One of my favorite fights of all time is the Marco Antonio Barrera versus Prince Naseem Hamed bout that took place in 2001.
Hamed was this undefeated phenom with a string of impressive knockouts, but had a style that I personally would describe as "annoyingly unconventional," but that others thought was brilliant and would defend with his results in the ring.
I am not even going to attempt a description of it other than to say that it relied on a lot of body english with the hands hung loose and low. It did nothing for me and, full disclosure, I was never a fan of him or the style.
But, oh boy, did he have his fans and, by extension, so did his style of fighting.
What looked like haymakers and off-balanced posturing to me was this amazing style to others...and it was, I suppose, inevitable that people would come into the gym I managed at the time and try to emulate it. It made that period of coaching miserable for me.
No matter how compelling my arguments for learning an orthodox style of boxing with hands up, body bladed to the opponent, and feet under the hips, it just couldn't compete with the seemingly inexhaustible well of power and flash that Hamed could produce. I'd coach someone and hear "but the Prince doesn't do that" or "Naseem carries his hand like this" and I came to hate Hamed for that as much as dirtbag personality. The worst part of it was that he was winning and doing it decisively with vicious KO after vicious KO.
And then Marco Antonio Barrera arrived. He of the extremely orthodox, very recognizable boxing stance, and it felt like my prayers were answered as he proceeded to school Naseem for 12 rounds of gritty boxing. I finally found the example I needed to shut people up and it wasn't an "old school beats new school" argument.
It was even better.
It was "old school beats no school" and by the next week's classes after the fight, students started carrying their hands nice and high. I was so glad that era was over and we could get back to learning boxing in the classic sense.
But as the years went by, I came to appreciate that match more and more. I hated to admit it, but the fight was pretty even--Barrera was sharp, no doubt, but Hamed had so much power. You had two fighters who weren't afraid of each other, knew how to box, made the choice to brawl on occasion, but definitely knew when things weren't going their way and were willing to nudge the rules to swing things back in their favor or at least shut down their opponent's offence.
Remember when I said it was "gritty boxing" a few moments ago? I might have undersold it. Gritty is more like Mickey Ward fighting Arturo Gatti. Marco fighting Naseem upped the ante on gritty to a near streetfight that should have seen one or both men losing points in every round. It really has that many little fouls in it, but it also has some amazing boxing, which made for an interesting combination.
This fight opened my eyes to the idea of boxing as a means of self-defence. It was all the dirty nudges, pops, forearms, elbows, punches, blanketing, and clinching. Up to then, boxing was great in that it taught you the skill of punching and that was primarily what you saw. This bout showed that, with a little imagination, you could naturally extend some of these exchanges to a place boxing didn't allow, but the street sure as hell did.
I can honestly say that, between studying bare knuckle boxing and this exact fight, I have managed to make a lot of people miserable in the clinch and all I had to do was exercise a little endpoint thinking; as in, where could I take that technique if I didn't just want to hurt someone, but wanted to maim or kill them.
So for fits and giggles, I'm going to walk you through what I saw when I watched this fight and explain what I did with the information I gleaned. I am going to do it in very broad strokes because I could probably write, literally, 10 times as many words as I am going to and mine every little nuanced movement down to nth degree. It would be fun, but so labor intensive as to be a fulltime job; I don't have that kind of time. Instead, I'm going to point out salient moments by timestamp and let you figure things out from there.
That said, you can always ask me questions in the comments or get in touch with me for a lesson if you like what you read.
First things first. This essay and breakdown are largely useless if you don't have access to the fight and watch it. My advice is to watch it in its entirety first, then come back and watch it with my notes as you go through it a second time. I assume you're reading this because you take your training seriously; if so, watch it once then again with the notes. If you're just here for the entertainment, do whatever you want--I'm not your mom.
Anyway, here's the fight:
Not bad, hey? Damn, I love that fight. Barrera will forever be one of my favorite fighters for that fight. Hamed? Not so much; he's human garbage. Still, I owe him for his part in this bout.
It starts out scrappy and every single round has an example of a slightly less than gentlemanly approach to the fine art of fisticuffs, but because both men are complicit in that unsportsmanlike conduct, the acts don't seem egregious. Well, except for one...but it's my favorite moment of the fight, so it gets a pass from me. But let's start from the beginning. We will use the round timer for our timestamp references. Remember, this isn't about boxing in its purest form--this is about the paths not taken, but dimly illuminated. As you read the analysis, it's your responsibility to imagine where things could have gone.
That's what makes this fight so fun.
Let's get started.
2:46 The first of many collar ties, a mostly illegal move in boxing. Barrera steps in, holds onto Hamed's head with his left, and throws some short rights into the latter's face. Hamed wraps as Barrera walks him backwards, something we will see often, and both men push off one another and reset. 14 seconds in and already a questionable exchange as far as boxing is concerned, but damn if that isn't useful in MMA or during street fight. A single collar tie will give you all the counter pressure you need to effectively land strikes to your opponent. Great move and worthy of note.
2:40 Hamed has a neat trick of his own. He steps in with a punch that doesn't quite accomplish anything, but he immediately jams his forearm in Barrera's face to keep any meaningful counter from occurring. It works.
1:26 Hamed initiates an aggressive straight punch, but ends up right in the pocket. He keeps his hand on Barrera's shoulder, but both men wrap one another up. Any decent wrestler should see what's available to both men at this point, but this is boxing and neither fighter does anything with the position. Well, this time...
2:38 Backhands are totally legal in a street fight. Keep that in mind. They work really well, too; far less risk to the bones of the hand and they sting when they land.
1:19 Watch the dueling forearms and the manner in which they get used. Forearms across the body, the face, under the arms, to off-balance, to unsettle...just a great use of the whole arm to defend and attack instead of just a fist or open hand parry/block.
1:13 This exchange is outstanding. Hamed lunges in with a big punch, but Barrera clinches and boom! Gets a takedown, then tries to shoulder bump Hamed on the ground. Definitely not a great fight for boxing purists, but that's not what we're here to appreciate today. Today is all about the dirty.
0:11 Pay attention to how they both use elbows and forearms in exchanges from the 11 second mark to 0:07. I could be mistaken, but Hamed almost pulled off a reverse elbow. (I'm not mistaken.)
2:29 Big attempt, again, by Hamed that immediately leads to an attempt to clinch; Barrera lets him get the head, but fires a body shot that travels a little low. It doesn't help that everyone pulls their shorts up to their nipples in boxing. Still, his instincts were to keep punching despite the clinch attempt and that's not all bad. Stay busy, don't get distracted, and make the other man pay.
1:43 This happens a lot. Hamed throws his whole body into a punch, gets caught by Barrera in a clinch, and the whole thing has to unfold from there. It certainly has a variety of outcomes as the fight goes on, but it's interesting to see how often Hamed relies on this strategy. By round 12, Barrera's answers for the tactic definitely come to a head.
1:13 Watch how they clash forearms. Both fighters use this to disrupt flow and it works; it's just that they both do it so often that neither gain from it. That doesn't mean it's useless--it just means that good techniques can often negate one another when two fighters find counters to the counters.
1:12 Hamed lands a cool move here. He throws a hook up the side of Barrera's head, but there's no follow through; he plants it right where it lands and yanks down on Barrera, who simply walks into it and pushes Hamed back. I like Hamed's approach with that: concuss and control. Works in wrestling, works in boxing. Dirty? Yup. Effective? Yup.
1:06 Back in the center of the ring, Hamed comes in and ends up with his forearms on Barrera; there's even a nifty little sliding elbow along Barrera's traps that gets his attention.
0:48 has Hamed throwing, then raking his forearm at 0:47 across Barrera who, in turn at 0:46 attempts something similar with a bit of a reverse elbow. You start to realize that the two of them are made for each other.
0:10 Hamed grips Barrera's left elbow and has a single collar tie with it after trying to throw a big power straight. Barrera lets the collar tie and elbow grip stay, but walks Hamed back to the center of the ring. One wants control, the other wants position. Knowing the value of each is important.
1:46 Hamed tries to steer Barrera with an outside push against his head, taking the latter off center and making a counter difficult to execute effectively. Barrera gets it off, but you can tell it's compromised and Hamed easily defends.
1:37 Hamed throws his punch, but you can tell he wants to either attach to Barrera to disrupt a counter or have Barrera move forward right into an outstretched forearm. Anticipating your opponent's movements can leave you hanging if you guess wrong, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do it; just have a Plan B-Z if things turn out wrong.
0:40 Punch, clinch, break. Haymakers are easy to clinch, wrapping is easy for both fighters once they're touching. That tells you a lot about how most brawlers can be dealt with if you can build up the coolness-under-fire to weather the early storms.
2:27 Clinch, but lots of forearm mashing and jostling. This fight would have been no fun at all for the referee. At a certain point, I think it was less about stopping them from doing anything illegal and more about making sure they were even stevens when it was all said and done. Sometimes, two wrongs DO make a right. Shoutout to Joe Cortez.
2:25 Barrera attempts an uppercut after holding and it's just as the referee steps in. Great example of a grip-and-rip in action and it doesn't take much imagination to see how an upward elbow would have been easy to insert. Wonder what that would have done to Hamed's face.
1:46 Barrera uses the clinch defensively and if you pay close attention to his left hand, you'll see him try to pass Hamed's elbow behind him, all the while tucking his head behind the read deltoid of the latter. It's pretty smooth and a neat way of making Hamed uneasy about countering or attempting to improve his position.
1:11 It's worth noting how Barrera often "packs his neck" in anticipation of blows. It might look like he's simply dipping his head, but he's setting himself to exchange with Hamed. This is one of those "bite down and throw" moments and it's something not enough people do when they get caught in exchanges. Most put their chins up, then wonder why they got "caught" during the volley.
2:50 This is an interesting exchange because Barrera makes a mistake. In this instance, both his hands are outside Hamed's arms and it almost costs him. He doesn't jostle enough or tangle the arms and nearly eats a hook for his troubles. It's not something he repeats, so I have to assume he realized the error.
1:34 I like this exchange because Hamed aggresses, taking Barrera off guard ever so slightly, but the latter regains his composure enough to initiate a clinch and push back. It's a good example of how moving backward will just get you hit, but moving forward changes the range enough to negate follow-up attacks.
0:42 Hamed lands a backhand and it works as a great interceptor for whatever Barrera was thinking of doing next. We'll never know because nothing happens immediately after it. Never underestimate a backhand.
0:15 Barrera attempts to smother Hamed, who decides to throw a solid punch into his opponent at close range, but mostly hits with forearm to the chest (which is still viable, as we will later see). Barrera returns fire immediately and lands a short hook.
2:53 Hamed vacillates between a good old fashioned headlock and a collar tie, settling on the latter technique to control Barrera. It's a nice bit of defensive clinch that stops Barrera from unloading anything. You can tell that Hamed had a choice to make there and opted for the one least likely to get a point deducted or a DQ. He chose wisely.
1:45 This happens a lot. Hamed likes leaping in with his punches, but Barrera is good at standing his ground and essentially "catching" Hamed and clinching. If Barrera moved away from Hamed in these moments, he would most likely get in trouble; the punches would follow him, assuming Hamed threw combinations. The announcing team keep complaining that Hamed isn't throwing combos, but it's tough to do when the opponent doesn't give you the space you're seeking.
1:33 Good example of an arm tangle by both men as they move and a great means of staying busy and in the pocket.
0:26 Hamed, again, punches in and Barrera ducks and holds the body. This time, however, Hamed leans heavily on Barrera's head and literally forces his chin to his chest giving Hamed lots of control. Barrera has no answer for this tactic and, truth be told, there's not much you can do from that position--your spine is so compromised that you need a hard reset to get out of it (which the referee provides).
0:20 Almost exactly as above, but this time Hamed lets his legs travel more (a mistake) and Barrera decides to crash his shoulder into Hamed's body and uses his head to essentially duck under his attacking arm. Hamed's body positioning suffers because of his lack of footwork here and it puts Barrera in great clinch position. When you compare these two exchanges, you get a sense of how important footwork really is, even in the messy world of clinch.
2:37 Hamed punches, then looks to go for plum or snapdown. He does it defensively, probably because he expects Barrera to pack his neck and move forward as per usual, but it doesn't play out. Still worth noting, though; this is adaption on behalf of both fighters and occurring in real time; the coaches can't help here.
1:01 Hamed is pretty good with a single collar tie at manipulating Barrera and, in this case, he actually manages to steer him with a little aid by his other arm on Barrera's shoulder when Marco gives him the space there. I would say Barrera is the stronger man, but Hamed has better manipulation skills in these types of exchanges.
0:28 A simple body lock to stop the exchange and counters. Funny how effective that is, hey?
2:27 Barrera lands a solid counter punch to the chest of Hamed which sets up a hook. Do not underestimate a heart punch--they hurt the whole system.
2:00 Short exchange that ends in clinch.
1:38 Barrera tries to smother Hamed. It's a change up from trying to land and smother or catch and smother--he almost looks like he just wants a break and decides to shutdown the exchange before it can happen.
0:58 Great movement by Hamed. He throws, then changes direction on the hook almost immediately to place the forearm on the back of Barrera's neck; downward pressure follows and he manages to secure his other arm on Barrera's attacking right hand, blocking the punch with his elbow then locking it down. This is a great example of multitasking.
0:34 Both fighters end up in the clinch, then opt to grip-and-rip. Hamed smartly watches for the referee and lets fly at the last possible moment, probably hoping that he lands just before a break; however, this is a good referee and he doesn't step in, preferring to let them both fight out of it. Hamed eats a counter hook for his efforts and you can almost read his mind as he realizes that didn't turn out exactly how he had hoped.
0:27 Hamed leaps in, Barrera catches--wash, rinse, repeat throughout this fight. The difference here is in how Barrera flips Hamed's elbows up, likely in anticipation of another punch on the break like what occurred at 0:34. Nothing happens, though; as much from trapping the gloved hands against his own body as anything. Still, it's interesting to see how BOTH men have a hand up even as the referee splits them. Nobody is taking chances anymore.
2:46 This is one of my favorite techniques. Hamed uses his forearm to jam Barrera, then lets fly over it; a heavy lean and clinch ensues. They stay attached and Hamed continues to lever and punch, lever and punch...and I have to give him his due for the effort. This is the refined version of grabbing a jersey and punching toward your hand with your head turned to protect your face and I like it.
2:16 The spearing elbow after his first punch? Hamed knows exactly what he is doing and it looks awesome as he does it. Imagine if that had landed. What a combo. Hard right uppercut followed by a same side elbow and at a speed most people couldn't deal with. No, it's not good boxing--but's great fighting.
2:00 Punch and clutch, catch and release. These moments are rife with tension.
1:41 Hamed lands a sneaky elbow on Barrera and gets an immediate reaction. It sets up the next bunch of punches almost perfectly. Never underestimate a pointy bit of bone on your opponent's face to get what you want. It actually puts Barrera on full defence for the better part of 10 seconds as Hamed works one more elbow in against Barrera's stonewall and a few more stuffed punches. Range was Hamed's enemy here, as well as a nifty little trick by Barrera when he follows Hamed's trapped punch out by clutching it close to his own head. This is a great exchange. (Again, not in a boxing sense--in a fighting sense.) You could watch this over and over and learn something new every time.
0:48 This exchange actually starts two seconds earlier, but it's Barrera's use of trapping I want you to see and pay attention to. This is the second time he's closed his guard around a strike to keep Hamed from reloading his punch and Barrera uses it to close distance by simply letting himself get pulled along as Hamed attempts to recover his punch.
2:46 Hard exchange and another example of Hamed's hook to collar tie. He's very good at this move. Is it learned behavior or practiced, though? That is a question worth considering.
2:36 Barrera comes in aggressively and Hamed tries everything from a tangle to a clinch to a smother to shut him down. Watch how he positions his arms against Barrera's attacks and what he's willing to give up to gain additional shielding. Risk management in an acute sense of the phrase.
2:12 Barrera steps in with a punch, gets blocked low, then reverses the direction sharply to get his forearm and elbow in a near uppercut-like attack on Hamed. Big exchange occurs as both men attempt to counter and defend. Never fight your own movement.
2:06 Clinch and wrap, forcing a hard reset by joe Cortez.
1:26 Hamed's punch gets him speared in his chest by a Barrera shoulder. You can actually see the force of the hit across his body and how Hamed has a moment of indecision as it registers.
1:07 This is what aborted punches look like. Both men decide to reign in their shots and end up in an ugly clinch because of it. Would letting fly have worked better? Hard to say when both fighters have demonstrated such a clear willingness to clinch.
0:07 This exchange is noticeable because of how drastically Barrera is able to change Hamed's movement. Watch the swing in Hamed's feet has he abruptly gets forced in the other direction by Barrera's clinch. It's more than a little obvious that Barrera is stronger, but that usually doesn't change outcomes in boxing. In a fight, though? Being stronger is rarely a disadvantage. (Unless it's all you are, then you're in trouble.)
2:28 Barrera punches in too close and loses range on most of his attempts, but refuses to let up; this is what a pressure fighter looks like. There are attempts by both men to steer each other with their heads, Hamed tries to pull Barrera down, and Barrera just keeps gripping-and-ripping. Ugly exchange, but so much fun to watch and valuable insofar as recognizing that punches are always there if you look for them.
1:55 Big throw by Hamed, big clinch and a lot of body english, especially on the part of Barrera. Last round of a grinding fight and neither man wants to let up.
1:14 This is how a third man can get one of the other two hurt. Barrera clearly forces Hamed's head down in a greasy move, then assumes Joe Cortez is going to do something about. Again, this ref is more about letting them fight and when he sees Hamed's flush counter, he lets them continue; he's very good at keeping a mental balance to their questionable tactics and it's part of what makes this fight so instructive for self-defence purposes. Nobody is coming to save you. Well, for the most part.
1:10 You can have your rope-a-dope or your behind-the-back-surprise-KO, but I will take a clinch-to-a-half-nelson-into-a-turnbuckle-slam any day of the week over either of those. When a brawler leaps at you, this might just be the best counter I can think of that doesn't involve standing your ground and trying to punch him on the way in. Barrera made this look easy and you know it had to be a surprise to Hamed. Still one of my favorite moments in a fight full of favorite dirty moves. I have watched this moment hundreds of times and will probably keep doing so for as long as I am a fight fan. Thanks, Marco.
0:11 A short wrap, but over quickly and the fight draws to a close.
And there you have it. Do you think you can use boxing as self-defence? Probably not, but if you're willing to cheat? Suddenly the possibilities seem endless.