was yellow.
The size – in fact, the existence of Holmes' heart was questioned repeatedly and those questions persisted until he fought Ernie Shavers in their first bout in March of 1978. Billed as a title eliminator between the two men for Ken Norton's WBC heavyweight title, Holmes' was considered a dead man walking.
In round two Shavers, one of the most murderous punchers ever seen in boxing deposited Holmes on the seat of his trunks with a thunderous right hand. Holmes rose to his feet and shook his head. Holmes often picked himself off the canvas and returned to the fray only to come away the winner.
Avoiding the pin in the corner where Shaver's could land his big punches Holmes worked behind the snake like jab, in ones, twos, and threes the speed of the whip like jab landed continually on Shavers' face, Holmes landed to the body and with his powerful right hand as well.
Shavers power was fierce; however, it was his chin and courage that could be found wanting on this night. Two judges scored the fight 120-108 giving Holmes every round. The third judge's score was academic though Dave Moretti only gave Shaver's round 10.
Holmes' jab was often used to blind his opponent. The six-foot three-inch Holmes possessed a massive 81" reach. His fist 13 ½ inches. Holmes could move about the ring stinging his opponent repeatedly with the lead left and hiding his right hand behind it. Fighters like Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko all similar physical stature boxed much like Larry Holmes and while they were not particularly popular fighters either one cannot deny the efficiency nor their technical proficiency.
Holmes took the style of Ali, ostensibly being a 1-2 fighter – jab, right hand and further distilled it down. Larry used his jab as the defense he could rest behind it and move and like dying from one thousand cuts inflict damage on an opponent to create lop sided decision wins or set up devastating KOs. Recall Holmes carries a knock out percentage of nearly 60 %.
The devastating simplicity of Holmes' game is best personified by his match against Randall Tex Cobb.
Holmes met Cobb, a club level fighter the 26th of November 1982 in Houston Texas.
Cobb managed to get a title shot based on his punch and anvil hard head.
And Larry Holmes proceeded to jab Cobb's face off for 15 brutal rounds. All night Holmes merely jabbed and moved left, Cobb never got close and hardly landed a glove on Holmes. Cobb survived and Holmes made his 13th successful defense of the WBC title.
The fight was broadcast on ABC in primetime and was called by Howard Cosell who was so disgusted by the brutality of the fight he never called a boxing match again.
Larry Holmes showed what a fighter with a limited skill set can accomplish with the simplest array of tools in boxing sharpened to an exquisite point.
Mayweather. Ward. Garcia. – Analytical Precision
There are many modern fighters who possess a good jab and use it as the foundation of their offense, however, few fighters in the last generation exhibit such an understanding of time and space in relation to the effective application of the jab as these three boxers.
One of my favorite techniques in all of boxing is the body jab and Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward are two of the best.
For his part, Mikey Garcia has finally returned to the ring and in a matter of days takes on Adrien Broner himself a brilliant technical boxer. Garcia has proved himself a clinical finisher and has grown in the estimation of boxing fans for his technical ability.
Six years before the Money Era began by beating Oscar, Floyd Mayweather Jr put on a career defining performance against Diego Chico Corrales.
The contracted weight was an issue. Chico had stated time again he could not make Junior Lightweight and had moved on from that weight class. However, the verbal back and forth between the two fighters eventually built up to the violent climax on the 2nd of January 2001.
And Chico was an extremely dangerous opponent. Undefeated, 33-0 with 27 KOs, three straight and against naturally bigger men.
Though Chico was 2 ½ inches taller than Floyd (and looked bigger still on the night) Floyd enjoyed a two-inch reach advantage. To return to the earlier analogy of the spear. Philip of Macedonia created the Sarissa, a pike with a spear tip created specifically to be longer than the spear used universally on the Greek main land. This gave Philip's army a natural and obvious tactical advantage.
Floyd used his jab to the body expertly as the tip of his spear – the platform by which he launched the rest of his attack.
From Floyd's wide leg stance, he could crouch and launch his stabbing left jab to Chico's body.
Over and over he did this. Floyd knew the struggle Chico would have had to make 130 pounds that night and punishing his body was the best way to fatigue the bigger, more powerful but slower man.
Floyd is always referred to as a defensive genius attention is drawn to his use of the Philly Shell defense, his intelligent foot work and his ability to manage distance like few others. Yet, his jab and the defense he's built into it is often overlooked.
The common orthodoxy is to tuck your chin behind your lead shoulder of the jabbing arm – in Floyd's case his left arm. However, often Floyd's head is up right giving the illusion he can be countered over top with your right (for another orthodox fighter) instead Floyd's head an upper body is often angled to his left taking his head and thus that enticing target off the center line.
When Floyd jabs to the body as he did against Chico he exploited Chico's inability to find the target as Floyd – the smaller man in this fight made himself smaller still bending at the waist hiding his head behind his lead shoulder and angling his upper body away again, with his reach advantage he could move in and jab Chico to the solar plexus and dig into his guts sapping Chico's energy if not his will.
So drained and gun-shy was Chico that Floyd used his brilliant feints much like Joe Gans, The Old Master did to set up Floyd's well-known lead straight right and lead left hook.
Chico was knocked down five times in the fight before his corner threw in the towel.
Most point to Floyd's victory over Oscar de la Hoya as the fight that made him a star however it was this sublime performance that is one of the best in Mayweather's career.
Andre SOG Ward is a fighter cut from the same cloth as Mayweather and their styles have a lot in common.
Both men are ring generals. Both defensive minded. Both have an excellent jab.
One of my favorite performances by Ward was his gutsy street fight win over Edwin Rodriguez in November 2013.
It was a dirty ugly, affair virtually from the opening bell, Ward's mean streak is not often mentioned however when things got rough in that ring Ward fancied it.
Veteran ref Jack Reiss had to deduct two points from both men in the 4th round for unsportsmanlike conduct. Reiss himself was struck with a glancing blow and became infuriated.
Both of you knock this shit off!
One more point off and you know what happens, nobody gets paid.
So cooler heads prevailed. The fight eventually settled into a rhythm that saw Ward win nearly every exchange off his jab, primarily to the body.
Interestingly it was Ward who gave up a five-inch reach advantage to Rodriguez. Employing a style similar to the one Floyd used against Chico more than 10 years before Ward made himself a small target and launched into Rodriguez's belly with his piston jab.
Ward often likes to land a lead left hook either off the jab to the body – in a 1-3 jab, left hook or feints the jab to the body to land the 3 to the head as the lead before landing his right hand behind it or clinching and mugging inside to further wear down his opponents.
This he did to Rodriguez who looked completely lost. What I really enjoyed about Ward's performance is he out bullied the bully. And did so with high-level boxing technique.
We've all missed Mikey Garcia.
The ear to ear smile that never seems to leave his face and his class in the ring is evident.
Fighting out of Southern California the 29-year-old has made short work of 30 of 36 opponents. One criticism perhaps is the level of competition he's faced up to now does not seem to be consonant with his obvious skill.
In response to those detractors, he takes on Adrien Broner on July 29th. A fighter who's had a lot of ups and downs over the last few years is nevertheless one of the most talented boxers on the planet from 130-147 pounds.
Garcia has posted decisive wins over Orlando Salido, Juan Ma Lopez, and Rocky Martinez. However, it is the devastating and clinical stoppage win over Dejan Zlaticanin Macedonia's first world champion ever this past January claiming the WBC lightweight title that was truly exceptional.
The finish was a highlight reel, Garcia had stunned Zlaticanin with an upper cut as Garcia flanked his opponent, Zlaticanin turned to face Garcia – off balance and hands out of position Garcia landed a right hook that left Dejan Zlaticanin stretched on the canvas. He was down for several minutes requiring oxygen to regain consciousness.
If I were to conduct a class on the importance of establishing the jab a phrase that is repeated time and again to gain mental, strategic and physical control over an opponent I would show them the three rounds over which this fight transpired. A good big man with the longer reach should be able to beat a good little man behind his jab. Especially in the case of Garcia v. Zlaticanin. Head trainer Robert Garcia would have noticed as I did that Zlaticanin does not move his head, does not cut the ring off well and when hit merely covers up and crouches in a defensive shell.
A great way to abuse this apparent lack of understanding is to dominate with the jab. Thrown hard and straight right through the guard. From the very moment, the bell for round one rang Garcia claimed the center of the ring and dominated the Macedonian behind his jab.
This was a bread and butter approach that was a clear focus of the strategy formulated within the Garcia camp from the outset.
The phalanx was broken and the spear split and splintered.
It's about levels and Garcia was levels above his opponent on this night.
Garcia exacted this brilliant finish behind a ruthless and powerful jab.
The jab is a useful weapon in a boxing ring and can be used to set up your offense and can even be used as a defense.
It can keep your opponent busy and unable to focus on their own attack while doing damage over the course of a fight.
And even the mere threat of the jab can be used with proper feints to further devastate your opponent.
No single article can capture all the fighters who have successfully used the jab with true aplomb.
So, with that said the BOXRAW family would love to hear from you.
Who's your favorite fighter that skillfully employs the jab? How do you train to make your jab better?
Until next time…