We would hardly associate someone like Fred Astaire with the great Muhamad Ali—at least not so far as their chosen professions are concerned. After all, while Astaire was known for the elegant grace of his dance steps, Ali was known for his fierce determination, lightning-quick hands, and ability to knock his opponents to the floor with his powerful punches.
But, it was Ali's graceful footwork in the ring which enabled him to land those lethal punches–much like how Astaire's footwork carried him into the spotlight.
This is because it was Ali's footwork which all other aspects of his fighting were based upon, and without a solid-yet-mobile base, none of his other "tools" would have been nearly so effective.
Being an Effective Fighter
Being an effective fighter means having more than one dimension to your game. By this, we mean you need to develop an entire set of strengths and skills, rather than merely doing one thing you are best at to win fights. Sure, you may have a wicked left hook which is your go-to punch, although once an opponent understands this, they will be looking for it. This makes it easy for them to defend against it, which then limits that strength.
However, if you improve ALL your punches and combos and turn your weaker punches, etc. into strengths, you will better improve your chance of winning fights. This is where footwork comes in, since that is what everything is based upon. This is arguably the most important aspect of your boxing, since your ability to move efficiently around the ring and maintain control of a fight will determine your ability to win rounds, period. Correct punching technique also comes from correct footwork, and without it, you end up with weak, ineffective punches which may not even matter, since you likely won't be landing too many of them anyway!
Your footwork needs to be as economical and efficient as possible, and free of unnecessary movement. It should also help you be as unpredictable as possible to your opponent while remaining balanced and in control.
In fact, it is advised that if you are new to boxing, it is best to avoid trainers who encourage a "hands first" approach, and instead opt for those who put an emphasis on teaching correct footwork before anything else. This will ensure you are learning how to do things correctly the first time and will eliminate many bad habits to unlearn up the road, such as flat-footedness, or the kind of excessive dancing which wears you—rather than your opponent--out.
How to Improve Your Footwork
To work angles, control distances, and dissect the ring, you need correct footwork, and correct footwork comes (as do all aspects of your boxing) through discipline, practice, drilling and exercises.
Here are some the drills and exercises which can help you, although you are the one who needs to provide the discipline to practice until everything is perfect—which, as any veteran boxer or trainer will tell you, it never will be, so keep practicing!
- Jumping rope—Yes, there is a reason jumping rope is so popular in boxing training, since it is not only an excellent way to build endurance, it can help you improve your footwork. And, while doing standard feet side-by-side rope-skipping can benefit your footwork, doing "tricks," such as single-footed hops, criss-cross feet jumps, and "double-unders," can take your footwork training to a new level.
- Sure, you may have seen other fighters in the gym going through these types of rope-skipping exercises and thought they were merely having fun and showing off. However, it is this kind of "showing off" which helps build foot speed, balance and coordination—all while developing cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
- Shadow boxing—Fighting without a partner may seem…odd, although shadow boxing is one of the best ways there are to not just develop proper footwork, but all aspects of your fighting. This is because by concentrating on correct footwork (and other aspects of your fighting) while shadow boxing and strictly adhering to doing it right, you can better commit everything to muscle memory. This means that when you do step into the ring against an opponent, those moves will be as natural to you as walking or riding a bike, which means less chance of you making a costly mistake.
- "Dancing" with a partner—Like shadow boxing, dancing—or rather, working with a partner and mimicking each other's footwork—is an excellent way to develop correct footwork. It also helps each fighter hone their reaction times, and both can take turns deciding who is Fred Astaire, and who is Ginger Rogers (don't worry, nobody needs to wear a dress…).
- All kidding aside, start with both fighters facing each other with about one-meter's distance between them. The lead fighter then moves about as though sparring, and the other fighter follows the lead fighter's steps as though he or she is an image in a mirror. Do this for a round, and then switch roles.
- Set up an obstacle course—Just like with footballers and other athletes, footwork and coordination can be improved using simple obstacle course drills. For obstacles, nearly anything will work, though cones or a ladder tend to be the easiest to use. However, in a pinch, gym weights, towels, or other similar items can be strewn about in nearly any pattern for you to zig-zag through, hop over, or do cross-foot steps across. The idea is to establish a pattern to work on before changing things up and re-patterning the obstacles for something new.
- By changing what you are doing and not just repeatedly doing the same thing, you are improving all directions of muscle memory and coordination, which will translate to good footwork, and a solid base in the ring.
No, footwork training won't turn you into Fred Astaire, and it may not turn you into Muhamad Ali either, since only great genetics, work ethic and determination can do that.
However, what it will do is help you become the best fighter you can be, and if there is one thing you should look to when considering how to improve in the ring, it is your footwork.
Or in other words, if you want to sting like Ali, learn to dance like Astaire!