Boxing Idioms

Boxing idioms can be a useful addition while you’re learning English vocabulary and phrases. As you continue to study and listen to English, you will find that many of these are used in everyday conversation. Although, you may hear them more from men than woman. Women may know these idioms and even when to use them, however, they may not know the meaning or origin. Read over these boxing idioms and see how many you have heard or try to use them in a sentence!


  • bare-knuckle(d) – Characterized by a fiercely unrelenting or implacable character, for example “bare-knuckle politics”. Bare-knuckle boxing is the more savage precursor to the Marquis of Queensberry fighting, which mandates the use of gloves. OED only gives one reference, a boxing one, in 1924; however, the figurative meaning is supported by M-W and AHD4.
  • beat (someone) to the punch – To make the first decisive move. A boxer who first strikes his opponent has beaten him to the punch (beat in the sense of “to arrive ahead of” as opposed to “strike”).
  • beezer – The nose. OED cites its etymology as “obscure”, but first cites it to 1915 as boxing slang
  • blow-by-blow – In reference to a verbal or written account, means providing great detail: for example, “a blow-by-blow description of the movie”. Sometimes simplified to the nominal phrase “blow-by-blow” as in “You saw what happened, give me the blow-by-blow.” Refers to radio announcers giving such detailed accounts of the boxing matches on which they reported.


  • come out fighting or come out swinging – To go immediately on the offensive, often pre-emptively; or, to strongly defend oneself or one’s beliefs.


    • down and out – Lacking money or prospects; penniless or destitute. A boxer who is “down” has been knocked to the canvas, and one who is also “out” is unconscious or unable to resume the fight; thus a down-and-out boxer is utterly defeated. AHDI states the term “probably” came from boxing, circa 1900
    • down for the count; out for the count – To be defeated. Refers to a boxer being knocked down; the referee will count off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight. Down for the count may imply a temporary setback, as down does not necessarily imply out. AHDI dates “down for the count” to the 1920s


  • gambit – A strategem or tactic; chess: an opening system that involves a pawn sacrifice to gain the initiative right from the start. The term arrives in modern parlance through chess, but originates in wrestling from the Italian gambetto, tripping the opponent.
  • glass jaw – Vulnerability, especially of a public figure, to destructive criticism. In boxing, a fighter who is especially vulnerable or susceptible to a knockout is said to have a glass jaw.
  • the gloves are off – See take off the gloves, below.
  • go the distance – Carry through a course of action to completion. A boxer goes the distance when he can fight through all the scheduled rounds.


  • have someone in your corner – To have the support or help of someone. A boxer’s ringside support staff – second, cut man, etc – are in his corner, and assist him between rounds.
  • heavy hitter – An important or influential individual or organization. Refers to a boxer who is able to hit hard; AHDI states it “was transferred to other enterprises in the mid-1900s”.
  • heavyweight – A person of great influence or importance. In boxing, it is a weight division of 175 pounds (79.5 kg) or higher, or a boxer fighting in this division. OED dates the boxing usage to 1877 (it was previously used in horse-racing), but does not cite or date the figurative usage.
  • hit below the belt – To act unfairly or unscrupulously, in disregard of the rules. To hit an opponent below the belt is an illegal move in boxing.


  • in-fighting, infighting – Close-quarter fighting. Also, conflict between members of the same organization, often concealed from outsiders. Infighting in boxing is fighting in close quarters; when the fighters are extremely close, it may sometimes be difficult for spectators (or even the referee) to see each blow. OED dates the boxing usage to 1812, and the first non-boxing meaning to 1928, and the first non-physical meaning to 1960.



  • kayo, K.O. – To put out of commission. From the boxing phrase “knockout” (knock unconscious), abbreviated “K.O.” and pronounced and often written as “kayo”. OED dates “K.O.” to 1922, figurative use to 1923;[42] “kayo” to 1923, figurative sense 1939.
  • knockout, knock-out – A stunningly attractive or exciting person. In boxing a “knockout” is scored when one boxer “knocks out” another boxer, either by striking him unconscious, or knocking him to the canvas such that he cannot rise within a count of ten (a “technical knockout”). AHD derives the figurative term from the boxing in the “early 20th century”; OED does not. Both seem to suggest, however, that the verb phrase “knock out” or “knock someone out” predates boxing.



  • lead with one’s chin – To behave or speak without caution, or to leave oneself unprotected. Refers to a boxer leaving his chin, a vulnerable point, unprotected. AHDI dates this usage to the “mid-1900s” [50]; OED cites Erle Stanley Gardner in 1949.
  • lightweight – (A person or thing) of little importance, consequence, intelligence or ability. In boxing, it is a weight division of boxers weighing no more than 135 pounds or 60.7 kg, or a boxer who fights in that division. OED cites boxing usage to 1823, figurative usage to 1885.
  • low blow – An unscrupulous or unfair attack, action, or insult. Refers to an illegal blow aimed at the area below another boxer’s waist or belt. AHDI cites this usage to about 1950.


  • on the ropes – On the verge of defeat. Refers to a boxer who has been knocked against the ropes that enclose the boxing ring and kept there by the blows of his opponent. OED cites the boxing usage to 1958, figurative use to 1970.
  • one-two (punch), the old one-two – An attack consisting of two punches in rapid succession with alternate hands. OED cites boxing usage to 1811, figurative usage to 1948. The phrase the old one-two is cited in 1960, but quotes it from “a more vulgarly robust age”.


  • pull one’s punches – To use less force than one is capable of; to be gentle or lenient. In boxing, a boxer who holds back from using all his strength is said to pull his punches. Often used in a negative sense, in the phrase “pull no punches”. The boxing term dates to 1934, the figurative to 1937.
  • punch-drunk – dazed, bewildered, or confused; or behaving in such a manner. In boxing, it refers to Dementia pugilistica, a neurological disorder in boxers triggered by repeated dazing blows or punches to the head over an extended period of time; symptoms include dementia, inappropriate behaviour, slurring of speech, etc, which resemble symptoms of alcoholic intoxication (hence punch-drunk). Figuratively, it refers to a state of dazedness or confusion resulting from fatigue, overwork, burnout, continuous exposure to unpleasant situations, or perhaps even emotional upheaval, as in suffering repeated figurative blows to one’s ego, emotional well-being, etc. OED dates the boxing usage to 1918, the figurative to 1934.
  • punchy – See punch-drunk, above; also, in a state of nervous tension, fatigued. OED cites as synonym for “punch-drunk” to 1937, alternate meaning to 1943.


  • ringside judge – A person who follows a topic or situation closely. In boxing, the ringside judges who score a boxing match sit at the ringside table (see below), and thus have an excellent view of the proceedings. OED cites this use to 1976.
  • ringside seat, ringside table – A place providing a good view of something. In boxing, a ringside seat is immediately adjacent to the ring in which the boxers fight, as is the ringside table, at which the ringside judges.
  • roll with the punches – To take adversity in stride; to adapt to difficult circumstances. A boxer who “rolls with the punches” moves his body away from the force of a blow so as to lessen their impact. OED cites the boxing term to 1941, the figurative to 1956.
  • round – A single phase of an endeavour or contest: “The defence attorney started round two by filing a writ of habeas corpus.” Also, an encounter, often confrontational, as in the phrase go a few rounds or go a couple of rounds: “I went a couple of rounds with the ex-wife’s lawyer.” A round in boxing is one of a set number of small contests (usually three minutes) that make up the entire match.


  • saved by the bell – Boxing: to be saved from misfortune or unpleasantness by a timely interruption. Alludes to a boxer who is knocked to the canvas, and must regain his feet before a count of ten or lose the contest; if the bell signalling the end of the round is rung before the count is finished, the fighter now has until the start of the next round to recover and resume fighting. ADHI dates this to the “mid-1900s”
  • slap-happy – Synonym for punch-drunk, above; also, dizzy with happiness; carefree, casual, thoughtless, irresponsible. The “punch-drunk” meaning OED cites to 1936; the “dizzy” meaning appears two years later. The “carefree…etc” connotation appears in 1937; it appears the evolution of the idiomatic meaning was influenced by the element “happy” over that of “slap”.
  • sparring partner – A person with whom one routinely argues or enjoys arguing. Refers to a boxer who is hired to practise with another for training purposes. Other phrases such as “sparring match” (for a verbal argument), and even the verb “to spar” (to bandy words), may actually come from cockfighting.
  • square off – To assume a fighting stance or attitude. In boxing, the term derives from the square shape of the ring, and the stance fighters assume immediately before the fight commences. AHD derives the figurative use from boxing in a note at the entry knockout.
  • sucker punch – An unexpected blow. In boxing, a sucker punch is one delivered unexpectedly.
  • Sunday punch – A destructive blow to an opponent as in “knocked him into next Sunday”. In boxing, a Sunday punch is a knockout blow. WordNet refers to it specifically in terms of boxing.

As found on Wikipedia