Joe Louis was perhaps the most technically skilled boxer to ever rule the heavyweight division. He reigned as the heavy weight champion for an astounding 12 years, and had 52 wins by KO. Many of them came by way of his flawless cross.
Louis’s style of fighting was minimalistic, and he was incredibly patient. He would make incremental adjustments of mere inches to get his proffered distance, and wait until the most opportune time. If Louis wasn’t sure he could land a knockout with his cross at that exact moment, he simply didn’t throw it.
It’s ironic that one of the most technically sound and mechanically proficient boxers in history used techniques that would today be considered overly risky or even sloppy. But Louis used these power-building methods with purpose and forethought. As so many modern day boxers have forgotten, without risk, there is no glory.
Louis’s cross had three distinct motions used to generate speed and power.
Louis began his cross by completely opening up his stance, and letting his hand trail behind him; as if he was loading up for a low hook. He would often step far to his left the same time he squared up, much as Golovkin does in the ring today.
By letting his hand lag slightly behind his center of gravity, Louis created leverage and utilized the body’s natural elastic tension. Known in kinesiology as the stretch shorten cycle, the muscle is stretched to its maximum potential and then snaps back like a rubber band.
After opening up, Louis would lean far forward and flare his elbow, creating leverage on a different plane of motion and creating even more tension in his shoulder. Louis likened this motion to throwing a baseball. As he put it in his classic book, simply titled How to Box, “Punching straight from the shoulder means the weight has shifted so that the hips and shoulder lead the arm to the center of the object.” Although he opened himself up by punching this way, Louis’s tight, economic form ensured as little risk as possible. Much like a well-thrown hook, a tight, short cross is far more powerful.
To end his punch, Louis stepped into his cross and let the tension in his shoulder loose. Contrary to what many modern boxing coaches teach, Louis considered stepping into your cross an essential part of the motion. In How to Box, he even suggests practicing on the heavy bag by lifting your back leg off the ground and then throwing, as “There is then no brace by the right foot to hold back the weight.” The step allowed him to move past his center of gravity, allowing for much more follow through.
Louis says to move your arm up, over and across, almost making a complete semicircle.
Louis set up his cross with a variety of feints and defensive maneuvers, but had one method he favored that was particularly effective.
This was to parry his opponents backhand with his front, and slip his head to the inside. He would disguise his parry as a jab, and knock down his opponents backhand to neutralize the threat of a counter cross. He would then slip to the inside, avoiding his opponents lead hand. Louis’s habit of stepping to his left often meant his cross would hit straight down the middle to the inside of his opponents jab. But the circling motion of the punch meant that it was equally effective coming from the outside. In fact, this is where the term “cross” originally comes from, as it meant to cross over your opponents jab with your right hand.
Louis was a master of every punch in the book. He influenced and inspired countless boxers and fans, and is indisputably one of the greatest fighters in history.
From the Modern Martial Artist, this has been David Christian, wishing you happy training.