What Is Dirty Boxing In Boxing/MMA? (Techniques & Tactics)

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Are you wondering what dirty boxing in boxing and MMA is?

In this article, we’ll look at what dirty boxing in boxing and MMA is, where it originates, whether dirty boxing is legal, and the common dirty boxing techniques and tactics used in boxing and MMA.

What Is Dirty Boxing in Boxing/MMA?

Dirty boxing in boxing and MMA is a style of boxing that mixes grappling and close-range striking techniques with tactics and techniques typically illegal in boxing to make a fight less technical, more street fight-like, and to frustrate and disrupt an opponent’s game.

Dirty boxing includes using illegal techniques which are hidden from the referee to avoid penalty, used in a way the referee technically can’t penalize because of grey areas in the rules, or used because of referee leniency and lack of penalties.

As opposed to a technically clean fight, dirty boxing is used to disrupt an opponent’s balance, control an opponent, tax their cardiovascular endurance, and essentially rough them up with bodyweight as opposed to skill.

Dirty boxing is used by many of the best and most intelligent boxing and MMA fighters because of its effectiveness in bending the rules in their favor. It’s also used by fighters with less reach, endomorphs who have an advantage in the clinch, and against fighters with elite striking skills at a distance.

Where Does Dirty Boxing Come From? (Origins)

Dirty boxing comes from the Filipino self-defense martial art suntukan. As suntukan isn’t a combat sport and is focused on self-defense, many of suntukan’s fighting techniques and tactics are designed for street fighting and are therefore illegal in regulated combat sports like boxing and MMA.

Some of those illegal techniques considered dirty are headbutts, groin strikes, eye gouging, and biting.

Over time, many of these dirty boxing techniques from suntukan were adopted by boxers and used when the referee’s line of sight was blocked or used in a way that couldn’t be technically penalized. This was then picked up by some of the early MMA fighters in the 90s and early 2000s.

Is Dirty Boxing Legal?

Dirty boxing as a style of fighting is legal in both boxing and MMA, but many of the techniques and tactics used in dirty boxing are illegal.

However, many of these techniques aren’t caught by the referee, and many of the ones that are caught aren’t penalized because they fall within a grey area of the rules, or referees are too lenient and afraid to disrupt the scoring with point deductions.

As dirty boxing is striking up close and in the clinch, most of the techniques are illegal in boxing but legal in MMA. For example, in boxing, fighters are allowed to clinch for a short time, but ‘holding or deliberately maintaining a clinch’ (foul 4) is illegal.

However, holding a clinch and clinching often is a huge part of boxing because referees are way too lenient and never penalize a fighter for continually initiating and holding a clinch. It’s become a grey area in boxing where referees are unsure what to penalize, so fighters continue to do it.

In MMA, most techniques are legal, so dirty boxing mainly describes the style of up-close stand-up fighting where a fighter continually initiates a clinch and tries to use their weight to bully an opponent.

To further understand what dirty boxing in boxing and MMA is, let’s take a look at a list of the most common dirty boxing techniques and tactics used in each sport.

What Are the Dirty Boxing Techniques/Tactics Used in Boxing?

First and foremost, boxers have to be most clever and discrete with their use of dirty boxing because a lot of the techniques they use are illegal, whereas in MMA they’re perfectly legal.

Here are the dirty boxing techniques and tactics used in boxing, which can also be used in MMA.

1. Blocking the Referee’s View To Commit an Illegal Strike

All boxers looking to use dirty boxing techniques know how to block the referee’s view so he can’t penalize them for using illegal techniques.

Blocking the referee’s view can be done in a few ways, such as:

  • Clinching before the referee has changed position and can see everything happening
  • Maneuvering an opponent to the rope/corner
  • Circling an opponent away from the referee’s current line of sight

Once the referee’s view is blocked, a boxer can commit many illegal techniques such as headbutts, collar ties, holding with one hand and hitting with the other, wrist control, below-the-belt shots (low blows), forearm strikes, or even rabbit punches.

It doesn’t matter if a boxer complains to the referee about an illegal technique; if the referee didn’t see it then essentially it didn’t happen. This is the biggest way dirty boxers bend the rules in their favor.

2. Toe/Foot Stepping

Before the up-close dirty boxing can start, toe or foot stepping is the first dirty boxing technique at a boxer’s disposal. Toe or foot stepping is mostly used by boxers in opposite stances, a southpaw vs an orthodox, as their lead legs are closest and they have to step forward into range.

Toe or foot stepping is a great dirty boxing technique as it can be hard for the referee to see, it can give a fighter the upper hand in the battle for lead foot dominance, and it can irritate, impair movement, and knock an opponent off balance.

Boxers can also toe-step as they initiate a clinch so an opponent can’t move backward.

3. Driving an Opponent Backward

Boxers can put pressure on and back up an opponent by putting both gloves to their head in a high guard and using this shield to put their weight on an opponent and drive them backward.

This is a perfect tactic to use against fighters who look for too much time to do their best boxing, or against boxers who struggle on the back foot or under pressure.

Another thing a boxer can do here is punch into the clinch. As the forward momentum of a punch brings them close to an opponent, they can continue to drive them backward with the high guard shield or immediately clinch them.

4. Clinching To Recover and Negate Opponents

A common way boxers engage in dirty boxing is to look for a clinch after being hurt. They do this by closing the distance and tying up an opponent in any way possible. This prevents further shots from landing and gives the hurt boxer time to recover.

Clinching to negate opponents who are great in the pocket is also a very effective dirty boxing tactic used by fighters with longer reach.

For example, Floyd Mayweather Jr used this brilliantly against Manny Pacquiao by scoring points with his longer-range jab and nullifying Pacquiao’s combinations and skill on the inside by clinching him. The gap is reset by the referee and Mayweather rinses and repeats to a unanimous decision.

5. Smothering

Fighters who are heavier and have great cardiovascular endurance repeatedly use clinching to tire an opponent. Professional boxing is 12 rounds long, so making the fight more physical and less technical is a great tactic.

Boxers can amplify their results by smothering their opponent, which is laying their bodyweight on them against the ropes. This is best used after landing a punch or two as they can avoid counters, tire their opponent, disrupt their rhythm, and keep their opponent uncomfortable and against the ropes.

Body shots are commonly mixed with smothering as they’re effective at sapping an opponent’s energy, especially if they target the liver. Body shots are great to sneak in when disengaging naturally and as the referee is trying to separate both fighters.

6. Forearm Frame Control

Forearm frame control is using the forearm across an opponent’s head or face as a frame to push an opponent’s head in the direction you want to move them. 

It’s very effective at stopping counters and setting up shots. This is done by landing a punch and leaving the forearm/gloves on the side of the opponent’s face and pushing them away. This blocks their vision and acts as a defensive frame to stop shots from coming back.

At the same time, push their head with the forearm and throw an overhand while bringing the forearm away to keep it legal.

Boxers also use one arm horizontally across their opponent to pin both arms and punch them with the free hand.

7. Head Positioning/Control

Controlling an opponent’s head position allows a boxer to dictate the fight by moving them where they want, restricting their vision, and being one step ahead with punch selection and combinations.

Boxers do this in the clinch by driving their head into their opponent’s chin from either side and maneuvering their opponent in the direction they want to take them. If a boxer is forced to look left, they cannot see shots directed to their right-hand side and vice versa.

Pushing an opponent’s head also off-balances them, allowing the boxer in control to disengage into space and land powerful shots or combinations.

8. Hitting After the Bell and on the Break

These are effective dirty boxing tactics because most of the time they’re seen as unintentional and a fighter only receives a warning. Therefore, boxers can land an extra punch after the bell and on the break from a clinch because referees are too lenient and never penalize them.

What Are the Dirty Boxing Techniques/Tactics Used in MMA?

Unlike in boxing, in MMA, fighters are allowed to clinch for unlimited periods of time and can use many more striking and grappling techniques and tactics while using a dirty boxing style of fighting.

MMA fighters don’t have to hide their dirty boxing as a ‘dark art’, instead, they embrace it and fighters who are great at it intend to make it fully known.

So, while MMA fighters use all of the above techniques and tactics boxers use, here are the common dirty boxing techniques and tactics used in MMA.

1. Controlling an Opponent To Dicate the Fight

Controlling an opponent in the clinch puts a fighter in control, one step ahead, and able to land strikes. 

In MMA, this is done with underhooks, single collar ties, wrist control, grabbing and pulling an opponent’s ear or elbows, driving the head into their chin, or using the hands to smother their face or push their head a certain way.

A single collar tie is putting the hand on the back of an opponent’s head or neck and pulling downward. This allows a fighter to control their opponent while punching them with the free hand, usually with uppercuts. Single collar ties can also be used to move an opponent left or right and off-balance them.

A single collar tie can also be turned into a snap-down, which is applying enough force with the single collar tie to break an opponent’s posture so their head comes down. This sets up a headlock or guillotine which they can use to move them around, get them to the ground, strike, or submit them.

An underhook is putting an arm under an opponent’s arm to control them. Most often an opponent’s back or shoulder is held with the underhook for more control.

From here, a great dirty boxing technique is to go further than the shoulder and put the hand across an opponent’s mouth and face to push their head in the opposite direction and or mess with their breathing and vision.

Underhooks are great for controlling an opponent and striking with the free hand, which combines well with driving the head into an opponent’s chin so they can’t see the strikes coming. Underhooks can also turn opponents to create distance to strike and continually off-balance them.

Grabbing and pulling an opponent’s ears is used to irritate an opponent and pull their head in a certain direction. It’s considered illegal fish hooking but fighters get away with it because it can be hard for the referee to see it during a clinch.

2. Clinching/Smothering to Tire/Takedown an Opponent

In MMA, fighters can clinch and smother an opponent as much as they want without being separated by the referee; unless he feels there’s been a period of inactivity. Inactivity often happens when a fighter is trying to negate or stall an opponent, or when they’re focusing too much on control.

So, with a small amount of activity, a fighter can clinch and smother their opponent to tire them out, recover after being hurt, stall an opponent, negate their striking and jiu-jitsu capabilities, and secure advantageous positions for takedowns.

3. Foot Stomps and Shoulder Strikes

Foot stomps and shoulder strikes are two great dirty boxing striking techniques in an MMA fight.

When controlling an opponent in the clinch, foot stomps are used to score points and affect their footwork for the rest of the fight. They’re also used to keep and tire an opponent in the clinch, as the activity stops the referee from splitting the clinch.

Kamara Usman is one of the biggest foot stompers in the UFC and he uses them to keep a fighter locked in his clinch and score points.

Shoulder strikes are effective in the clinch as they’re very unexpected and can be powerful when thrown correctly. For example, Conor McGregor has used shoulder strikes many times throughout his career, most notably against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 to bust him up and get the TKO win in 40 seconds.

He set the shoulder strikes up by getting a right overhook, inside bicep control with the left, and head control on the right by pushing his forehead into Cerrone’s temple. As he was controlling Cerrone and the centerline, he threw left shoulder strikes repeatedly until Cerrone broke the grip.

4. Headbutts and Eye Pokes

While an illegal move in MMA/UFC, some fighters headbutt their opponent during a clinch and try to pass it off as unintentional. It can be very hard for a referee to see this and penalize it, so fighters often get away with headbutting whether intentional or unintentional.

It can be done when pushing the forehead into an opponent’s chin or face or when changing head position from one side to the other. 

It doesn’t have to be hard and it’ll do some damage, irritate an opponent, and get them distracted and calling to the referee. MMA fighters with a dirty boxing style also frequently sneak in eye pokes and try to pass them off as unintentional.

One or two eye pokes usually only get a fighter a warning, and they can be great in buying a fighter some rest time (up to 5 minutes) when they’re gassing or hurting an opponent and disrupting their rhythm.

The great dirty boxers know the styles of each referee and whether they’re able to get away with illegal techniques such as headbutts and eye pokes in a fight.

5. Elbows and Knees

While elbows and knees are perfectly legal strikes in MMA, they’re considered part of a dirty boxing style of fighting as elbows are slicing and cause a lot of blood spill, while knees are powerful and seen as less technical and more street fighting-like.

Most commonly, knees are thrown when a fighter is controlling an opponent in the muay Thai clinch, and elbows are used during all clinch positions, especially when disengaging from them.

Who Are the Best Dirty Boxers in UFC?

The best dirty boxers in UFC history are:

  • Randy Couture
  • Josh Barnett
  • Daniel Cormier
  • Nick Diaz
  • Nate Diaz
  • Wanderlei Silva
  • Cain Velasquez
  • Dan Henderson
  • Jens Pulver
  • Jon Jones

Here’s a video breaking down the tactics and techniques used by one of the great UFC dirty boxers, Randy Couture.

Who Are the Best Dirty Boxers in Boxing?

The best dirty boxers in boxing history are:

  • Bernard Hopkins
  • Floyd Mayweather Jr
  • Evander Holyfield
  • Harry Greb
  • Roberto Duran
  • Eusebio Pedroza
  • Tyson Fury

The Bottom Line

So, ‘what is dirty boxing in boxing and MMA?’

Dirty boxing in boxing and MMA is a style of boxing that mixes grappling and close-range striking techniques with tactics and techniques typically illegal in boxing to make a fight less technical, more street fight-like, and to frustrate an opponent and disrupt their game.

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