Is Boxing a Martial Art?

Boxing is an extremely popular activity across the world and is practised by hundreds of thousands of participants both by those that actively want to spar against an opponent and by individuals who simply want to lose weight and stay in shape.

It’s been around for thousands of years and in modern times, can be summarised as involving  two boxers punching each other wearing padded gloves in order to score points or to try and end the fight by knocking their opponent out.  Each fight usually lasts for three to twelve rounds and each round lasts for 3 minutes.

It’s a highly skilled activity and in extreme cases can be lethal.  According to one article, since 1884, when the Queensbury Rules were introduced, approximately 500 boxers have died either in the ring itself or as a result of injuries sustained from boxing.  In 1953 alone, 22 boxers died as a result of their participation in boxing.

Given that boxing is clearly combat focussed and can have lethal consequences, I’ve often asked myself “Is boxing a martial art?”.

What is a martial art?

I think it’s important to consider what is meant by a martial art.  Of course, there are many possible definitions but perhaps the one I like the most incorporates a number of elements. 

For an activity to be considered a martial art, it needs the following:

A codified system – this is a defined set of moves and techniques that can be passed on from teacher to student.  These movements are performed in a specified way and any deviations are typically frowned upon.

I know when I practise Karate, there’s a very strict and precise way of performing each striking and blocking technique and it can take many years to fully master.  Karate and many other martial arts, also have a large number of set patterns of techniques each performed in sequence.  These are known as kata or forms.

Traditions of combat – many martial arts were honed and developed on the battlefield.  Jui Jitsu, for instance,  developed to combat the Samurai in feudal Japan and enabled an individual to defeat an armed opponent.  Kendo developed from the practises of the Samurai themselves, who were experts at swordsmanship.


Physical, Mental and Spiritual Development there should be little doubt that the practise of martial arts develops the individual’s physical abilities. 

As a result of my training sessions, I certainly became fitter and stronger.  There was also an emphasis on increasing your flexibility to enable the practitioner to utilise the various kicking techniques more effectively.

There’s also a strong mental development  element involved in the martial arts.  It’s been shown to be good for your mental health and according to one study  a six-month taekwondo program resulted in significantly reduced anxiety in its participants.

It also aids focus and concentration, as well as memory:  remembering and rehearsing the various techniques and kata is a great way to keep the mind active and sharp.


In many martial arts, there’s also a spiritual component.  In Wing Chun Kung Fu, there is an emphasis on an almost mystical chi power.  The earliest known reference to this power was by Nei Ching, during the time of Emperor Huang Ti (2697-2596 B.C.).  He described it as follows:

“The root of the way of life, or birth and change is chi; the myriad things of heaven and earth all obey this law. Thus chi in the periphery envelopes heaven and earth; chi in the interior activates them. The source wherefrom the sun, moon, and stars derive their light; the thunder, rain, wind and cloud, their being, the four seasons and the myriad things their birth, growth, gathering and storing; all this is brought about by chi. Man’s possession of life is completely dependent upon this chi.”

Kung Fu practitioners harness and manipulate this Chi power or energy to perform incredible, almost super-human feats.  Perhaps the most famous Kung Fu practitioners are those at the Shaolin temple in China.  

Zen Buddhism is intrinsically part of Kung Fu and much of this spiritual practice is focussed clearing the mind of extraneous thoughts through meditation.   Quietening the mind and only focussing on one thing would clearly have advantages in a combat situation where being distracted could cost you your life, which explains how martial arts and spirituality has become intertwined.

Preservation of a cultural heritage – in martial arts there’s a strong focus on tradition and in particular, lineage.  Many martial art schools like to be able to trace their history in terms of who taught their teacher, and who taught their teacher’s teacher and so on.  It’s almost like a family tree and is seen as a way of passing the teachings and practises of one martial arts master down through the generations.

These teachings are often documented and passed down from teacher to student.  A classic example would be The Bubishi, the Bible of Karate (link to Amazon).


How does Boxing fit into these martial art categories?

A codified system 

Boxing certainly has its own set of techniques and these are evident whenever you look at a boxing match in any part of the world.  For instance, boxing has four basic punches in boxing: the cross, jab, uppercut and hook.  These techniques can be written down and there are many popular books on boxing technique (such as this one on Amazon).

The rules of boxing have also continued to evolve with the last major revision being introduced in 1867 – the so called Queensbury rules, which state the following:

  • Fighters have to wear padded gloves
  • Each round lasts 3 minutes with a one minute rest in between
  • Wrestling is banned
  • If a fighter falls down, they have to get up within 10 seconds, unaided.

Boxing therefore clearly meets this criteria.


Traditions of combat 

Using your fists to defend yourself is perhaps the oldest form of combat there is.  You can well image that in ancient times, when soldiers lost their sword in battle, they would be forced to engage in some form of boxing to defend themselves.

As an unarmed combat style, it’s also highly effective and for this reason forms one of the cornerstones of an MMA fighter’s repertoire.  Every great MMA fighter knows the importance of being able to box and together with BJJ/wrestling and kickboxing forms the staple of most MMA schools. The famous Conor McGregor spent his early teenage years practising boxing and was the All-Ireland champion at youth level, before he branched out into MMA.  

Boxing therefore clearly meets this criteria.


Physical, Mental and Spiritual Development

Boxing training is clearly an excellent way to develop the body.  This should be evident by anyone who’s ever watched a high-level boxing match.  The fighters are invariably in top shape demonstrating not only lean, muscular physiques but also displays of strength and endurance.

It also takes mental fortitude to be able to withstand the pain of being hit by an opponent and having to press on to continue the fight.  This is something that is developed over time as each fighter gets to explore and understand their own physical limitations.  

To be a successful boxer takes additional mental strengths, namely dedication and determination.  It involves having to undertake thousands of hours of practise in order to become proficient.  

What boxing perhaps lacks is any form of spiritual element.  Whereas in Kung Fu, there’s the spiritual/religious element of Zen Buddhism which in part is to help still the mind, there’s nothing similar that exists in boxing.  No doubt boxers learn to focus and ignore distractions but this is not through an organised form of meditation.

However, is this actually an issue?  Plenty of martial artists train in  their particular styles without any form of spiritual/religious practise.  

When I train in Karate, I don’t do any additional meditation that is part of some wider spiritual/religious belief system.  I simply concentrate on performing the moves in the correct manner or, when I’m sparring, on the opponent.  I don’t think my training is impeded in any way as a result.

Overall, boxing meets this criteria.

Preservation of a cultural heritage

Boxing has been around for a long time.  Relief carvings have been found in Iraq that date back to 3000 BC.   The Greeks had introduced boxing to their Olympic Games during the late 7th century BC.  By the 4th century BC, the Greek boxers used to wrap their fists with leather straps which would cut into their opponent’s flesh on contact.

Later the Roman boxers used gloves in their contests but they had metal and spikes sown into them.  Roman soldiers also boxed with each other not only for sport but also to practise their unarmed combat skills.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, boxing was no longer widely practised.  It only  resurfaced during the 17th century in England.  Organised amateur boxing began in 1880.

is boxing a martial art?
A Birmingham Prize Fight, 1789 By W Allen.

Boxing therefore has a rich cultural heritage which continues to this day; boxing therefore clearly meets this criteria.


It would seem that boxing meets nearly all the criteria of a martial art, apart from the spiritual aspect, which I have argued isn’t that important anyway.  However, there are still those that argue that boxing is not a martial art.


The counter argument

There are those that argue that boxing has too many rules to make it a martial art.  For instance, you can’t punch below the belt, or behind the head.  In essence, they argue, boxing has become too competition focussed and has moved away from a martial arts true objective of trying to save your life if you’re confronted by an aggressive attacker.

Boxers also have to wear gloves, which moves it away from a real-world situation.  The gloves allow the boxers to hit harder without hurting their hands.  Indeed, it allows them to make strikes to the head which they would otherwise be unable to do.  Indeed, the head is so boney that they are not friendly to knuckles at all.  Indeed, Mike Tyson broke his hand in a street fight with a rival.  If, Mike Tyson can break his hand when not wearing gloves, then you can too!

Boxing matches also allow the two opponents to clinch.  This is when they get so close that they look like they’re hugging each other.  It’s frequently used as a tactic when one of the boxers is tired and wants a rest.  It’s only when the referee steps in to break it up that the fight resumes.  This makes it less than realistic in a real world situation.

Boxing matches are also structured into rounds and breaks.  Boxers are therefore able to pace themselves knowing that they’ll be able to have a rest in only a few minutes.  Again, there are those that would argue that this moves it away from a real world situation.  In a real life confrontation you’d want to end the fight as quickly as possible.

Boxing also has weight classes, referees to ensure the fighters abide by the rules, and corner men to patch the boxers up after each round.  All these things move boxing further and further away from reality.   Some would argue that this means that boxing is not a martial art.

However,  I would shout “Yame” (or stop).

All the major martial arts have a competitive element to them.   For instance, there are competitions in Karate and Taekwondo.  No one would argue that they’re not martial arts.

During these competitions, the fighters wear padded gloves or mitts, as well as other protective equipment.  The sparring sessions are also timed and they all have referees supervising the fight.  In many ways, they are similar to boxing matches.

Let’s not forget about Judo, which is almost entirely competition based. I would argue that this actually makes the martial art more effective.  Only those techniques which prove to be most effective will continue to be used. Competition acts almost like a natural selection tool allowing the art to develop and evolve over time.  It’s those fighters that are able to master the most effective techniques and counter-techniques that will end up triumphant.


In conclusion….

I think there’s a tendency to believe that only fighting styles from East Asia can be considered to be a martial art.

I believe that this is a very outdated concept.  Boxing has all the characteristics of what has been considered to be a traditional martial art.  

Is boxing a martial art? It most certainly is.  It incorporates a codified system of techniques, has traditions of combat, involves physical and  mental development, and has a rich cultural heritage. 


Happy training!!


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