I’ve been boxing for a few years, but it was only recently that I began noticing that most of the sports metaphors I used or heard during the course of a regular week or month came from boxing.
You might think that is because I’m a boxer, that I’m attuned to those expressions more than others.
But then I started trying to come up with everyday metaphors and idioms from other sports, and it found there was a notable imbalance. There seem to be far more boxing expressions than phrases drawn any other sport.
I can think of a few idioms and metaphors from basketball (slam dunk, home court advantage), baseball (bring it home, major league, threw me a curve, struck out, hit one out of the park), golf (par for the course, below par), wrestling (no holds barred, take it to the mat), horse racing (neck and neck, by a nose, chomping at the bit, free reign, home stretch)…
But when it comes to boxing, there seems to be a much longer list.
Why are there so many boxing expressions in our everyday language? Why are so many phrases and common metaphors drawn from a sport that simply doesn’t have the kind of widespread adoration that baseball, basketball, or soccer has? (Why can I come up with more horse racing metaphors than football metaphors?)
Is it because our lives are a fight? Because the world is a contentious place filled with opposing forces? That doesn’t seem to fit, since most sports are about opposing teams or players.
There IS something gritty and painful and dark about boxing that I just don’t see in other sports. Many famous fighters came up from the poorest, most dire situations. And boxing puts us in a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, bone-crushing kind of place at times. It publicly exposes our bodies and our vulnerabilities. It requires both the basest human physical violence as well as a sharp mental acumen, along with truckloads of courage and heart.
It’s more stripped down than football. More messy and violent than basketball, volleyball, or soccer.
It is certainly filled with more extremes… Boxing is both brutal and graceful, painful and glorious, terrible and triumphant; more so than any other sport I can think of.
Perhaps it names something viscerally true and primal about the experience of being human, and that’s why it gives us so much language for our lives.
I’d love to know the answers, but meanwhile here’s my list of common metaphors and expressions that are derived from boxing. I wanted to compile and explain them from a boxer’s experience and viewpoint, and affirm for myself just how clear, common, and predominant these words and expressions are.
Feel free to add your own thoughts about the boxing “corner” on metaphors, or expressions I’ve missed, in the comments below.
In your corner
This one is probably my favorite. The corner refers not only to the spot where you can stand or sit down and rest between rounds, but also the person who is in that spot taking care of you. When someone’s in your corner, they’re thinking, strategizing, cheering for, and supporting you.
A good corner (person) is critical in boxing because you need an outside perspective, someone thinking for you when you are too physically engaged to be able to work the mental game. A corner can call the shots for you (another metaphor you hear used in many sports), give you an idea of your opponent’s weaknesses, keep you on strategy, calm you down, and even take care of your injuries.
Down (or out) for the count
If you go to the canvas after a hard punch, you automatically get an 10-count from the referee. If you can’t get back up and continue the fight, you’re down for the count.
Related is “take a knee,” which is from old-school boxing, where a fighter voluntarily goes to one knee to concede the fight. You don’t hear that much in everyday language (although coaches might do it to call everyone into a huddle), but once in a while someone will take a knee to beg off doing something they really don’t want to do, like attend a long graduation service or a family reunion.
Pull your punches
Not putting your full weight, power, and reach behind a shot. When you are in an actual fight, you wouldn’t do this. But in sparring and everyday boxing you don’t necessarily want to punch with your full power. Training is different than competing, and if you hurt your training partner you don’t have anyone to train with.
Other reasons for pulling your punches are because of a dramatic weight differential (I’m a welterweight, but I spar with heavyweights who could hurt me if they didn’t pull their punches), or experience level (an experienced boxer is careful to bring the game to a new boxer’s level and routinely pulls punches).
Punch drunk / Punchy
I can attest to the woozy feeling you get when you take a really hard punch, or several of them in a row. And it never occurred to me until recently that the adjective “punchy,” which I associate heavily with my college years, was in fact a boxing term. After a long weekend of drinking rather than studying, you stay up all night prepping for an exam and you get to feeling pret-ty punchy indeed…
On the ropes
There are some boxers who are awesome at fighting while pressed up against the ropes (Melissa “Huracan” Hernandez comes to mind), but for the most part it’s a position you don’t want to find yourself pinned in.
Being on the ropes means your opponent is controlling the game, and they are keeping you in position and racking up points punching you relentlessly because you can’t get away from them. It typically means you’re tired, not thinking clearly, and your opponent is actively winning the fight.
Roll with the punches
When I first started boxing I thought defense was all about completely avoiding being punched. In fact, a slip or roll is just a way to defuse some of the power of a shot that is most likely going to land. In other words, you’re probably going to take the shot. But you don’t want to take it full on, in all it’s power. Instead, you slip quickly an inch or two to the left or right, or roll under or to the side.
It’s how a sailor might walk on the deck of a ship that’s pitching and yawing in high seas; they aren’t avoiding the swells, but rather moving in concert with them so that they aren’t tossed to the deck.
Obvious, right? But by the sheer prevalence of usage I’d say it points to one of the reasons we viscerally identify with boxing over other sports. It’s about power, winning, and losing, and we connect it to sex, life, and death.
Take it on the chin / Lead with your chin / Glass jaw
This sounds different to me in common usage than the way I experience it in boxing. In the ring, you keep a tight guard, or you slip and roll in order to not take punches to your face or chin. Of course you DO take shots to the nose, chin, jaw, cheek, ears, and forehead; it’s part of the game.
But most people use the phrase to describe being brave in the face of adversity, or courageously taking the full brunt of a bad situation.
In boxing, it’s stupid to voluntarily take it on the chin — you can get your head snapped back, and you can be knocked out.
And leading with your chin is the rankest of newbie mistakes. Some coaches even train boxers with a racquetball between their chin and chest in order to get them in the habit of tucking and protecting their chin.
Related is “glass jaw,” which is used to refer to someone easily knocked out when hit on the chin. Most boxers aren’t going to go very far in the ring if they have one of these.
Toe to toe / Infighting
In today’s boxing, this is used to describe inside fighting, where your toes are likely to touch. Sometimes you even step on each other’s feet when you’re fighting close and inside.
It’s NOT, however, standing squared up and face to face (which seems to be the common usage); that’s just poor fighting position. You box with one foot forward and one to the rear, your lead shoulder in front. So you’re slightly sideways to each other, and presenting the smallest possible target.
The only other time you’d be toe to toe with your opponent is when you greet each other at the start of the fight. The ref calls you in from the corners, you listen to your instructions and agree to the match, bang gloves and return to your corners to wait for the bell.
Presumably this is derived from the shape of the modern boxing ring (which is a square, but we call it a ring because of how a circle forms around fighters). You wouldn’t actually face an opponent “square on” or face to face in boxing today, as mentioned above.
Saved by the bell
This was a boxing reference long before it was an internet hoax about people in the 1500s being buried with strings and bells to protect against being buried alive. Snopes has this one correct, while Yahoo Answers is still wrong.
Being saved by the bell in boxing also predates the 80’s television show and all the times we felt that way in high school.
Being saved by the bell does not necessarily mean you don’t lose the fight, only that you get a few seconds’ rest to try and recover to go another round if there is one. It might mean you narrowly avoid being knocked out if you took a bad shot and were about to go to the canvas or were being counted out when the bell rang.
Throw your hat in the ring
This has nothing to do with boxing today, but apparently once upon a time you could challenge a boxer to a fight by throwing your hat in the boxing ring. Presumably prizefighter would take on all comers? These days we just send an email, hah.
Beat them to the punch
This is a beginner’s fundamental strategy in the ring, and one of the main uses for a jab, the first punch you learn in boxing. A jab is primarily used to keep your opponent at bay or to interrupt their shots. Very effective, very basic, and part of the bread and butter of every boxer’s work.
The thing you may not know about it is that in amateur boxing, you can’t score from any shot below the waistband of your opponent’s trunks. The reason is obvious.
And sometimes if a boxer is wearing the same color tank and shorts, the officials will require them to wrap a band of athletic tape around their waists to mark the scoring boundary. This is why you’ll see most boxing trunks with contrasting waistband colors.
Throw in the towel
I read somewhere that this one used to be “throw in the sponge” — or at least, that was how a corner could end a fight and thus save damage when his or her boxer was clearly losing. These days we use towels, of course.
It’s not all that uncommon in amateur boxing (although it’s more likely that you’ll see a ref call off a fight), but I rarely see it in pro fights.
Keep your guard up / Taken off guard
This is another fundamental of boxing, just as in life. When you see a boxer’s gloves begin to drop below the chin, you’re seeing a boxer who is tired and open for full-face shots. If you’re in a boxing gym you’re likely to hear the phrase “Gloves up!” repeatedly called by coaches. It’s so important that many of our non-boxing-specific exercises — like squats, for example — are performed with our guard up, too.
Come out swinging / Go down swinging
Coming out swinging is a standard strategy in boxing; the goal is to take your opponent off guard (see above) and show the judges that you intend to dominate. Or that you’ve recovered from a bad round.
On the other hand, if you go down swinging, you show that you weren’t too gassed (didn’t prepare or train well) or too disheartened to give it your all, all the way to the canvas.
Heavyweight / Lightweight
I find it interesting that weight categories are so standard and equal in boxing, but in life people only want to be heavyweights.
The only time you see issues of inequality in weight categories in boxing is during sparring, where you might find a featherweight working with a welterweight, or when a fighter who is naturally one weight class has cut or gained an enormous amount of weight to get into a different class.
Take a dive
It sounds like a swimming phrase to me, but it comes from the boxing tactic of going to the canvas and intentionally losing a fight. Typically it’s used when a boxer (illegally) loses for money. They threw the match by taking a dive.
In the clinch
This could originate from wrestling, I’m not sure. But in boxing, your performance in the clinch is critical because you get in one either to stop your opponent’s flurry of shots, or to rest while also leaning on and tiring your opponent.
Clinches happen all the time and are a basic part of every fighter’s strategy, but they’re technically illegal, and referees break them up pretty quickly because the object of the round is to fight, not rest.
Fight until the bell rings / Go the distance
I had to put this one last, for effect. Rocky taught the world about going the distance — all 15 rounds — in the ring with Apollo Creed; it wasn’t about beating Creed, it was about finishing the fight. But boxers have been fighting to make it through their scheduled rounds since long before then, whether they were “bums from the neighborhood” or not.
Creative Commons Image by SuperWebDeveloper on Flickr