Boxing is a nuanced sport - there are rules and regulations that have been in place for decades. One of the oldest rules of the sport is that fights take place in a series of rounds, each lasting for a predetermined period of time. Often different types of fights last for a different number of rounds depending on the experience of the fighters and whether the fight is a title fight or not. Historically the rules have also been different, so in this article we’re going to go through how many rounds there are in different types of boxing matches and why.
Professional title bouts used to be 15 rounds, but now are 12 rounds lasting three minutes each. Amateur fights tend to be four rounds lasting two minutes each. When fighters turn professional, their first few fights tend to be four or six rounds of three minutes each. As they progress up the rankings their fights will increase to eight or ten rounds - and you’ll see this on the undercard of bigger fights. Non-title fights tend to be capped at ten rounds. Women’s boxing tends to feature two minute rounds.
What is a round?
Let’s go really basic here, just to make sure we’re covering all bases. All boxing matches are divided up into rounds. A “round” just means a period of time in which fighters are in the ring and engaging with each other. During a round, the only people allowed in the ring are the two boxers and the referee. A round is generally three minutes in length in professional and amateur men’s boxing and two minutes in women’s professional and amateur boxing.
A fight is divided up into a set number of rounds, known by everyone involved before the fight starts. This didn’t used to be the case, which we’ll explain in the next section. The start and end of a round is signified by the ringing of a bell. There are circumstances where a round might take longer - for example if a fighter is knocked down (where the clock is paused) and the referee gives them a count of ten to get up. Rounds could also be longer if the fighter’s gumshield is knocked out, where the referee will stop the fight until a new one is inserted, or if a fighter performs an illegal move such as a low blow, where the fight will be paused while the offending fighter is warned.
The history of boxing - bareknuckle fighting and the Queensberry rules
The historical basis of having rounds of three minutes’ length came about with the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867. While we won’t go into the detail about the Queensberry rules and the impact they had, they effectively form the basis of modern boxing. Prior to this (and for a short while after before these rules were uniformly adopted), boxing was usually performed bare knuckle for an unlimited number of rounds.
Fighters would fight until one of them was knocked down, at which point the round would be over. Once the fighter got up, the next round would continue. This would go on and on until one of the fighters was too physically exhausted to continue, or the police arrived and broke up the fight. The longest bout of this nature lasted a stunning 6 hours and 15 minutes over 17 rounds in 1855 between James Kelly and Jonathon Smith.
However, after the adoption of the Queensberry rules, fights still continued to last a significant number of rounds - it’s just that rounds were limited to 3 minutes. The longest bout of this nature was famously the fight between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke in 1893 which lasted an incredible 110 rounds and was declared a no-contest due to there being no clear winner emerging by the 110th round. Fights that lasted tens of rounds was normal - fights would continue until someone gave up. It wasn’t until the 1910s and 1920s where boxing was generally limited to fights of 15, 3 minute rounds, which benefitted high energy fighters such as Jack Dempsey and Sam Langford.
Why did fights used to be 15 rounds?
As we’ve mentioned, 15 round fights became the norm around the 1910s and 1920s. But why are championship fights now limited to 12 rounds?
15 round fights were the norm right up until the 1980s. Most of the great fights that took place in the 20th Century were fought as 15 round fights - all three fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, all 6 fights between Ray Robinson and Jake Lamotta, Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes vs Ken Norton - all of them fought for 15 rounds and this was expected right through until the mid 1980s.
This changed after the fight between Korean fighter Duk Koo Kim and Ray Mancini in 1982. Kim was knocked down in the 14th round and struggled to get up. The fight was declared a TKO in Mancini’s favour and immediately after the fight Kim collapsed into a coma from which he never recovered, and just days after after the fight.
Kim’s death was the catalyst for introducing measures to better protect the health of boxers, and the WBC (World Boxing Council) announced in 1982 that it was reducing championship fights from 15 rounds to 12. The WBA (World Boxing Association) and IBF (International Boxing Federation) followed suit in 1987, and when the WBO (World Boxing Organisation) was formed in 1988 they immediately began operating with a 12 round limit for championship fights.
Since the 1980s, all professional boxing world title fights have been scheduled for 12 rounds.
Subsequently, every single great fight over the last 30 years has been fought at a 12 round limit. However, not all fights are championship fights and therefore are a lot shorter. Let’s look at why some fights don’t go the full 12 rounds.
Four and six round fights
Three round and four round fights are the norm in amateur boxing. If you watch an amateur match, for men it’s always three rounds at three minutes each, and for women it tends to be four rounds at two minutes each. Amateur fights are scored differently, but that’s a conversation for a different article. When fighters first turn professional, their initial fights are usually four or six rounders.
Four round fights aren’t necessarily limited to beginner boxers - the famous heavyweight Eric “Butterbean” Esch fought for most of his career in the sport at the four round limit - but generally fighters starting out will have their first few fights at this kind of length. Six rounders are generally for boxers that have established themselves but haven’t necessarily broken through the top 100 rankings in their weight class.
Eight and ten round fights
Usually when you see an eight round fight, at least one of the fighters involved has some serious potential. Both fighters tend to be fairly experienced, with at least ten fights under their belt most of the time. This is the usual length of fight where you’ll see someone who may have potential to contend for a title in a few fights’ time - although not every eight round fight will be like this and typically eight rounders are reserved for people who are outside the top 50 or so in their division.
Ten rounders tend to be serious fighters looking to contend for a title fairly soon. These are experienced fighters often with good records. Title fights don’t tend to happen at this length although it’s entirely possible that regional or local titles (such as British, European, Commonwealth, Regional American/NABF championships, etc) are on the line. Title eliminator fights (such as when there’s no mandatory challenger and two fighters are fighting to determine who will challenge for the title) may also be ten rounds, but they tend to be twelve in most circumstances.
Twelve round fights
Twelve round fights (except when they’re title eliminators) are nearly always title fights. Catchweight fights (where one fighter wants to move up a weight class but doesn’t want to challenge a title) are also nearly always twelve rounds. It may also be the case where two fighters who are not world champions but are veterans fight a twelve round bout with no title on the line.
You may hear the phrase “championship rounds” being thrown around in boxing discussion. The “championship rounds” were rounds 13 through 15, as back in the day only championship fights would be 15 rounds. Today, they mean rounds 10 through 12, as only fights that are contending for a serious title go 12 rounds. As a colloquialism, they refer to the boxer’s ability to persevere, dig deep and finish strong, It’s often the case that a young challenger with a lot of stamina against an experienced champion can pile pressure for the first nine or ten rounds of a fight, but gasses out in the last two rounds as they’re not used to fighting that long, and an experienced champion can capitalise on this and show their true “champion” qualities by scoring a KO.
Do rounds ever end early?
Generally, rounds do not end early. Rounds may be stopped or paused for a variety of reasons - if a fighter performs an illegal move, if a fighter’s gloves are damaged, if the fighter’s mouthguard falls out - but usually in this instance, the clock will be stopped, one fighter will be moved to a neutral corner (white) while the issue is resolved. If a fighter has been injured to the point where the referee feels the need to inspect the injury, such as in the case of a cut or swelling, they may also pause the round so that the injury can be looked at by the ringside doctor or the cutman.
There are a few situations where a round may end early, although these almost always result in the fight being stopped. If a fighter is knocked down and is unable to beat the count (get up before the referee counts to ten) the round is over and the fight is waved off in favour of the fighter still standing. Additionally the referee can call a fight as soon as the fighter hits the canvas if they feel the fighter cannot continue - again the fight is waved off. Sometimes this leads to decisions that aren't very popular - such as when the referee stopped Pernell Whitaker (who was winning by a country mile) against Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993 with only twelve seconds left in the final round.
The referee may also stop a fight if the boxer is bleeding too heavily, taking too much punishment or generally the referee now feels they are unfit to continue, but again this will stop both the round and the fight. The corner may also throw in the towel if they feel their fighter is unfit to continue - which stops the round and the fight.
Otherwise, the fight will continue for the predetermined number of rounds, and when the number of rounds is over, the fight will go to the judge’s scorecards to determine who has won the fight.
What happens between rounds?
Between rounds is the boxer’s chance to rest. You’ll notice after the bell rings, the boxer will retreat to their assigned corner - blue or red. The lead cornerman (usually the boxer’s trainer or coach) will pull out a stool and will offer advice to the boxer based on their performance in the past round, whether they think the boxer is winning or losing against the opponent and things to watch out for.
You will also find two other people in the ring at this point - the secondman, who is usually responsible for towelling the sweat off the boxer’s face and offering them a drink of water and washes their mouthguard between rounds. The third man, often called the cutman, is trained specifically to deal with injuries to the fighter’s face. They will use a cold compress (sometimes called an eye iron) to prevent swelling around the eyes and cheeks - nothing worse than fighting with a swollen eye as you can’t see. They will also administer medication to cuts via cotton swabs, and will apply a mixture of petroleum jelly and adrenaline to the boxer’s cuts for a number of reasons - to prevent sweat getting into the eyes of the boxer, and to help the other fighter’s punches slip away from the cut areas. They may also press an icepack to the boxer’s face, again to help with the swelling.
The cornermen, as they’re collectively known, stay in the corner for one minute - this is all they have to administer medicine, treat facial swelling, give the fighter water and provide them with advice. The referee will shout “seconds out” before the start of the next round, meaning that the fighter’s seconds (the cornermen) must get out of the ring before the start of the next round.
Hopefully this article’s answered all your questions about the concept of boxing rounds. If you’re still interested in technical information about some boxing terms, or are looking for equipment reviews and guides, check out some of our other articles!
This article is part of our Boxing Info series.