Catechism for novice boxers

3 July 2019

Boxing is a technically sophisticated sport. There’s a lot you need to practise and internalise before you have your first amateur fight in a ring.

That’s just a fact.

Every novice amateur boxer needs to understand and acknowledge it. If you’re a novice and you don’t appreciate the technical sophistication of boxing, you’ll probably fail the first time you fight. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose (as your opponent might be even more poorly prepared), but you will fail in the sense that you won’t perform as well as you might have otherwise.

Knowledge is often a double-edged sword, however. And so it is in the present case.

A big problem for many novices is that their appreciation of the technical sophistication of boxing overwhelms them. It makes them overthink things to the point of paralysis. They get in the ring with their heads bursting with everything they’ve done in training: combinations, blocks, parries, slips, footwork, counterpunches, etc. And then, all of a sudden, they can’t do anything.

That’s what happened to me in my first amateur fight. The bell rang and suddenly, in pretty much every way relevant to boxing, I was paralysed. My opponent approached me across the ring and I knew I had to do something, but I had gazillions of technical possibilities running through my mind at once. In effect, I was frantically asking myself the following question:

Which one of this infinite number of technical possibilities should I do right now?

BANG! BANG! BANG! l absorbed two jabs to the head followed by a right hook to the body. The jabs didn’t hurt much, but the right hook was truly agonising. I’ll never forget it. In that moment I fully grasped the meaning of the old Frazierian doctrine, “Kill the body and the head will die.” Yet I continued thinking about what I should do. My opponent was boxing and I was… thinking!

And so it went on. The obvious answer to my question was, “punch him”. But I hardly even did that. And of the very few punches I did throw, I only cleanly landed two of them… the whole fight! Somehow the decision against me was split rather than unanimous. So another thing I came to fully grasp in my first fight was that the judging in amateur boxing really is as bad as everyone says.

My experience was hardly unique. Indeed, it happens to novices all the time. Since I began training other guys, I’ve witnessed many novices undergo similar experiences in their first fights. Some were my own boxers, some were my boxers’ opponents. And many other boxers have told me that when they first fought they too were more or less paralysed by overthinking things.

It’s often difficult to predict in advance whether someone is at risk of overthinking. There are novices who box comfortably and confidently in sparring and then freak out in the ring; conversely, there are novices who freak out in sparring and then box comfortably and confidently in the ring. Weird, but true. It’s just an artefact of the diversity of human characters and temperaments.

What novice boxers need is the essence of boxing, not a head full of technicalities. That’s what I needed, anyway. As a trainer now, I’ve done my best to distill the essence of boxing into five fundamental elements for study and memorisation. They comprise a catechism for novice boxers. If you must think during your first fight, think about the catechism!

Hands up

You’ve got to protect yourself at all times in a fight, and the simplest way to do that is by keeping your hands up. This is one half of elementary defence. Forget all about Ali and Mayweather. The fancy defensive stuff is for experienced amateurs and the pros. In your first fight, you just need to hold up your hands.

Chin down

Tuck your chin down in your shoulder and keep it there. This of course is the other half of elementary defence. Your chin should be down no matter what, really, whether you’re punching, moving in, moving out, pivoting, clinching, or even pulling your head back. Exposing your chin is an invitation to be KOed.


If you’re within range of your opponent, punch. Don’t think about it; just do it. It’s amazing how many novices don’t punch. You only need very basic punches and combinations: 1, 1-2, 1-1-2, 1-2-3. Go for the head and go for the body. You might get counterpunched. So be it. You gotta throw punches. It’s boxing.


Get moving. Even if you’re in control of the centre of the ring, you still need to move. A step forward to put on the pressure. A step back to create distance. Sideways to make new angles. If you freeze and clam up, your opponent will bombard you with jabs and worse. And some of them will get through.


Easier said than done when your opponent is charging at you unloading bombs. But you should try to do it. The keys to relaxation in boxing are your shoulders and your breathing. In pre-fight sparring, you should consciously practise de-tensing your shoulders and breathing steadily with a mouth guard.

That’s the novice boxer’s catechism. Study it and learn it: hands up, chin down, punch, move, relax.

You will apply the catechism best if you avoid dramatising your first few fights. Keep them in perspective. You’re not fighting at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for fame and fortune. You’re fighting at some local venue for the sake of fighting. You should conceive of your first five or so fights as being more like experiments than anything else. They’re opportunities for you to test out your elementary boxing skills and techniques in a real fight. If you’re not yet stinging like a butterfly and floating like a bee, don’t worry about it. At least you’re actually boxing.

Do you have any tips for novice boxers? If so, let me know in the comments below!

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Posted by ScepticalBoxer

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