Does height matter in a fight?

does height matter in a fightHeight can significantly influence success in many sports.  The obvious examples are horse racing, where it’s beneficial to be short and light, and basketball, where being taller is a significant advantage.  In this article, we look at whether the same is true for combat sports: does height matter in a fight?

Of course, there are a number of fighting styles.  Let’s look at each one to determine if height makes a difference.

Does height matter in boxing?

Being taller often translates into having longer limb length – your arms and legs are longer.  In boxing, this translates into have a longer reach.

The reach is the distance from the fingertip on one hand to the fingertip on the other when the hands are stretched out in a crucifix.  

A boxer’s reach is often mentioned when describing a boxer’s vital statistics at the beginning of a fight.  A longer reach means that a boxer can punch from further away.  They don’t have to get so close to their opponent which would put them in danger of counter punches.  A boxer with a long reach can keep an opponent at a safe distance with well timed jabs.

On average, boxers have a 2.5 inch longer reach than an average man at the same height.  This is not to say that practicing boxing increases the length of your arms, but rather fighters with an above average reach stay in the sport longer; this might be because they have more success when fighting.

Interesting, a person’s reach is usually the same as their height.  This gives rise to what is known as the “Ape Index” – calculated by subtracting a height from their reach.

The concept of an “Ape Index” stems from the rock climbing world where having long arms is a distinct advantage; the idea has since spread to other sports.

If your height is equal to your reach, then you’ll have an Ape Index of 0.  Most boxer will have an Ape Index of 2.5 inches.

Heavyweight boxer, Bryant Jennings, is 6ft 3in and has a reach of 84 inches.  This gives him an Ape Index of a massive 9 inches. 

Sonny Liston became the world heavyweight champion in 1962, and is often viewed as one of the top 10 greatest heavyweights of all time. He was 6ft 1in tall and had a reach of 84 inches.  This gave him an Ape Index of a whopping 11 inches.  

However, having a longer reach is not a guarantee of fighting success.

Mike Tyson was 5 ft 10 in and a reach of 71 inches. He had an Ape Index of 1 inch.  Yet despite his smaller stature, Iron Mike went on to be a tremendously successful fighter.  Here’s a great video of him fighting some significantly taller opponents.


Mike was a short, stocky, powerhouse of a man that could move with incredible speed to duck and weave inside an opponent’s guard to deliver devastating body shots.  Indeed, this is perhaps a one of the key techniques when fighting a taller opponent – get inside their guard and stay their as long as possible delivering as many punches as possible.

As a taller fighter used to dealing with people at range, it must be very difficult to cope with someone so close up especially when they’re delivering close range punches.

Whilst there are exceptions to the rule, being taller in boxing does have an advantage: it brings with it a greater reach, allowing you to strike your opponent at a greater range and to keep your opponent at bay with jabs.   Being the taller fighter also allows you to lean on your opponent when you clinch to further tire them out.

Best height for Street Fighting

Street fights fall into two categories:  it may be a loosely organised event where two individuals arrange to meet at a particular time to have a fight or it may be an unexpected assault on an individual that develops into a fight.

These fights are unregulated and there are little to no rules involved.  There are no weight divisions as in boxing and other regulated competitions.

In this scenario, a taller opponent is likely to be more muscular as their greater limb length allows them to carry more muscle.  This extra muscle allows the fighter to generate more force in their punches and kicks.  The additional mass also provides protection and padding against incoming shots to the body.

In regulated or official fights, the weight advantage is nullified by having weight classes in order to create a more even playing field.  These weight classes don’t exist in street fights.

The longer limb length gives the taller fighter additional range in their strikes, preventing their opponent from getting near enough to launch an effective counter strike of their own.

Being taller is a definite advantage in a street fight:  longer limbs not only mean a greater potential to carry more muscle making their strikes more powerful, but also they give the fighter a greater reach, allowing them to attack their opponent at a distance where they cannot effectively counter punch.

Does height matter in Wrestling?

The object of wrestling is to get your opponent to the ground from standing position and to pin both his shoulders to the ground for two seconds.

In this scenario, being taller can be a disadvantage.  For starters, the long limbs that were so useful in boxing actually become a target.

A taller wrestler with longer legs essentially has a larger target area for the shorter opponent to attack with moves like the double leg takedown, where the fighter shoots forward, puts both arms around the opponent’s legs, and drives them to the side to put them on their back.

Wrestling also has weight classes that individuals will wrestle in.  This is designed to make the sport fairer so you don’t get a huge wrestler up against a much lighter opponent.  However, being taller means that you’ll naturally weigh more and you may even have to cut weight in order to fight in the right category.  

This emphasis on fast twitch muscle growth can also make smaller wrestlers faster and more explosive.

If you’re shorter, you may be able to build muscle and get stronger since any extra weight might not push you over to the next weight category.  As a result, shorter opponents may be significantly stronger than their taller counterparts.

In addition, very tall gangy wrestlers may not be overly co-ordinated.  I don’t know whether it’s because the brain signals have to travel further but some taller wrestlers aren’t able to move as efficiently.  Shorter wrestlers often seem to flow between different holds and techniques, whereas for taller wrestlers it can look like a lot of effort is involved.  This lack of coordination may be a disadvantage to a taller wrestler.

Of course, their are some techniques that favour the taller wrestler.  For instance, if you have a greater reach then you may find it easier to execute moves like a front headlock.

On balance, it looks like there are a number of advantages to being shorter in wrestling: the weight class system allows shorter fighters the capacity to build muscle by strength training without fear of going over to the next weight category.  Also taller, gangly wrestlers might be less coordinated than their shorter, more nimble counterparts.

 Does height matter in Taekwondo

Taekwondo is primarily a kicking martial art. Taller fighters and likely to have longer legs making head kicks easier.  This is important because in Taekwondo head shots are worth more points than body shots.  Taekwondo fights can almost look like a game of tag, as the two fighters contort their bodies to try and land kicks on their opponent.

Taller fighters with their longer legs have a distinct advantage.   They are not only able to keep their opponent at bay with thrusting front kicks but also find it much easier to make kicks to their opponent’s head.

However,  shorter fighters may have a number of natural advantages.  Perhaps the first is speed.   Being smaller and more compact is likely to mean that the smaller fighter is quicker than their taller opponent.  This allows them to be able to dart back and forth to avoid a kick and counter.

This speed may allow the smaller opponent to get inside their opponent’s guard.  Once in place, they’ll be very difficult to fend off.

However, ultimately being taller in Taekwondo is a distinct advantage – there’s no denying that most of the Olympic Taekwondo champions have generally been tall, lean and long limbed.

Does height matter in Judo?

The aim in Judo is to either throw the opponent so that they land hard on their back; pin your opponent on their back for 25 seconds or to strangle or hold the opponent in an armlock so that they submit.  

Both fighter start from a standing position and will begin by trying to throw each other to the ground.

In this type of fighting, shorter judoka have an advantage.  Their lower centre of gravity makes them much more stable and harder to move and throw than their taller opponent.

Also as the two judoka try to grip each other’s jackets (Gi’s)  to execute a throw, the taller player can find themselves leaning forward in order to reach down to their opponent.  This automatically makes them unbalanced.

Shorter Judoka are much more likely to be quicker and more nimble.  This allows them to be able to turn into their opponent quicker to execute throwing techniques, in particular hip throws.  Taller players will have to rely on leg sweeps where they use their longer legs to their advantage.

Judo is also governed by weight divisions.  Taller players will naturally weigh more since there is just more of them.  This can allow shorter players, in the same weight class, the opportunity to pack on muscle and get stronger.  If the taller player were to do this, they might push themselves into the next weight class but there might be the capacity for the shorter and naturally lighter fighter to employ this tactic.  Strength does play an important part in Judo and it could give the smaller player the advantage.

It looks like being a shorter Judo player has a number of advantages:  their lower centre of gravity makes them harder to throw, taller players can find themselves unbalanced when trying to hold onto their Gi, they’re likely to be quicker and more nimble, and they may have the capacity to build muscle by strength training without fear of going over to the next weight category. 

Does height matter in the UFC?

Taller fighters tend to have the advantage in striking sports, such as boxing and Taekwondo, whereas shorter fighters have the advantage in throwing and grappling events like wrestling and Judo.

Mixed martial art fights are extremely exciting to watch and, as the name implies, the fighters combine a range of techniques from a number of different martial arts.  These will include strikes from boxing, Muay Thai and Taekwondo, throwing techniques from Judo and ground techniques from wrestling and BJJ.  

Unlike street fighting, there are weight categories and certain moves are illegal. 

All of these techniques have the ability to end the fight: a strike could knock out the opponent, a well time throw could enable a winning grappling technique to be used.  Taller players who have the advantage when standing up exchanging punches and kicks, may suddenly find themselves at a disadvantage if they’re grappling in a clinch or wrestling on the ground.

In summary, height is less of a predictor of success in MMA as perhaps it is in other combat sports.  Being taller is an advantage when striking but it’s not when you’re grappling on the ground.  Both combatants will be trying to manipulate the fight so that it favours their own fighting style.  This is perhaps why MMA is so exciting to watch.

Summary: does height matter in a fight?

Height does make a difference in a fight.  Being taller in a striking art such as boxing does have an advantage: it brings with it a greater reach, allowing you to strike your opponent at a greater range and to keep your opponent at bay with jabs. 

However, in throwing and grappling arts being taller may be a disadvantage.  Shorter fighters have a lower centre of gravity makes them harder to throw, they’re likely to be quicker and more nimble, and they may have the capacity to build muscle by strength training without fear of going over to the next weight category. 

In MMA events, where these two fighting styles are combined, any advantage that height plays will alternate depending on whether strikes are being thrown or grappling is taking place.  Perhaps this is what makes MMA such an exciting sport.


“crocota_1” flickr photo by mmabahiaoficial shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license