Guide to the Rules of Boxing

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  • Basics
  • Differences Between Amateur and Professional Boxing
  • Styles
  • Weight Classes
  • Further Reading

The most popular of the pugilistic sports, the noble art of boxing has excited crowds for years and some of the best loved sports personalities of all time have plied their trade in the ring. Whilst most of us get the general concept (float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, hit the other person without getting hit) many don’t have a full grasp of the rules. Here we take you through all you need to know.

The Basics

The exact rules used will depend on the governing body who are overseeing any given fight, be it amateur or professional (in Britain this is the British Boxing Board of Control). However, no matter what the standard of fight, the event or governing body in question, the rules of any legitimate modern boxing match will have their roots in the Marquees of Queensbury Rules.

These rules, laid out in 1867, are the blueprint for how boxing matches are conducted today. Here are some the basics the will generally apply to any boxing match you might see.

  • Nothing Below The Belt: This is possibly the most famous rule of boxing. You can’t go for the groin or anywhere below the waist line of a boxer’s shorts (which is part of the reason they are high waisted).
  • KO’s: KO stands for a knockout and is one of the ways of winning a match. It is a bit of misnomer and probably gives the sport a worse name with its critics than it deserves. A KO has nothing to do with actually rendering an opponent unconscious. It is about knocking them off their feet. If a boxer goes down and cannot get back up within the referees count (in a manner which convinces the referee of their fitness to continue the match) then they will have lost.
  • TKO: This stands for Technical Knock Out and refers to when a referee decides that one of the boxers is unfit to safely continue or is losing the ability to appropriately defend themselves. A boxer does not have to be knocked down for a TKO to occur. In some variations of the rules a TKO will also apply after a certain number of knock downs regardless of how quickly a boxer might get up. This number is usually three. Regardless of whether or not a referee declares a TKO, a boxer's trainer can stop a fight by ‘throwing in the towl’ if he believes that he is suffering unduly.
  • Rounds: As boxing is extremely tiring, in the interest of allowing a disciplined, sporting fight, the action is broken up into rounds. Each round will usually last for three minutes, but again, this varies according to the exact competition in question. In between rounds boxers rest, take on fluids and listen to the advice of their trainers. A fight will be scheduled for a certain number of rounds. If there is no KO or TKO to decide the outcome of the match after the pre-arranged number of rounds has been contested, then the outcome will rest with the scoring judges.
  • Scoring: With the exception of title matches, in fights governed by the UK’s BBBofC all scoring is done by the match referee alone. However, they are unique in this. In pretty much every other form of boxing there are at least three separate judges who keep score, whilst the referee focuses solely on directing events in the ring to prevent infringements. The scoring judges award boxers points according to sets of criteria which, though they vary from contest to contest, generally reward clean hits, good defensive work as well as knock downs and other signs of domination. Some criteria are quite nuanced and subjective and it is not uncommon for judges to award a fight to a boxer who, in the opinion of the audience, was clearly losing. As a result, when a fight is decided by the judges it is not uncommon for controversy to erupt.
  • Fouls: If a boxer breaks the rules the referee may simply give them a verbal warning. If the fouling is serious of persistent then the referee can signal for the judges to deduct points from their score. In extreme cases they can be disqualified, in which case they lose the fight.
  • Illegal Hits: Boxers are actually very limited in the manner of blows they are permitted to land on their opponent. Essentially, the only strike allowed is to the opponent’s body, arms or head connecting with the knuckles (under gloves, obviously) as the result of a punch with a closed fist (in some contests, such as the Olympics, the gloves are marked over the knuckles and only punches landed with that part of the glove count). There can be no kicking, head butting, use of elbows or forearms, no spitting, no tripping, no holding or grappling, no pushing, using the ropes for leverage when punching or opening the fist. In addition, you cannot hit your opponent anywhere on the back, including the back of the head.
  • Breaking it Up: You will often see a referee step in to break two boxers up. In some cases this will be because he is stopping the fight and awarding a TKO due to one of the fighters starting to flag. More commonly it will be to separate a ‘clinch’ (a defensive ploy where a boxer holds on to his opponent to stop him punching – as per the outlines above this is not strictly allowed, but tends to go unpenalised). When the referee asks the fighters to break it up, they have to take a step back from each other before continuing to fight.
  • Stepping Away: If a boxer knocks their opponent down, they are obliged to retreat to the furthest neutral corner (one that doesn’t have either fighter’s trainer or seconds occupying it). Boxers must also stop fighting as soon as a referee tells them to if for any reason he wants to stop the fight.
  • Ducking: You cannot duck below the level of your opponents waist.

Differences Between Amateur and Professional Boxing

In amateur boxing, fights are usually scheduled for just three or four rounds. Given that the fights do not last as long, enduring physical damage is not as much as an issue as it is in professional boxing. This is further highlighted by the fact the protective headgear is worn, which helps prevent swelling and cuts. In professional boxing, the build up of these injuries is part of the sport and will normally contribute to the outcome. Boxers will have members of their team dedicated to patching up cuts between rounds to prevent them from opening and stopping a fighter from battling on. In some cases, swelling around the eyes may stop a fighter from being able to see, which will force them to withdraw.

As inflicting and enduring injuries is not so much a part of the amateur sport, landing destructive, highly powerful blows isn’t so much of an objective. Seeing as the result will be decided by scoring in the majority of cases, it is much more important to box with technical proficiency, blocking the opponent whilst finding openings in their guard. That said, not just any piece of contact will be scored as a blow; it has to a punch with some force.

Boxing Styles

There are various styles a boxer might adopt. Though each fighter is unique, there are some broad categories they usually fall into.

  • Out Fighter: An out fighter tends to win by preserving themselves from their opponent’s attacks and gradually wearing them down. This requires stamina and speed, as they continually try and keep a good distance between them and their opponent, relying on longer range, weaker punches such as the jab as opposed to explosive short range hits like the uppercut.

    This is thought of as being a cerebral style of boxing as it is more about strategy and its methodical deployment than power or force. Muhammad Ali, generally regarded as the best boxer of all time, is a proponent of this style.

    One variation on this category is the boxer-puncher, who is essentially an out fighter but rather than relying on a better defence and stamina to go the distance and win on points, they will wait until their opponent is tired and then come in close and go for a knockout. Generally a boxer-puncher is stronger but less agile than an out fighter. Another is style is the counter puncher. Again these fighters, although defensive, tend to win by knockout. As the name suggests, they seek to evade their opponents until they commit to an ill-timed or easily read punch. They will then counter strike hard. Floyd Mayweather is a counter puncher.

  • Slugger: These boxers are not quick on their feet and tend not to bother with technical combinations. Instead they look to land big, single knock out blows, usually a haymaker or uppercut. As they are slow and their attacks are fairly predictable, sluggers need lots of ‘chin’ (the ability to take punches from their opponent without too much adverse affect). George Forman is a good example of a slugger.
  • In Fighters: In fighters aggressively stalk their opponent around the ring, getting in too close to be countered by jabs and then hitting with combinations. As a result of going in this manner, in fighters expect to be hit so, like sluggers they need ‘chin’ but they also tend to be fairly short and agile and so try to duck and weave to avoid punches rather than just relying on having the stamina to keep blocking. Mike Tyson was an archetypal swarmer.

    It has been observed that these three styles relate to each other in a rock, paper, scissors triangle. Out fighting, with its emphasis on being agile and flexible is like paper, which can enfold rock but is cut by scissors. Rock is the slugger who relies on strength and durability and scissors are the aggressive, cutting in fighters. Whilst in fighter do well against out fighters, who struggle to escape them or cope at close range, they are blunted against sluggers who can outpunch them and are unconcerned with trying to get away.

Weight Classes

Boxers are expected to fall into the same weight class if they are to fight each other to ensure that it is not a physical mismatch. This business of needing to weigh a certain amounts gives rise to the media spectacle of the weigh in, which is an institution in modern boxing.

These are the weight classes as defined by the majority of governing bodies.

  • Heavyweight: Unlimited.
  • Light Heavyweight: At least 14 stone 4 pounds.
  • Super Middleweight: At least 12 and half stone.
  • Middleweight: At least 12 stone.
  • Super Welterweight: At least 11 stone 6 pounds.
  • Welterweight: At least 11 stone.
  • Super Lightweight: At least 10 and a half stone.
  • Lightweight: At least 10 stone.
  • Super Featherweight: At least 9 stone 9 pounds.
  • Featherweight: At least 9 stone 4 pounds.
  • Super Bantamweight: At least 9 stone.
  • Bantamweight: At least 8 stone 10 pounds.
  • Super Flyweight: At least 8 stone and 6 pounds.
  • Flyweight: At least 8 stone 3 pounds.
  • Light Flyweight: At least 8 stone.
  • Minimum Weight: At least 7 and a half stone.

Further Reading


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