Karate vs Boxing? What is Better?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: martial arts
19 May 2009


Imagine that you grew up in the 60’s (some of you did) and your dad used to watch boxing! Boxing was an ideal martial art (even though it was not widely thought of as martial arts) because anyone could learn the basics and then defend themselves against a larger attacker! What you might be thinking? Don’t you mean karate? Well karate was in its infancy in the 60’s but boxing had a large audience.


If one knew how to jab, right cross and hook – he could take almost anyone bigger that was just trying to tear your head off and make them look silly! Karate kicked like girls did so it was not too popular with some men at first. Later when pioneers like Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Ron Marchini, and Chuck Norris started to make the sport of karate more popular there was still a dominant question at the time, what was better, karate or boxing?


In this post I will attempt to answer that question somewhat but before I do I will go into some history and note the differences between the two martial arts. Here is a video I found of the debate between boxing and MMA for some of the issues. MMA as many of you know is the most popular form of striking and submission sport that is watched today.




I enjoyed watching these guys debate their sports. This should highlight some of the issues and biases that are thrown into debates about what fighting sport is better. I remember listening to Rich Marotta (KFI 640 AM – morning drive and weekend boxing commenter) saying how he did not like the MMA fights and thought they were vicious. You will probably not see too many of the old timers come around and see how fighting is changing.


Ok by now you have realized that I am an “old guy” to be asking the question of what is better, karate or boxing? The reason is that when I was learning how to fight – you had to go into one or the other for striking arts (Muay Thai was not too popular yet here). I reasoned as a kid that if I could kick the boxer in the nuts, I would have an advantage. What I did not realize back then was my karate hands paled in comparison to inside boxing hands.


I will illustrate one fun fight I had with a boxer and then start pointing out the differences between the two arts. I bounced at a bar for a couple of years as a young man and found occasion to get into about one fight a week. I had many more skirmishes over quarters on the pool table that I was able to talk the guys out of fighting mostly but I made friends with many different people. One guy was a boxer and we got into the boxing vs karate discussion over a few beers. 


Well let me just say that we did not convince each other of our view points so it seemed perfectly natural to go bare knuckles in the ally after the bar closed. Keep in mine that this was a neighborhood bar with sleeping people all around us (we did not notice).


I had been wining a bunch of local sport karate tournaments so I was confident that I could hit the boxer at will with my hands (boxers don’t generally throw lunging moves like sport karate does). I led with the back knuckle – counter punch and covered. The boxer rung my clock with a hook! I stepped back and did an even faster back knuckle – counter punch combo to his head again! The boxer rung my clock harder (luckily I had covered my head again).


Well let me tell you – I was used to people stopping after I hit them hard to the head or even getting awarded a point like sport karate! I was stating to get worried that my hands were ineffective to a boxer! I led in again with another lunging back knuckle to the face but this time I faked it and pivoted my hips and threw a beautiful rear kick. The boxer did not know what had hit him as he was picked up and launched 5′ back and landed on his rear!


That was the moment we respected each other. I knew the boxer had significant skills on the inside and the boxer realized that if he could not get pass my kicks – he was going to have some problems. We kept fighting for another 10 minutes, having a blast, feeling each other’s defenses out and then the cops came and broke it up. Apparently the time to fight is not 2AM in a residential area – even if we both agreed to it (ah yes to be so unconcerned with rules at 22).


Boxing is great for inside fighting whereas karate is good close in but great just outside of punching range. Different fighters will favor different distances. Karate hands are really good at bridging the gap with lunging moves but it is not wise to stay inside unless one is following up on an advantage. Boxing hands can fight outside somewhat with the jab but the other strikes are ideal closer such as a tight hook (one that has a lot of power).


Karate kicks can be thrown at the side, head or legs easily but some sports limit the groin as a striking zone. I would ofcourse (I’m a karate instructor) favor karate in a street fight but a good practioner of boxing that understood distance shoud mount a good defense too.


Later when I trained for kick boxing, I learned how to box from a former pro boxer, Johnny Wise. He worked with me and a few other guys to learn some of the finer points of pugilism. I never ended up turning pro, mostly because at the time, the PKA fighters were only getting $1500.00 a fight and dealing with their own injuries… Boxing was the way to go in the eighties if you wanted to be a pro fighter, or at least that was where the money was.


In the 90’s as this video alluded to, MMA started to come into existence by pitting different martial arts against each other. Jiu-Jitsu got respect because of the Gracie’s and MMA started the process of evolving into something better that it is today.


Today I don’t think anyone really cares what is better, karate or boxing as having a mastery of several martial arts are what it takes to be a world class competitor in MMA today. Still it was kind of fun to relate me and my buddies experience while trying to answer that question 30 years ago.


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19 Responses to “Karate vs Boxing? What is Better?”

  1. Neal Martin Says:

    Boxers are a tough breed. So are most karateka. Both arts have their advantages and disadvantages. What matters at the end of he day is the person using them. If you know what you’re doing you can make the techniques work for you. If you don’t know what you’re doing then you are going to get beaten. Whilst I also think it is wise to cross-train, I also believe you can make any fighting art work for you if you’re skilled enough at using it. The it won’t matter what style you’re up against.

    Good post. Enjoyed it.

  2. Markstraining.com Says:

    The tale of you striking with a backfist and then stopping is a major flaw that many karate ka have. Being used to point fighting, they stop right after striking, most of the time leaving themselves wide open. Hopefully Karate ka will learn from this story. Great post.

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Neal, It is good to know other styles and having done that, yes it does not matter so much what style one favors. Good insight!
    Hi Mark, I became a believer in follow through that night. :)

  4. Jade Says:

    Karate of course! Did you see Lyoto Machida killing Rashad Evans on UFC?

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Jade, I did not see the fight as I am too cheap to pay for the PPV events. I found it here: http://www.mma-core.com/videos/_Lyoto_Machida_vs_Rashad_Evans_UFC_98?vid=10005048&tid=100
    Let me just say – WOW, What a fight! Lyota Machida was bridging the gap and exploding on Rashad Evans. It was kind of interesting to see that the UFC had discounted traditional karate kumite to the point that they did not even have a defense for the moves anymore.
    I’ve always thought that karate hands were quicker than boxers and have loved it when fighters pound that point home. :)

  6. Matt Klein Says:

    I have always said there is no style of martial arts that is the best, but there are best martial artists (or boxers). A good kenpo person can beat a poor boxer, and visa versa. The key is the level and intensity of sparring and training each guy does. Boxers and kickboxers are used to heavy contact and can take a hit. Not all karate people train with this kind of contact. A person with heavy experience in boxing, karate, and ground fighting is the most dangerous, like Machida. I train my students in boxing in addition to kenpo and we even combine the two in many or our combinations. A good kicker is dangerous like Machida demonstrated because he could attack from far away, while he also showed awesome power inside.

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Matt, I’ve never worried too much about the contact coming up because of the “kiss contact” we practiced occasionally knocked people out. :)

  8. ben Says:

    boxing is way more powerfull better footwork can take more most karate clubs teach u to dance nowadays

  9. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Ben,

    I’m not much of a fan of karate aerobics… I like boxing a lot as it helped me become a better kick boxer.

    Thanks for your comment.

  10. ceili Says:

    hey im just trying to find out wich is better because i plan on doing one or the other karate sounds good but boxing sounds like more physical practice than training like in karate because when it comes down to it you will be hitting a person and with karate all you do is train and spar but when you spar you have to go easy on your apponent so i dont know email me at dnttalk2muffintrees@gmail.com to help me decide??? thankyou

  11. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Ceili, go with what you like because the fighting style does not matter so much as the fighter.

  12. John Brown Says:

    Hello John. My name is John too. You mentioned in one of your postings.. “Later when I trained for kick boxing, I learned how to box from a former pro boxer, Johnny Wise. He worked with me and a few other guys to learn some of the finer points of pugilism.” What else can you tell me about Johnny Wise? How well did you know him? When he trained you, where did this take place? Thank you.

  13. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi John,

    I wanted to get into kick boxing after I sold my karate school. I do not remember the exact date but it was in 1983 or 1984 I sold the karate school.

    I don’t remember if I met Johnny Wise at the San Diego school as some other guys were getting into kick boxing at the same time or exactly where but Johnny agreed to train me in boxing. For about six months he trained me at the El Cajon American Kenpo Karate school my friend David Hays (he bought the school) owned. The school is not there anymore but it was in the 500 block of El Cajon blvd (two doors down from Dumont’s bar), in El Cajon, CA.

    Johnny was a great trainer from my perspective because he showed up 4 to 5 days a week for 2 hour workouts. He pushed me real hard and made do road work in the mornings if I wanted to train with him (I did the road work). We were just getting to lining up some fights for me and I decided to take another path (I had to make more money for my family and focus on working).

    I did not know him personally other than at the gym but he was very motivating. He had great fight stories and had apparently fought all around the world. I don’t know if he was ever a contender or not but he turned me, a point karate fighter, into a good outside boxing fighter in 6 months.

    He also tried to help some of the San Diego studio guys but he spent most of the effort with me and my buddy Bob in El Cajon.

    How did you know Johnny Wise?

  14. Da Bad Don Says:

    Boxing any day they give much tougher work out and like boxers have died or lost their teeth in one fight boxing wud kill karate with one punch you dont kicks all you need is the elbowz punchz DING DING But karateka is good but ROCKY Made My Boxing career BEST

  15. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Da Bad Don,

    I love boxing workouts as I do kick boxing. Rocky was one of my favorite fight movies.

  16. vivek Says:

    i have done both karate and boxing.i respect both,but by my experience i can say boxer are much tougher.karate is good but there is huge power in a boxer punch and can take over anyone.

  17. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Vivek!

    I think you may be right if you compare a studio karate fighter to a boxer… the training in boxing is intensive. I had to do that for my full contact fighting.

    If your were to compare a kick boxer or mma fighter to a boxer – I think you would find they were both in great shape.

  18. Matt Klein Says:

    I believe Thai kickboxing is one of the best forms of training because it combines the best of both worlds–the powerful punches and combinations of boxing and the elbows, knees, and kicks of the traditional martial arts. Plus the sparring is intense. Combine that with BJJ or wrestling and you have a complete fighter.
    Matt Klein recently posted..The Night I Met Muhammad Ali- Getting What You Want Out of LifeMy Profile

  19. derek Smuddy Says:

    boxing is way better than UFC