55 Boxing Idioms

By Mark Nichol

Despite the waning popularity of pugilism, or the sweet science, as boxing is also called, the sport has contributed a number of colorful words, phrases, and expressions out of proportion to its current stature among athletic endeavors. Here is a list of idioms that originated in boxing and were subsequently extended to the world outside the square ring.

1. bare-knuckle: fierce or determined (from boxing done without gloves)
2. beat (someone) to the punch: accomplish something before someone else does
3. blow-by-blow: a detailed account (referring to commentary during a boxing match)
4. bob and weave: be evasive (as a boxer ducking to avoid an opponent’s blows)
5–6. come out fighting/swinging: be immediately aggressive or energetic
7–10. deliver/land a (knockout) blow/punch: hit
11. down and out: destitute (an analogy to a boxer who has been knocked down and remains motionless)
12–13. down/out for the count: defeated or overcome (as a boxer who has run out of time to stand up after being knocked down)
14–15. drop/take off the gloves: abandon civility (from the practice of using bare fists rather than gloves)
16. duke it out: argue (likely from dukes as rhyming slang for fists; “duke of Yorks” was substituted for forks as slang for fingers or hands)
17. glass jaw: vulnerability (from a reference to the target point on a boxer that is most fragile)
18. go down swinging: persist (from the notion of a boxer fighting up to the point at which he or she is knocked out)
19. have (someone) in your corner: have an ally (from the boxer’s support team, positioned in a corner of the ring)
20. heavy hitter: an influential person or other entity (from the term for a boxer who lands particularly hard punches)
21. heavyweight: see “heavy hitter” (from the boxing and wrestling weight class)
22. hit below the belt: act unfairly (from the act of landing a blow below an opponent’s waist)
23. in-fighting: conflict within a group (from the term for boxing close up)
24. keep (one’s) guard up: stay alert (from the idea of protecting one’s face with a gloved hand)
25. kisser: lips
26–28. knockout/KO: a decisive blow; a knockout is also a very attractive or impressive person
29. lead with (one’s) chin: take a risk (from the inadvisable act of exposing one’s chin)
30. lightweight: an insignificant person or entity (from the boxing and wrestling weight class)
31. low blow: a hurtful or unfair action or comment (see “below the belt”)
32. on the ropes: in trouble (an analogy to an exhausted boxer who is hanging onto a rope on the perimeter of the ring)
33. one-two punch: a combination or sequence of two impactful things
34. pull (one’s) punches: hold back from using full force or full resources (as when a boxer does not use his or her full strength)
35–36. punch-drunk/punchy: dazed or fatigued (from the notion of a boxer disoriented from receiving multiple blows)
37. put up your dukes: said by someone as an invitation to fight (see “duke it out”)
38. ringside seat: a position close to an incident or event or chain of events
39. roll with the punches: be flexible (from the idea of a boxer remaining in motion despite having received repeated blows)
40. round: one of a series of activities or events (from the name of a period of time during a boxing match)
41. saved by the bell: rescued from difficulty at the last moment (from the bell rung at the end of a round in boxing)
42. slap-happy: see “punch-drunk/punchy”
43. slugfest: a literally or figuratively combative event
44. spar: fight or dispute (from the term for a boxing maneuver, used in the phrases “sparring match” and “sparring partner”)
45. square off: prepare for conflict (from the tradition of boxers standing facing each other at the beginning of a match)
46. straight from the shoulder: direct and forthright (an analogy to a blow delivered using one’s full strength)
47. sucker punch: an unexpected blow
48. take a dive: fail (from the slang phrase referring to a boxer falling after being struck)
49. take it on the chin: stand up to criticism (from the idea of a boxer receiving a blow on the chin without falling)
50. the gloves are off: said when someone begins to act mercilessly (in reference to boxing without gloves)
51–53. put/throw/toss (one’s) hat into the ring: issue a challenge or indicate one’s interest in participating (from the custom of a challenger throwing his hat into a boxing ring when a boxer takes on random opponents)
54. throw in the towel: give up (from the custom of a member of a boxer’s support team tossing a towel into the ring to indicate that the boxer concedes defeat)
55. undercard: a subordinate activity or event in a series (from the term for the category of one or more boxing matches preceding the featured bout)

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2 Responses to “55 Boxing Idioms”

  • Roberta B.

    I enjoyed that one! Boxing is as basic as it gets, and while I’m not a fan, these idioms certainly are descriptive and colorful.

  • Cantor

    Greetings from China! This website is extremely helpful and interesting. Words based on fighting help a fella land his punches right in the kisser. I am glad to have this excellent website in my corner for my upcoming slugfest. I plan to take the gloves off.

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