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Fistic Flashback: Marlon Starling's Earmuffs

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Bad Left Hook's Connor Ruebusch breaks down the defensive mastery of Marlon Starling, and pokes a few holes in the doctrine of "hands up" defense.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Before Winky Wright, there was Marlon Starling.

In the 1980s, the sport of boxing was ruled by the Fab Four. Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Ray Leonard The decade was defined by the many tremendous battles between these men, and lesser fighters made their names simply by sharing the ring with them. The brilliance of their glory cast a long shadow too, particularly over the welterweight division through which all of them but Hagler had climbed on their ways to the top.

In 1982, "Sugar" Ray Leonard announced his retirement after a detached retina and the resultant layoff convinced him that he didn't care for the sport anymore. Less than a year and a half prior he had avenged his first ever loss to Roberto Duran, frustrating the enigmatic Panamanian boxer until two fateful words were finally coaxed from his lips. Shortly after he defeated "Hitman" Hearns in a dramatic 14-round war. And shortly after that he decided he was done--though of course he would return to prepare for a fight with Hagler at middleweight two years later.

The same year Leonard left, a young man named Marlon Starling first cracked Ring Magazine's top ten for the welterweight division. Starling would go on to toil away for the rest of the decade, winning some and losing some to the other underrated welterweights of his era, but never once falling out of the top ten. By the end of the decade he would realize his greatest accomplishment, upsetting Lloyd Honeyghan to win the lineal title, and then that was it. Starling overreached, attempting to duke it out with the fearsome Michael Nunn two weight classes above his usual home, then lost his crown to Maurice Blocker and was gone from the ring for good, retired at the age of 31.

Considering the giants with whom he shared the stage, and the strange trajectory of his own career, Starling's persistent obscurity is no surprise--but it is a shame. So let's take a moment to appreciate one of boxing's underappreciated geniuses, and the techniques that made him special.

LEARNING TO BOX

There's a position most boxing gyms in the US will teach you from the very beginning. Try it out: you take both arms, and hold them upright, parallel to one another. Next you relax your upper arms and let your elbows fall against your ribs, taking the strain off your shoulders and covering your ribs. Now you pull your hands back to your jawline, and presto! Instant defense.

Or at least, that's how it's purported to work. The phrase "hands up" has likely been uttered in boxing gyms across the country more times than any other, and the reasoning is obvious: if your hands are in front of your face, the other guy won't be able to hit you in the face. Likewise for your more tender torso. When you spar, you will get hit in the face, and your coach (and likely everyone else at ringside) will command you to keep your hands up. Even when you're not getting hit in the face, you will be reminded to keep your hands up. It's one of the fundamental rules of modern boxing.

Because of this, your offense will likely be built around the high guard, too. You will learn how to exploit and circumnavigate the opponent's forearms and gloves. You will hit the body to bring his hands down, and then hit the head once they drop. And vice versa. You will train and train to undo fighters with high guards, and all the while you will be told to keep those damn hands up.

Are you starting to see the flaws in this logic? If not, don't worry. Marlon Starling's about to show you just how effective a high guard can be, and at the same time prove that the guaranteed defense implicit in those cries of "hands up" might be the biggest lie in boxing.

BASIC DEFENSE, ADVANCED

Marlon Starling is the man to explain this idea, because Marlon Starling was the king of the high guard--also sometimes called a double-forearm guard, a shell, or simply "earmuffs." Starling utilized a very high, tight guard to block and deflect punches coming his way. One look at his defensive movements, however, immediately betrays the notion that he ever simply "kept his hands up."

Starling's system of defense, like any other, required acute situational awareness and constant adjustment. In this sequence from Starling's classic tilt with Lloyd Honeyghan, the defensive master demonstrates the complexity of his art. To do something as basic as catching a right hand on his guard, Starling twists his body to his own right, bringing his raised left forearm, as well as his shoulder, into the line of fire, all while pulling his upper body back to create space between himself and his opponent, encouraging him to reach in and overextend himself.

This movement also loads up Starling's own right hand, and it was his counter right--along with the sneakily vicious left uppercut that followed it--that made Starling such a dangerous fighter. His specialization as a frustrating counter puncher also reveals the specific limitations of the high guard.

TRIP HAMMER

Take a look at Starling's jab.

First of all, it's a very effective punch, but effectiveness is a loaded concept when it comes to jabbing. A jab can accomplish many different goals, and there are in fact many distinct variations of this one fundamental technique. Starling's particular brand of jab is best described as a "trip hammer" jab, ostensibly named for a piece of machinery designed to pound anything from grain to wrought iron. Like its namesake, Starling's jab is almost downward in trajectory, thrown straight from his guard position with minimal telegraph. It's an awkward punch, but what it lacks in power it makes up for in sting and unpredictability.

The thing about the trip hammer is that its largely ineffective for distance management or measurement, two of the primary aims of most fighters' jabs. Unlike other variations, like the up-jab and backhand jab, the trip hammer must be exceedingly quick, with little to no commitment of bodyweight. That's because it starts from the high guard, right where the opponent can see it; any time spent moving the body into the punch is time that the opponent has to react and defend it.

The other limitation of the trip hammer's starting position is that it lacks threat. If you watch most classically trained fighters, you'll see extended leads. The left hand is kept forward the way a mugger might hold a knife, and the idea is much the same: if the opponent sees the left hand, he is more likely to worry about running into it, which means he'll naturally stay farther away.

So the trip hammer, chambered in the guard, is really only good for one thing: forcing the opponent to flinch and, more often than not, attack.

Starling adopted this tactic for a reason. He was a counter puncher who loved to fight on the inside. He had very little intention of controlling the distance the way most fighters do. Instead he taunted and pestered his opponents, using his specialized jab to draw them into his wheelhouse. Once there, his high guard would come into play.

Here Starling counters Honeyghan with a series of hooks and uppercuts, stepping back as his swarming opponent comes on. In order to create these fleeting opportunities for counter punches, he needs an opponent willing to both move forward and throw with both hands.

And this is where the idea of the high guard as "automatic defense" starts to fall apart: Starling's guard compels Honeyghan to attack. It makes him want to throw punches.

For the attacker, repeated misses are difficult to endure. Physically, there is a lot of strain involved in throwing a punch at full power, having it miss the target completely, and then recovering to either throw again or defend the counter that could very well be coming your way. Mentally, it's discouraging to swing away at a target that seems to be there right up until the moment when your fist is about to connect. But when you swing and land, you are encourage to swing again, even if all you're hitting is forearms and gloves. The contact stabilizes the body, making it easier to measure follow-up punches and easier to redirect the body into them. The punches don't score, but they land, and that feels good for the offensive fighter.

For the purposes of Marlon Starling, and those of other fighters like him, that's great. Starling wanted his opponents to do all the hard work while he sat back, caught their shots on his guard, and carefully selected his openings. For a young fighter just learning to defend himself, or a fighter not specifically interested in a counter-heavy inside game, a reliance on the high guard can be a recipe for disaster.

ADJUSTMENTS

That should become even more clear when you consider just how much work went into Starling's use of the high guard. Again, this was no stationary wall that could be thrown up and expected to stop all incoming attacks. Starling's was a system of defense heavily reliant on constant, subtle adjustments.

Here's a simple sequence that demonstrates this quite well, from the first of Starling's two excellent fights with Donald Curry. As Curry steps forward with a jab, Starling doesn't just close his guard and hope for the best. He parries, deflecting Curry's jab with his right hand. Immediately after, expecting a cross, Starling pulls back and twists to his right, bringing his raised left arm into position to shield his head from Curry's right. Seeing Curry change levels, however, Starling adjusts, twisting back to his left to cover his ribs with the same arm just before Curry can land a hard uppercut to the body. And then he responds with a lovely trigger counter, clipping Curry with a sharp left hook before he can fully recover his own guard or pull out of range, and following him with that snapping jab.

The point is that Starling's high guard, supposedly the most basic form of defense, was complicated. It required just as much attention to detail as any other school of defense, and it was especially suited to Starling's preferences as a fighter.

None of this is to say that keeping the hands high is a bad idea. Your hands are certainly in a better position from which to protect the chin when held at about shoulder level or above, and punches from this position travel in quick, straight lines. The fact remains, however, that boxing is a multi-faceted art, beautiful and perplexing in its complexity. Reducing the science of defensive boxing to a simple aphorism spits in the face of centuries of pugilistic history, and may hurt the future development of the sport.

REMEMBERING MOOCHIE

Starling once claimed that legendary trainer Eddie Futch did little more than get him into shape, and--who knows?--he may have been more right than not. Starling possessed none of the quirks of other Futch proteges like Bennie Briscoe and Joe Frazier; his style was something all his own. My best guess is that Futch likely contributed a great deal more to Starling's late-career form than he was given credit for--perhaps more than Starling even realized. But whether or not it was a style that Futch would've taught himself, the old master certainly recognized its effectiveness.

And Starling's impact is still felt today. Another of Futch's fighters was helping to coach and corner Marlon at that time, training to become a trainer himself. That man was Freddie Roach, who would go on to lead Manny Pacquiao to greatness and beyond at the start of the 21st Century. We can't know for certain that Roach based Pacquiao's style off of Starling, but it's hard not to see a little "Moochie" in Manny's movements.

Starling is a fighter worth emulating, his thoughtful boxing balanced out by an entertaining, braggadocious persona in the ring. His skills were undeniable.

So the next time someone tells you to "keep your hands up," remember Marlon Starling, and think of what that really means.