Global Training Report


The Theory and Practice

of the Jab

@By Roberto Pedreira

@Posted November 2017*


Ringside at the Mike Tyson vs. Tyrell Biggs fight (October 16, 1987) Sugar Ray Leonard observed that "a good step-in jab can be very effective against Mike Tyson. It remains to be seen if Biggs can keep this up.h

Tyrell couldn't and was knocked out in the 7th round. But on February 11, 1990, Buster Douglas shook up the boxing world. Unintimidated by Iron Mike, Douglas confidently used his jab to set the champion up for power shots and ended up stopping Tyson in the 10th round, capturing the sports worldfs most prestigious prize in the process.

The cat was out of the bag. Evander Holyfield repeated the feat, knocking Tyson out in the 11th round on November 9, 1996, and was on the way to doing it again when the fight was stopped when Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfieldfs earlobe on June 28, 1997. Tyson no longer used the upper-body movement that had made him such an elusive target on his way up. It was no surprise when Lennox Lewis, who had an even better jab than Douglas of Holyfield, or at least, a heavier and longer jab would use it to his advantage and end up knocking Tyson out in the 8th round on June 8, 2002.

The jab is not the most difficult punch to learn (the hook is), but it is the most essential to know. Any boxing trainer will tell you that the jab is the key to everything else (see here). You can win boxing matches and street fights with nothing more than an accurate, stiff, fast, and well timed jab. It doesn't even have to be powerful to be effective. As Jack Johnson once said, a man can't do much to hurt you if you keep your lead hand in his face, the rest of your body (and of course your head) out of his reach. George Plimpton's boxing teacher George Brown told him (Plimpton was preparing for an exhibition match against Archie Moore): "No man.....likes to have a glove flicking around his eyes".

The jab is also the answer to every question, or at least every question that doesn't have a better answer. Whenever in doubt, the trainers' wise advice is "jab more". They don't need to spell it out, because since Max Schmeling demolished the theretofore unbeatable Joe Louis in the 12th round on June 19, 1936, it goes without saying: Bring your jab straight back. Don't drop your hand before the jab, and don't drop it after the jab.

Keep your chin glued to your shoulder. That is anatomically the most stable position for your neck and will minimize the chances of taking a traumatizing counter shot, as Joe Louis learned the hard way by not doing it in 1936. (By 1938, he was "two years smarter in boxing"  and Max was unable to repeat his previous shocking upset.)

The jab is not an ancient technique, judging by old boxing film. The old timers didn't jab. They used their lead hand, but they kept it low and tried to hook with it. But it was wasted effort. From that position not much weight could be transferred into the target. Boxers did not throw combinations, but rather tended to flail (not that people haven't been knocked out that way). The lead left might have set up the power punch by forcing the opponent to react but it was inefficient. It was easy to avoid (easy to see coming), the follow up was obvious (the right hand), and easy to counter, partly because, not having the jab to keep their best distance, fighters tended to stand way out of reach.

Little by little boxers brought their hands up and tucked their elbows in. When you do this, the lead hand tends to become a "jab". The only thing left to do is make sure to bring it straight back.

If you extend with the jab, you'll be well loaded up for a subsequent right cross. Your opponent knows that sooner or later those otherwise bothersome but non-lethal jabs will be followed by the heavy ordnance, and therefore will have to react to every jab.

There are many ways to throw the jab and most are correct. The key is to land it without getting hit. If you do that, you have thrown it correctly (assuming you don't do other things in the process such as turning your back by angling your lead foot toes in, crossing the centerline, crossing your feet, raising your chin, turning your head, dropping your other hand, etc.).  

Sometimes wrong is right. Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali's jab was all wrong. It worked for him (until it didn't.) Rocky Marciano's jab, also all wrong. But it worked perfectly for him (his jab was designed to push the opponent into range of Rocky's right hand). Larry Holmes' jab was all wrong, with his hand held at his hip. But it worked for him.  The rules were made to be broken. But first you have to know the rules. The fact that the most exceptionally skilled and capable fighters can do things one way doesn't mean that it is going to work for you. It just means that they are "exceptional". It is generally advisable to stick with fundamental unless you have a very excellent reason to do otherwise.

Boxers know about the jab, even if not all of them can or bother to use it well. But the jab is a concept rather than a technique, and the components of this concept can be generalized and applied in MMA.

Essentially the jab is nothing more nor less than a lead hand used tactically. This distinguishes it from the hook, (usually referred to as a left hook, since most fighters are right handed) which is used to cause major damage. How you use it depends on who your opponent is and what his game is.

Kinds of Jabs

Boxing jabs and Muay Thai jabs ("yab") are different animals. To understand the difference, try working hands first on lightweight boxing focus mitts and then on heavy Thai pads. Then you will feel the difference. You cannot hit focus mitts and Thai pads in the same way. For one reason, the trainer can't move the Thai pads fast enough. For another reason, your hands don't bounce off Thai pads the way they do off focus mitts.

Boxers and Thai fighters stand at about the same range. The difference is that from that range a boxer needs to step in to reach his target, but a Thai fighter can reach the target with his leg. A step would make him very vulnerable to a low kick, so Thais do not step when they jab. They jab when they are close enough to land without stepping. In this event, they are also close enough to be hit with knees and elbows and a light jab is not a good exchange for a knee or an elbow. This being the case, they do not really throw the jab (although they call it a jab) tactically, but rather try to put as much into it as they can, alternating with right hands delivered the same way. People do get knocked out by hands in Muay Thai like this. Part of the reason is that the Thai defense consists mostly of covering and clinching, rather than elusive upper body movement. Boxing defenses are too risky. Slipping a punch could run you into an elbow; bobbing and weaving could and probably would get you pulled down into a knee, and at the least would put you in a disadvantageous clinch position. Ditto ducking. So Thais usually cover and clinch, which works most of the time. But sometimes it doesn't.

Boxers catch, pat, or slip jabs. Sometimes, if they are Muhammad Ali or Ray Leonard, they sway back. Occasionally, they don't do anything and just eat jabs.  The latter option isn't my personal favorite but it is better than overreacting and getting pasted with a jolting right. Boxers also time the jab so that they can return a cross while the jab is still in the retraction phase. To minimize the length of the exposure, boxers are taught to bring their jab straight back. This is less necessary if your opponent is Thai because he will be concentrating more on taking your legs away (of course, if you make a habit of dropping your left, you can probably expect an unpleasant encounter between your skull and your opponent's shin sooner or later). Muay Thai fighters (nak-muay, นักมวย) do not spend a lot of time working hand skills only. Punches are secondary weapons in Muay Thai. They do not experience fast jabs much and don't practice countering them.


Now if you are fighting a wrestler you have a completely different problem. You do not want to initiate with a heavy committed right hand. You may stun or knock the guy out but that is a big gamble Punches like this are easy to spot coming, easy to avoid, and easy to counter. In other words, they rarely work, which is why boxers usually don't throw them, and also why they occasionally do thanks to the paradox of surprise--because lead rights are easy to defend, the defender thinks the attacker won't throw one, and consequently lowers his defense, which makes it profitable for the attacker to do it after all. Vitor Belfort did it to Tra Telligman, but Vitor also had the advantage of asymmetric information. Vitor knew Tra's game-plan, but Tra didn't know Vitor's. Even worse, Tra thought Vitor's game-plan was the opposite of what it really was. In this case, complete ignorance would have been preferable. GTR's Roberto Pedreira interviewed Tra in 1991; Tra told Roberto that he just assumed that Vitor, being Brazilian, was a grappler. Tra wasn't expecting to get punched in the face. 

Vitor led with his left, but he is a southpaw. If you are a southpaw and your opponent isn't, you can get away with left hand leads. Most opponents are used to fighting right-handers (about 90% of any population) and mentally process the incoming punch as a relatively non-threatening jab. When a right-hander leads with a right, the most probable result will be that gets immediately tackled and mounted.

You don't need to pull your jabbing hand straight back because the wrestler (probably) isn't planning to counter it with a right. He is planning on following the punch back in and tackling you. The more you extend with the punch, the more time he will have to get in. A jab will give him less time, but still enough to get in. Pulling your hand straight back helps him. What you need to do instead is to pull it back and down at the same time, while retracting your lead foot. If he does tackle, you will be in good position to drive his head into the ground. The step back will basically be the beginning of your sprawl, should it be required. If the wrestler doesn't attempt to tackle, you will simply now be in a southpaw stance (be careful he doesn't fake to your left and shoot to your right.)

A good tackler can shoot in off even a fast straight jab (it's in the timing), but you also can also sprawl effectively if you retract your jab following the path described above. 

Thai fighters tend to stand in front of their opponents, facing forward, applying forward pressure. Lateral motion is not emphasized. Boxers, however, are taught to move laterally, to give the man angles. Which direction you move to depends on the opponent. Generally speaking, if you are right handed and your opponent is too, you will both move to your right. If you are right handed and your opponent is left handed, then you should move to your left. If you are right handed and fighting a right handed slugger type (who has his lead hand low and his weight on his back leg), then you'd better move right. Basically you stay away from his power hand, whatever the variations might be in his stance. Thai fighters have it simpler. Everything that hits you is going to hurt, so it doesn't matter where you move to. In fact, there's not much reason to move at all, as long as you are in range (Thai fans frown on fighters who stay out of range). 

@The key to any jab, no matter the opponent or his game, is to make him react, without getting caught yourself. If you make him react, you will sooner or later have openings for heavier strikes, for tackles, for clinches, or for upper-body tie-ups. If your objective is more defensive, you will be able to disrupt his set-ups. At least in theory. In practice, it requires countless hours and repetitions to be able to pull it off consistently. 

Note. First published in Global Training Report in 2003, revised and updated November 6, 2013.  

Updated October 11, 2019.

(c), 2003-2017, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

References: Joe Louis by Randy Roberts (2010, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press). Bad Intentions (2nd ed.), by Peter Heller (1995, New York: Da Capo Press); Shadow Box by George Plimpton (1977, New York: G. P. Putnam); Physical Examination of the Spine and Extremities, by Stanley Hoppenfeld (1976. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange); Athletic Injuries to the Head, Neck, and Face, by Joseph S. Torg (1982, Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febigan). Boxing stats from boxrec.com, and others as indicated.


Other articles about boxing and Muay Thai on GTR.

The Greatest Heavyweight Champion (Who was he, and why?)

Kenny Weldon video revs.

Sean O'Grady video revs.

Closed Fist Injuries ("To punch or not to punch")

Piston Horiguchi Boxing Gym (in Chigasaki-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan)

Stephan Nikiema (Muay Thai in Bangkok and Pattaya)

Sityodtong   (Sityodtong Boxing Camp, Nongphrue, Pattaya, Thailand)

Other Muay Thai Training Camp reports here

Khao-ti  (Muay Thai's devastating knees)

The Science of Muay Thai Clinch  (Muay Thai's devastating clinch techniques)

Championship Streetfighting book rev.

Interview with Sugar Ray Leonard

Interview with Tra Telligman