Post-Mexican Style, or An Era of Truly Global Boxing
By Joseph Hirsch: Historically certain styles of boxing and even certain punches were associated with different countries, and these regional styles could be explained by what defined these countries and their cultures. One story holds that the bolo punch perfected by Kid Gavilan came from swinging a machete in the Cuban sugar cane fields.
This wide arcing punch is still applied today, both by Cubans (like Rances Barthelemy) as part of a standard arsenal, and as a sort of hotdog/showboating tactic to either distract an opponent or to demonstrate total dominance over him in the ring.
Notice that one of the things boxers of “traveler” stock mostly have in common (the preferred term for Gypsies/Gitanos of Irish and English heritage) is very good head movement and a style that relies on lots of feints and evasion, as opposed to blocking or shelling up: see Tyson Fury, his cousin Hughie, or his other cousin Billy Joe Saunders for examples of this style.
One explanation I’ve heard for this heavy dependence on dodging rather than blocking among travelers is that, because their tradition goes back to the bareknuckle days (and some disputes can still be settled this way when battling for the title “King of the Gypsies”) being missed with a shot was always much preferred to deflecting it.
It’s one thing to absorb a gloved shot on the arm or shoulder. It’s quite another kettle of fish to endure a naked knuckle scraping against bone only lightly covered in flesh (get tagged on the ulna or bicep without a glove a few times and then get back to me).
Another boxing move that dates back to the bareknuckle days of the travelers is the chancery, which you’ve seen in action even if you don’t know its name. In plain terms, it’s when a fighter holds their opponent behind the head (usually with their non-dominant hand) and proceeds to beat them with their other fist. In the modern era, fighters prone to this tactic (like Muhammad Ali) used it merely to stabilize their foe to rain blows on them; traditionally, though, the vicelike hold was a necessary prerequisite for trying to gouge an opponent’s eye literally out of his head. Gruesome, yes, but it makes a certain amount of sense, as contra the horror movies, it is very hard to remove an eye from the head, since it is cabled to a series of nerves and fibers that hold it in place. Occasionally this move still shows itself in the traveller arsenal, though in the case of John Fury, father of champion Tyson, he used the move to settle a dispute over a bottle of beer in a bar, which cost him his freedom and his opponent his eye.
Some specific styles of boxing are born of the conditions under which one learned their fisticuffs. Fighters who were bullied as kids (Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Joe Calzaghe) seem to prize speed and viciousness in equal measure and at times appeared to be fighting the ghosts of tormentors as much as the men who were literally across from them in the ring.
Political events also shape styles. Because certain countries banned professional boxing, their cultures stressed an amateur/Olympic style that valued scoring points over inflicting punishment. These habits baked into the cake when fighters are young (like in La Finca in Cuba) end up following fighters into their careers even long after they’ve defected to capitalist countries with pro ranks. For a recent example of this, look no further than Guillermo Rigondeaux’s latest decision win. His safety-first potshot performance caused him to get a split decision the other night against Liborio Solis, when he could have probably gone for the knockout and closed the deal four or five times previously (which would have also had the benefit of shutting down the boos of the crowd in attendance).
Another way of fighting is Mexican style. There is some debate among boxing fans on what exactly this style entails (boxing fans are contentious by nature and will debate about anything if they’re given a beer in a bar or sat in a chair in front of a computer and pointed to the correct online forum), but the contours of the definition are generally agreed upon by most fans:
Mexican style, in short, encompasses both a style of fighting and an ethos of fighting. The style relies heavily on inside fighting, with especial emphasis on surgically placed body shots, delivered with punishing precision to the kidneys and liver. The greatest practitioners of this school have much better defensive powers than they’re usually given credit for, but it’s also understood that science is not enough; one must not just demonstrate fancy footwork or great evasive scientific tact; one has to prove they have cojones, that even if one has the ability to hit without getting hit, it’s sometimes preferable to trade on even terms in order to prove something to oneself and to gut-check the opponent, and to also give the fans what they came for (in this sense, then, Mexican style and Cuban style are in some ways opposites).
That’s the ethos part of the equation, the Bushido, if you will, or The Way.
The greatest recent proponent of the Mexican Style was of course Gennadiy Gennadyevich Golovkin (GGG), a fighter whose best days are (arguably) behind him, but who always provided the fans value for money and was devastating in close quarters, especially to the body. Matthew Macklin likened the body shot that sickened and dropped him against Triple G to being the closest a man could come to childbirth.
I don’t have to tell you that Triple G is a native of Kazakhstan and unless your geography is especially weak, you’re aware that Kazakhstan is very far away from Mexico.
Conversely, Golovkin foe Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a literal son of Mexico, has developed from a more rugged style into a fluid boxer-puncher who relies on feints, slips, tricky counters and off-the-ropes acrobatics more reminiscent of James Toney than of Julio Cesar Chavez.
Canelo had a baptism by fire in boxing, turning pro at the incredibly young age of 15 (which is illegal in some countries). But his in-ring experience with some incredibly slick, world-class opponents like Erislandy Lara and Floyd Mayweather, as well as campaigning across multiple divisions, has given Canelo a style that belies his lack of amateur pedigree. Strip away everything you know about the guy’s past and watch one of his recent performances, say against Danny Jacobs, and you probably wouldn’t be shocked if someone were to tell you the guy had three-hundred amateur fights before turning pro.
If a man from Karaganda fights like a guy from Sinaloa and a man from Guadalajara fights like he’s from Grand Rapids, it underscores a point Max Kellerman made not too long ago about boxing being in an era of stylistic cross-pollination.
Boxing has been global for a long time, and naturally there have always been fight film junkies and scrapbookers like Mike Tyson, who, thanks to trainer Cus D’Amato’s extensive collection of movie reels and his collection of books, could soak up knowledge on how men fought a hundred years ago (or in the case of Pankration Games, thousands of years ago).
But in an era of platforms like YouTube and streams, the styles have never before melded so freely, nor has knowledge of how people fight in other, far-flung lands been so easy to lay hands and eyes on.
It should be added that some styles are not quite as new as we think, and are rather reborn, appearing in new incarnations via modern fighters (Lomachenko’s backflips are his own, but a lot of his angles and pneumatic flurries are right out of Willy Pep’s playbook).
One other point that needs mentioning is that just as Bruce Lee’s specific contributions via Jeet Kune Do and the more general interest in martial arts has been affecting boxers for several generations now, the thawing of hostilities between the worlds of boxing and MMA is also going to eventually affect both sports in significant ways.
It’s been a long time since promoter Bob Arum’s incredibly tone-deaf and frankly dumb comments about the UFC, and contra Arum, the UFC’s Dana White has usually been gracious in giving boxing its due.
It’s hard, probably impossible at the moment, to speculate on exactly what kind of new styles of boxing are going to be born in the coming years thanks to technological and political changes that have remade both the larger world and the world of combat sports. But I’d hazard there’s some kid out there right now, maybe in Mexico, maybe in Kazakhstan, watching clips of Lomachenko, Bruce Lee, Canelo Alvarez, and Anderson Silva on YouTube, who’s putting it all together to weave a new tapestry from many disparate, old threads. And he’s probably also doing some unorthodox dance moves or ballet to improve his foot positioning in his spare time, when not scouring old dusty manuals for tips that he can crib from long-dead masters of the fistic science ( the Boxing book in the Naval Aviation Physical Training Manuals series, first published in 1943, remains one of the best sources for fundamentals and will reward anyone diligent or curious enough to track it down online).
Perhaps some of this kid’s friends in the gym are laughing at his yoga moves or dance steps, or maybe they think he’s wasting his time reading esoteric tomes on martial arts.
But I’d hazard that kid is going to kick all their asses in the years to come.
In fact, I’d bet on it.
Wait and see.
Joseph Hirsch, author of My Uncle’s New Eyes and other works