The backfist, and by that I mean the direct backfist, not the spinning one, often gets a bad rap. Many view it as a technique that is useful for TKD practitioners to get a quick point in tournaments, but one that has little value otherwise. Boxers and kickboxers are particularly skeptical of its effectiveness because there is little point in throwing a backfist with gloved hands when you could throw a jab instead.
However, it may surprise some readers that the backfist, once called “the chopper,” was a common technique in western pugilism for a few hundred years. By pugilism, I’m referring specifically to bare knuckle boxing rather than the modern gloved boxing that took over at the end of the 19th century.
Daniel Mendoza, active primarily in the late 18th century, has long been associated with the chopper. As a smallish man in a dangerous sport with no weight classes, Mendoza relied on quickness, a deft defense, and fast, multiple strikes rather than size and power. His manual, The Art of Boxing (1789), does cover the chopper, but copies are rare and the pages found online contain only a reference rather than the actual instruction.
An anonymous boxing manual from 1825 by “The Celebrated Pugilist” does contain a discussion of the advantages of the chopper and goes on to describe the blow as Mendoza’s favorite:
A Back-handed Blow or Chopper,
with the large knuckles of the right hand and a straight arm, is very effectual, as these blows, upwards or downwards, cut, and it is better to hit with them than the middle knuckles of the fingers, which are apt to be much injured. This blow was Mendoza’s favourite, and the power of striking it with dexterity often enables you to return with the same hand with which you parried the hit of your adversary. Thus, if you are struck at either side of the face, you may successfully raise up your elbow, catch the blow upon it, quickly bring round your arms, and give the chop. When the elbow is pointed a little upwards, it is the most favourable time for striking the chopper; because, by affording your arm a swing round, it gives a greater impulse to the blow.The chopper may be happily used in giving the return; and should a pugilist engage with a person ignorant of the science, it will certainly prove successful.
A round blow is easily perceived on its approach, and of course readily stopped. It is not a strong or quick way of fighting, and only resorted to by indifferent boxers; but the chopper is a blow out of the common line of boxing, and is found most effectual. For this purpose, the arm is to be drawn back immediately after giving this blow, so as to recover your guard. It generally cuts where it falls, and if hit but moderately hard on the bridge of the nose, or between the brows, produces disagreeable sensations, and causes the eyes to water, so as to prevent your adversary from seeing how to guard against two or three succeeding blows. If struck with force on the bridge of the nose, it splits it in two parts, from the top to the bottom; if on either of the eyes, it causes a temporary blindness, and if on both, it disables the person who receives it from continuing the fight.
The rear elbow stop from which a backfist can be thrown:
Not all pugilism authorities were fond of the chopper. Lord Headley (R. G. Allanson-Winn), author of Boxing (1897), observed the transition from bare knuckles to gloves and not surprisingly found the chopper useless following the changeover. What was somewhat surprising was that Lord Headley thought it a weak blow even for bare knucklers:
A chopping hit from the elbow was made use of by some old timers, and though such a hit was capable of splitting a man’s nose, it was a poor hit and never could do much real damage, and in the present day it would be quite useless even for disfiguring purposes on account of the gloves.
I see the merit in both sides of the debate. It is a weak blow, in the sense that a knockout will not be scored from chopping the opponent. On the other hand, a strike breaking and splitting the nose or cutting the eyebrows or striking the eyes would be useful in an all-day bare knuckle match or a modern street encounter. A nice shot to the nose can be both disorienting and disheartening, resulting in the recipient watching through watery eyes as the claret flows down his chest. As the celebrated pugilist states, it also arrives in an unexpected manner because the line it takes is not “normal” in boxing.
A faithful reproduction of the chopper description from the Celebrated Pugilist’s Art and Practice of Boxing is depicted in the second sequence on this page: http://ahfaa.org/technique.htm [Update- Uh oh, looks like the American Heritage Fighting Arts Association may have went the way of the dodo. However, Pete Kautz was the man behind it and it looks like his overall site is still up.]
While that sequence does correspond with the image above of the rear elbow stop, it is not my preferred way of using the chopper. I prefer an elbow stop with my lead arm, rather than rear, because throwing a backfist from the rear hand is awkward for me and I often find myself out of range when doing so. From the front, however, it works well and I throw it like Terry Brown teaches on p. 197 of his excellent treatise English Martial Arts.
Basically, when you are at distance in a left lead and a right from your opponent comes in, you raise your left arm, blocking the strike with the elbow as below:
This does NOT have to be a complicated move. From my regular boxing guard, I keep my hands in place and simply rotate my left elbow up into a position as if I were throwing a left hook to the head. The elbow works as a great stop because it has a solid structure behind it, lining up with the shoulder. If you are stopping a bare hand right, the consequences of your opponent hitting the point of your elbow should be easy to imagine.
So, after you raise your elbow and stop the blow, you keep your elbow in place and swing your forearm around and strike the face of your adversary with a backfist.
Another variation can be used when the action is a little closer. A common defense against a right hook is a left elbow cover wherein you raise your left arm and cover the left side of your head by reaching back and placing your hand on the back of your head. The motion is similar to throwing an elbow directly upwards from a guard.
Here’s a pic I found on the interwebs something like what I’m talking about, although it’s not the tightest cover in the world: http://www.lockflow.com/images/article_images/5381.JPG
From that position, the backfist goes directly out and strikes the opponent in the face.
I was recently shown another method of using the chopper, and it was in a “modern” boxing match. My brethren on the MMA.tv History Forum recently discussed the Pancho Villa vs. Jimmy Wilde fight (1923). You can see the clip here. The first inkling of a backfist comes at about :53, but then at 4:18, Pancho Villa misses with a huge backfist. Throughout the fight, it looks like Villa throws a left hook at a little distance, then follows up with a backfist from the same hand. He may have also been throwing a left jab/left backfist combo at times, but the grainy, jerky film footage makes it difficult to tell. It doesn’t appear to have been too successful, and it’s not the reason he won the fight, but it does show another application of the chopper: a backfist off a missed hook. That makes perfect sense to me, as it is launched from almost the same position as an elbow stop with the lead arm as described above.