Boxing Metaphors

Why Does Boxing Gives Us More Language for Our Lives Than ANY Other Sport?

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.

Knockout

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.

Square off

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.

Low blow

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

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25 Responses to Why Does Boxing Gives Us More Language for Our Lives Than ANY Other Sport?

  1. Michael October 8, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Nice post and list Lisa 🙂 Similar to ‘come out swinging’ I like ‘to go down swinging’!

    it is interesting why they’re so ubiquitous compared to other sports. Another thing is boxing metaphors are commonly applied to describe other sports. For example, the early exchanges of football (soccer) matches here are always compared to two boxes feeling each other out in the opening rounds, as well as teams being ‘out on their feet’ or ‘on the ropes’

  2. Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 8, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    Yo, Michael

    Nice catch; after I post this I’ll go add “Go down swinging to the list.

    So teams do that in football/soccer? I had no idea. Are you a football player as well as a boxer? It would make some sense to me, especially given how much you seem to enjoy running…

    Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t noticed this weird phenomenon until now…

    • Michael October 9, 2012 at 8:34 am #

      Yeah, the commentators always roll out the boxing analogies! I used to play loads of football when I was younger but haven’t in a few years now. Boxing has definitely filled the void though and still watch loads of football on TV, like everybody else in the UK, it’s impossible to escape it!

  3. MattFunke October 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Boxing is solitary, and leaves you flat on your back if you lose. Not many sports have a lonely death metaphor built right in.

    I think the brutality of it has something to do with it, too. I mean, in other sports, what are you competing for? Points? Please. In boxing, your opponent is literally *beating your ability to fight back out of you*. And even if you have a good support system in your corner, who’s actually absorbing the punches? Who’s losing their ability to act or think or even move, blow by blow? The *team*? Heck, no. When life is kicking the snot out of you, you’re on your own.

    I also expect that there are a fair amount of storytellers in our society — movie makers and TV show makers — who employ boxing as a metaphor for struggle frequently, and this tends to give analogies to it some extra currency when we try to communicate. (See Serling, Rod — one of my favorite television folks, and a writing *machine*.)

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Hey, Matt — Thanks for being willing to port over here from FB.

      Re: the “solitary” sport — I see where you get that idea, but in experience it doesn’t feel quite so solitary. But your point is that we feel alone in our lives, thus boxing offers metaphors that resonate; I think you’re onto something.

      And as you say, the “aloneness” is not enough on its own, otherwise we’d be awash in golf, bowling, and ice skating idioms… It’s the perception of being alone coupled with the violence of it, at least partially.

      You mention points, too. Again, boxing actually IS won or lost on points, but it doesn’t look that way. A hard punch scores the same as a light punch.

      But the truth is that when I go into the ring for an actual fight, I DO use power to intimidate or dominate, even though I know it’s the points that will “count.” Because I know as well as anyone that we humans, and even judges and refs, are hard-pressed to factor out those emotional elements in favor of sterile point-counting.

      So does it really boil down to the visceral, brutal, lizard-brain struggle? I find that interesting, and I wonder why, then, there aren’t MORE sports like boxing.

      I know, I know, there are dozens of martial arts (although it seems like very few of them have thriving competitive bandwidth), and cage fighting, which combines them all, is exploding in popularity.

      But there’s still some mystery in there for me…

      • MattFunke October 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

        Sure. That’s the thing with metaphors and figures of speech. They’re about the reality of *emotion*, not literal reality.

        So when we use figures of speech, we’re talking about how boxing *feels* — not necessarily how boxing *is* — and relating those to our current impressions and emotions.

        As to why other combat sports don’t enjoy the linguistic depth of boxing, I’d argue that that’s largely because boxing has been around for much longer, thus allowing a certain amount of time to allow the language to adapt; you even noted in some of your examples that the original, *literal* meaning has been lost.

        Boxing is also a lot less steeped in mysticism than things like martial arts. I think that allows some people to wrap their heads around what’s being talked about more easily, a critical part of useful figures of speech. Though, as I think about it, I’d heartily welcome metaphors like “It was a five-point palm exploding heart technique”, if only because it would make everyday life a bit more awesome.

        • MattFunke October 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

          (Obviously, when I say that boxing has been around for longer, I mean that it’s been on the radar of mainstream English speakers for longer; I don’t think martial arts came to the attention of many in the West prior to the late twentieth century.)

          • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 8, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

            I think that last bit is the key. Martial arts (other than boxing) have been around for a thousand years or more. So if your guess is correct, there might be more metaphors and idioms drawn from Muay Thai, Ju Jitsu, Hapkido and the rest in other languages and cultures…

            Heh, Kill Bill (and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?). I’m surprised, frankly, the “five-point palm exploding heart technique” hasn’t entered our daily lexicon. Wait! I think it has! 🙂

            • MattFunke October 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

              There’s a tricky caveat in there, it seems to me. Before they came to the West as a source of recreation, many of the martial arts were, well, martial. While war and its arts lend many phrases to metaphor, it would be tricky to separate war-based martial art metaphors and sporting metaphors.

              Still, I find myself intrigued by the powerful parallels between the struggles of life and sportsmanlike sparring, even as reflected in our everyday language. I really like your question.

  4. Leah McClellan October 9, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    Hi Lisa!

    Very interesting post. Though I don’t know a whole lot about boxing, language fascinates me. I think Matt has a good point with this:

    “As to why other combat sports don’t enjoy the linguistic depth of boxing, I’d argue that that’s largely because boxing has been around for much longer, thus allowing a certain amount of time to allow the language to adapt; you even noted in some of your examples that the original, *literal* meaning has been lost.”

    Exactly. Plus, even before formal boxing as we know it (I don’t know when it started), people were fighting and throwing punches and all that. So the expressions are readily adaptable. Also, I remember as a really young kid how excited people were about boxing, but I don’t have much memory of people talking a lot about football or any other sport until I was a teenager. But I sure remember my parents and their friends talking about Muhammad Ali!

    Very interesting!

  5. Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 9, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    Matt, the slippery slope of what constitutes a “martial” (i.e., “war” or “warlike”) art is absolutely fascinating, and one I hadn’t considered. The Wikipedia entry on it gives the phrase — not the practices, of course — a 1550’s European (!) origin, and mentions the word combat, which doesn’t sound like war per se, but feels like a wider term.

    Which made me think of what Leah said — people have been fighting as long as there have been people.

    To go deeper would mean to look more into the mythology surrounding the Roman god Mars, or more truthfully his predecessor, the Greek god Ares.

    And check this:

    Ares has a counterpart. He represents the violent aspect of war while Athena represents the strategy and generalship of war. Which sounds MUCH more like actual boxing, which I have always said could be likened to playing chess underwater in a pool filled with sharks. Brainy and brutal at the same time…

    (I’d like to see the two of them in the ring together. I think she could take him.)

    Images from the Wikimedia Commons.

    • Amy October 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      Some time when I’m alone in my house, I think I’ll dress like Ares and prance around a bit.

      (Look at you with your e-book!)

      • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

        /sings/ I got-ta ebook! : ) : ) : ) One with my actual name on it this time!

        Pretty soon your own book will be published, and if you dance (sorry prance, ha!) around in your living room in the same outfit he’s wearing you’ll have to keep a good pace or feel the draft! Nice hat, tho. Can’t wait until you get a cool hat like that, Ames

    • MattFunke October 19, 2012 at 7:55 am #

      On that note, this strip from PartiallyClips reminded me of our conversation:

      http://partiallyclips.com/2012/10/15/athena-and-warrior/

  6. Adam Welsh October 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Thanks for another fascinating post, Lisa.

    When a team or individual gains an advantage in a competitive situation, the phrase “First blood to …” is often used. (This can even apply to presidential debates!) Also, the expression “piling on the punishment” has been employed to describe harsh economic policies and their effect on the general population.

    Why do so many expressions derive from boxing? One reason, perhaps, is that boxing is inherently dramatic: while a fight may be scheduled to last 10 or 12 rounds, it can be over in a matter of seconds. Life itself can be the very same, and maybe the brutal simplicity and unpredictability of the fight game speaks to something of our fragile hold on existence.

  7. Michael October 29, 2012 at 5:10 am #

    Heard another one yesterday: On the front foot/back foot!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 29, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      Huh, I’m wondering if that’s a UK or European thing. I’ve never heard it. What was the context? I’d be interested in hearing more!

  8. Michael October 29, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Hmmm interesting, it might be! Say if you’re having an argument and you’ve been forced into defending your position, you’re said to be ‘on the back foot’. Vice-versa if you come out all guns blazing in an argument or you take the initiative on something, you’re ‘on the front foot’

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 29, 2012 at 8:40 am #

      Isn’t it fascinating how our language and our sports connect? I find it intriguing that one’s boxing offense or defense would be associated with the lead or rear foot at all. But I *do* get the whole “advancing” or “retreating” implication.

      So thanks for giving me more food for thought; I bet you can guess what will be going through my head this week in the ring. 🙂 (I hope I don’t trip myself up!)

  9. Peter Egley Jr. October 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    This looks very good so I’ll try to soon thoroughly read it. One of my fave boxing expressions is “Punch and get out!” that my fave ref Richard Steele would use. Here’s what Steele had to say about it, I posted a link to the SI article on my facebook:
    “One thing mediocre referees do is break fighters too much,” he says. “They don’t know what effective infighting is. You’ve got to know what the fighters are trying to do. When I worked Leonard-Hagler [in 1987], I sometimes didn’t break them when Ray was holding. If I’d done that, I would have been penalizing Marvin, because he would have had to start all over again to get inside, and Ray would have just held him again. So I said, ‘Punch and get out.’ It made for a better, fairer fight.”
    Punch drunk / Punchy that’s on your list, I like how Sylvester Stallone used that in Rocky II I think. Rocky says something like, “I’m not punchy, I’ve got a relaxed brain.” Something like that.
    I also like how Al Bernstein uses “whack out” for a KO.
    Another I like is “Get them out of there.”

  10. Eric Morris November 23, 2013 at 3:34 am #

    Your right. Boxing has many “terms” that you hear of.
    Im trying to think of something to add to your list, but all I can come up with is a “chicken wing”. Otherwise known as a wide loose guard, lol.

  11. Bikk June 25, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.” – Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time.

  12. Chang-Bong Lee October 7, 2021 at 1:10 am #

    Very interesting passage~!!! I really enjoyed reading it. I’m researching on sports metaphors and this is a very valuable source. Thank you~!!!

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