Boxing is many things to many people - for some it’s the same as football or baseball and just something they watch on a Saturday night. For others, it’s a route out of poverty, a way to channel aggression, a way to improve fitness - the list goes on. One of the questions I see asked quite often is whether boxing is classed as a martial art or not. Some might look at this and think “well, obviously it isn’t” - and that’s how I first approached the subject, but actually it’s not as clear cut as you might think.
There are plenty of experts and scholars who would put forward arguments either way. I’m no expert in traditional martial arts - karate, taekwondo, jiu jitsu, etc - or even more recent iterations such as MMA, but I do know boxing quite well being a lifelong fan of the sport. So, in this article we’re going to go through reasons why boxing could be considered a martial art, reasons why it may not be considered a martial art and finally, what I think after some extensive research into the subject.
Definition of a "martial art"
Let’s first define what we’re looking at here, and the criteria we’re measuring boxing against. Martial arts can be defined as the following:
“Codified traditions and systems of combat practiced for a number of reasons - self defence, military and law enforcement applications, competition, physical, mental and spiritual development, entertainment or to preserve a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.”
Let’s look at what this actually means. A “codified system” just means that there are strict rules and regulations applied to the sport that you cannot break. Physical and mental benefits of any kind of combat sport are well known as a way to improve fitness and release stress, and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage doesn’t really apply to boxing, as modern boxing was largely formed and popularised in Great Britain and the USA but is unquestionably a global sport.
You may also look at the word “martial” and think that modern martial arts were used in war or combat - and while the historical ancestors of these disciplines likely were used in war, the modern equivalents have not been. It’s been suggested that “combat sports” or “fighting arts” is a more appropriate term. Boxing in its current form has also never been used in war.
Martial arts are commonly thought to originate in east Asia - specifically Japan, China and Korea. It’s interesting to note that modern martial arts - karate, taekwondo, kendo, etc - have all actually been codified and established largely within the last 200 years, and are based on traditional fighting styles. This might surprise a lot of people, who may look at something like karate and think that it has many hundreds or thousands of years of direct history. Karate absolutely does have a lengthy and ancient history, but not in the way that you might think, as all the rules and regulations were established relatively recently.
This actually holds true for boxing as well - as many readers of this blog know, boxing has been around for thousands of years (including the idea of wearing gloves in a contest) but has only been codified in a way we might recognise today in a fairly modern context - first with the London Prize Ring rules and then the Marquess of Queensberry rules of the 19th Centuries. Interestingly the earliest known depiction of a boxing match comes from Sumerian carvings in the 3rd millennium BCE - it’s also known that boxing was a formal sport at the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BCE, and the earliest depiction of gloves being used in combat comes from a vase found in Crete dating from around 1500 BCE. Boxing has been around a lot longer than most people think.
As we can see, boxing actually ticks a lot of boxes of the traditional definition of a martial art. Let’s do a deep dive into the most important aspects of what defines a martial art and see how this relates to boxing.
The rules of boxing
The fact that boxing is so strict in terms of what you can and cannot do highly suggests that it is a martial art. We’ve mentioned the term “codified system” and that’s exactly what boxing is - a list of things you can do, a list of things that you can’t do, and if you do any of the things you can’t do then you’re going to get yourself barred from the boxing gym or disqualified from a fight.
This is seen in many martial arts, where you have a set way of doing things and any alteration or deviation of this is seen as unacceptable. Taekwondo, for example, has “patterns” - a series of standardised movements that students use to practice offensive and defensive movements. Probably the closest thing boxing has to this is standard combinations - the 1-2, the 1-1-2, the 1-2-Left Hook, but both are strict ways of doing things that have been passed down from master to student for generations.
Boxing probably has the tightest and strictest codified system out of any combat sport in that you are only allowed to use your fists, and you are only allowed to use your fists in a specific way - i.e. you aren’t allowed to punch below the belt, nor behind the head, or the back. Other martial arts tend to be a lot freer in this regard - in some you can kick, grapple, chop, etc - all things you would never be able to do in a boxing match.
Boxing as way to defend yourself
Boxing as self-defence might initially look weak compared to something like karate - i.e. you must be wearing gloves, you can’t kick or grapple or anything - it might on the face of it look like another martial art might leave you better prepared if you were ever in the situation where someone attacked you and you had to fight them off.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case. As world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr famously said, “...the object of the sport is to hit and not get hit.” Boxing on the face of it may appear more weighted towards offensive strikes rather than defence, but as any true boxing fan will know, the best boxers are exceptionally defensively sound. As such, if you learn boxing properly, you will learn to predict what your opponent will do and be able to defend against it and counter attack.
For example, blocking with the arms is something taught to every boxing student. When you learn what kind of punches your opponent is throwing, you figure out the best way to block against them, and the best kind of punches to throw back to them to do the most damage.
A big part of boxing is discipline and respect - not unlike every other martial art, although I think boxing is a little more subtle in this regard (you certainly don’t bow in front of your opponent before a fight, but you do touch gloves) but definitely a big part of any serious boxer’s training is not to seek a fight outside of the gym. This also ties in with a boxer’s ability to stay calm, stay grounded and work out the best strategic way to fend off an attacker - all things that ring true with other martial arts.
There are definitely other aspects of boxing that tie in with other martial arts, such as footwork, stability, endurance and stamina, but the more you look into this in detail, the more you start to see parallels with disciplines that you might previously have thought were completely different.
Physical and mental aspects of the sport
Boxing is clearly highly beneficial from a physical conditioning fight - watch any top fight and you’ll see clearly that boxers (especially those that win consistently) tend to be in excellent shape (unless you’re watching reruns of old Butterbean fights from the 90s) and this is a result of the punishing physical fitness regime they put themselves through before a big fight. It’s also not enough to be ripped - you need to have the stamina and endurance behind you to go the full twelve rounds.
Again, this is exactly the same as any other martial art - you need the discipline to be in the gym every day and get yourself into shape. Additionally, it takes a lot mentally to stand in front of someone who could feasibly beat you and put you on the canvas. The more you box, the more you train your mind to deal with this and the more mentally strong you become. Boxing, like any other martial art, is about maintaining your frame, maintaining your composure and facing the threat in front of you.
While most martial arts are of a clear east Asian origin, boxing also has a very long and colourful cultural history. Without going into too much detail on this as we’ve mentioned it above, boxing is exactly like other martial arts in that it was practiced many thousands of years ago and formalised in the 19th Century. While modern day boxing has its origins in bare knuckle fighting that took place in 17th Century Great Britain, it’s been around as a sport for thousands of years.
This rings true for other martial arts - almost all the popular martial arts that are around today have been codified relatively recently, and have been taken from traditional fighting styles that have been around for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
Why some say boxing isn’t a martial art
Despite all the arguments for boxing being considered a martial art, there are actually quite a few compelling arguments against it. Firstly and possibly most importantly, there are some who argue that boxing’s rules and regulations make it completely unrealistic in any scenario other than a sanctioned fight. I actually agree with this - there are many things about boxing that simply wouldn’t work if you were in a situation against an aggressor and were fighting for your life. This is something that martial arts is geared towards - and all of the major martial arts teach you how to defend yourself if you’re confronted by someone who wants to do you harm.
For example - in boxing, you’re taught to punch to the face, which you can do quite effectively if you have properly wrapped hands and you’re wearing gloves. You can’t hit someone square in the face if you don’t have any hand protection because you’re probably going to break some bones. Additionally some of the other rules around punching below the belt, behind the head and clinching just wouldn’t apply in a real, self-defence, life or death situation, and many argue that this alone disqualifies boxing from being a martial art - the rules are too focused on competition, and not on actually how to fend off someone who wants to hurt you.
What also strengthens this argument is that in boxing, you can only punch. In most other major martial arts, you can punch, kick, grapple, etc - if you’re a boxer and you’re attacked by someone who is excellent at kicking and grappling, and you’ve never kicked anyone in your life and don’t know how to defence against someone kicking you, you’re probably not going to have a good time. What I would say, however, is that a boxer’s reactions and subtle movements are often so finely tuned and well executed that you don’t even notice they’re doing them - and I would wager that a competent boxer would be able to spot a kick was coming and do something to get out of the way - especially a boxer that knew how to fight on the inside properly.
Additionally the fact that boxing is heavily structured into rounds and rests causes some to argue that boxing isn’t a martial art. I would say this is kind of a non-argument, since every major martial art has some element of competition - judo, karate, taekwondo - all of them have sanctioning bodies, fights where the participants wear headgear, gloves, and fights last for a predetermined time period. Someone good at karate may well be better prepared to deal with a street fight than a boxer for the reasons we’ve mentioned above, but in actuality the fact that boxing is very strict in terms of timings probably isn’t going to make much of a difference.
I have to be honest, I came into writing this article with a preconception that boxing probably wasn’t a martial art. Not that that means it’s any less effective, or any less historically significant - just that I saw them as two separate things.
Boxing obviously has a history of being more commercial than martial arts (although things like UFC has made MMA fighters much, much more prominent in recent years than they have been in the past) but actually, when you look at the strict definitions of what a martial art is and the traits they all have in common, boxing absolutely fits into the definition of what a martial art is.
I’d say boxing is a martial art - one of the oldest, the most effective and most noble.
Hopefully this article helped you find out a bit more about boxing. If you’re interested in some of our other informational articles, check out some of our other articles!
This article is part of our Boxing Info series.