How Much Does Height And Reach Matter In Combat Sports?


Regarding qualifying factors for combat sports, height and reach are some of the most important elements to determining natural ability. Most combat sports separate fighters into different classes based on their weight, but their height and reach can vary massively within these categories.

Both height and reach play a significant role in every combat sport. Generally speaking, a taller fighter with a longer reach can strike their opponent more safely, but they are also at risk of being a larger target if their opponent makes it past their range. They must have reliable defensive capabilities to overcome that disadvantage.

Combat sports are incredibly nuanced, and while height and reach are undeniably crucial to the sport, the way in which they affect an individual fighter’s abilities can differ enormously. Continue reading to learn more about how these elements affect every fighter and every match.

Is It Better To Be Taller Or Shorter In A Fight?

One of the most hotly debated topics surrounding combat sports is whether it is more advantageous to be taller or shorter in a fight. The reason it is such a divisive concept is that there is no clear answer to the question. There have been numerous successful fighters on either end of the spectrum across multiple disciplines, making a definite answer nearly impossible.

There are advantages to being tall and being short, and there are disadvantages to both extremes. Review the following pros and cons of height variations to learn more about the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each.

Advantages For Tall Combatants

  • Generally increased range. There are certain exceptions to this rule, which will be discussed later in this article, but in most cases, the taller the fighter, the greater their reach. A fighter with a more extended reach than their opponent can strike without fear of reprisal.
  • Better defensive capabilities in individual sports. Especially in boxing, a taller fighter has the advantage of their opponent needing to punch upwards, which can lessen their effectiveness unless they are familiar with that particular matchup.
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Disadvantages For Tall Combatants

  • A higher center of gravity. In most instances, a taller fighter will be easier to throw off balance and have a more challenging time recovering their stance.
  • Weight class disadvantage. This aspect, in particular, is vital to consider when comparing shorter fighters to taller ones. It is easier to fit into a lower weight class as a smaller fighter, which can allow these combatants an advantage against others in their weight category.

Advantages For Shorter Combatants

  • Being shorter and smaller often provides the benefit of greater agility. A smaller body requires less energy to move around the arena, which can give an advantage in terms of endurance.
  • Close range. Shorter fighters can often beat taller opponents if they can position themselves close against their opponents, nullifying the range advantage. Since shorter fighters tend to have shorter limbs as well, they can execute full-power strikes more efficiently while eliminating their opponent’s range advantage.
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Disadvantages For Shorter Combatants

  • Getting into closer range. As effective as shorter fighters can be when they close the gap, it can be challenging to get past a taller fighter’s range. Most combatants with a range advantage are familiar with using that advantage to wall out their opponent and prevent them from getting close enough to strike.
  • As the match goes on in specific fighting disciplines and the combatants become exhausted, the taller fighter may end up leaning on the shorter fighter and using them to support their weight, alleviating some of their exhaustion and adding to their opponents.

However, it is of the utmost importance to be aware that every one of these advantages and disadvantages can be overcome with technique and practice. Understanding the natural advantages and disadvantages that stem from being tall or short is the first step for combatants to develop their skills to overcome those hurdles. 

What Matters More In A Fight, Height or Weight?

Both height and weight play significant roles when determining an advantage in a fight. Especially in an unregulated fight, the heavier opponent will have an advantage as they have increased muscle mass, allowing them to hit harder and withstand strikes from their opponent more easily.

It is for this reason that combat sports separate fighters based on weight class. Creating different categories for fighters to compete in based on their weight helps to level the playing field. These categories prevent combatants from needing to spar against an opponent that creates an unfair disadvantage.

While height does play an important role, it determines the fighter’s style more than weight does. While taller fighters generally end up being in higher weight classes than shorter fighters because of their increased size, their height does not give them an ensured advantage beyond greater reach. Additionally, shorter fighters often find themselves in advantageous weight matchups because they can put on more muscle mass than taller fighters without being pushed up a weight class.

What Is Cutting Weight?

As mentioned above, weight classes exist to ensure some degree of equality between combatants by ensuring that participants are similar in terms of their overall weight. In professional fighting competitions, fighters agree to show up for the weigh-in at an acceptable range for their competing category. Cutting weight is the practice of rapidly losing weight before their weigh-in to compete at a specific weight class.

Through the process of dehydrating themselves, fighters can lose up to 30lbs over a period of 48 hours. In most professional fights, the combatants are then allowed 24 hours to rehydrate themselves before they compete. This practice often results in fighters weighing themselves in up to two categories lower than they will weigh on the day of the competition itself. 

There are numerous dangers involved with cutting weight for a professional competition, and even more risks with amateur fights because the window to rehydrate before the match starts may be much shorter. Nevertheless, weight cutting is a common practice for most combat sports and is unlikely to change in the coming years.

What Is An Ape Index?

At this point, we have established that one of the few concrete, natural advantages in combat sports is that of greater reach. Having the ability to strike an opponent while staying out of their range is often a significant factor in determining who wins in a fight. While taller fighters generally have greater reach due to their increased stature, it is not always the case. Sometimes, combatants have greater reach than their height would suggest, which led to the creation of the Ape Index.

Ape Index refers to the measure of a fighter’s arm span relative to their height. In most cases, the average arm span of a person is the same as their height. Ape Index is measured by subtracting a person’s height from their arm span, which would result in a neutral ratio for the average person. 

The average boxer has an arm span that is approximately 2.5″ longer than that of a regular individual, which translates to an Ape Index of 2.5″. It is important to note that this difference does not indicate that boxing increases a person’s arm length. However, people with longer arms have that advantage of reach, making them more likely to become boxers than people without that advantage.

Below are some of the height, reach, and corresponding Ape Indices of fifteen boxing champions.

FightersHeightReachApe Index
1) Sony Liston6’1″84″+11.0″
2) Hasim Rahman6’2.5″82″+7.5″
3) James Douglas6’3.5″83″+7.5″
4) Sam Langford5’6.5″74″+7.5″
5) Steve Cunningham6’3″82″+7.0″
6) Lennox Lewis6’5″84″+7.0″
7) Primo Carnera6’6″85″+7.0″
8) Adonis Stevenson5’11”77″+6.0″
9) William Landon Jones5’9″75″+6.0″
10) Larry Holmes6’3″81″+6.0″
11) Paul Williams6’1″79″+6.0″
12) Tommy Burns5’7″73″+6.0″
13) Marvin Hagler5’9″75″+6.0″
14) Charley Burley5’9″75″+6.0″
15) Thomas Hearns6’1″78″+5.0″

While reach does contribute enormously to success in boxing, specifically due to the focus on punches as the primary form of attack, it can benefit fighters in other disciplines as well. MMA is another combat sport with many champions possessing higher than average Ape Indices, as shown below.

FightersHeightReachApe Index
Sergei Pavlovich6’3″84″+9.0″
Jon Jones6’4″84.5″+8.5″
Kevin Lee5’9″77″+8.0″
Uriah Hall6’0″79.5″+7.5″
Francis Ngannou6’4″83″+7.0″
Paul Daley5’9″76″+7.0″
Miguel Torres5’9″76″+7.0″
Georges St-Pierre5’10”76″+6.0″
Dalcha Lungiambula5’10”76″+6.0″
Brock Lesnar6’3″81″+6.0″
Alexander Volkanovski5’6″71.5″+5.5″
Tony Ferguson5’11”76.5″+5.5″
Tyron Woodley5’9″74″+5.0″
Conor McGregor5’9″74″+5.0″

How Do You Fight Someone With A Long Reach?

Boxing, MMA, and other combat sports are filled with examples of shorter fighters with less reach defeating taller or longer reaching opponents. While their individual techniques differ depending on the combatants’ specialties, there are unifying principles that exist across this spectrum.

Fighters who possess longer-ranged punches or kicks also have the advantage that their limbs have a greater torque, resulting in a more powerful strike in most instances. However, this additional force is only generated at the end of the strike, which creates a situation where shorter combatants have a way to take advantage.

Photo Credit: Brucelee.com

A good analogy is that of a baseball bat. In baseball, the batter tries to strike the ball with the end of the bat, as their swing generates the most force at the farthest end. If the batter hits the ball with the end of the bat closer to their hands, there will be significantly less force behind the swing, which results in the ball traveling less distance.

The same concept applies in combat sports. If a taller person with a longer reach connects their strike without reaching their limb’s almost full extension, they cannot generate the maximum amount of force possible. Conversely, shorter opponents with shorter limbs can achieve their maximum extension over a shorter distance, which gives them an enormous advantage if they can close the distance between themselves and their opponent.

In boxing, this concept of fighting in very close quarters is referred to as “in-fighting” or fighting from the inside. The vast majority of shorter boxers fight from the inside to negate the reach of their taller opponents, but they are only able to do so if they have the speed and mobility to get past the taller opponent’s reach.

A famous example of this tactic is Mike Tyson, who was shorter than many of his opponents and had an average Ape Index, meaning that many of his opponents outranged him. Tyson would use deceptive head movements and defensive options to lull his opponent into making an unsafe strike. Then Tyson would slip past his opponent’s reach and hit them with close-range hooks and uppercuts to win many matches. 

Tyson would take this technique one step further by never leaving that close range, especially early in his career. For many smaller fighters, half of the challenge is getting into that close range to be able to strike their opponent, but the other challenge is managing to get back out when their offense has worn out. Tyson would overcome that challenge by never letting down his aggressive approach and preventing his taller opponents from using their range and power over that longer distance.

How To Punch Harder

Having explored many of the advantages that greater range brings to combat sports, many people may assume that longer arms punch harder. This concept is true to a point, but as mentioned above, this is only the case if the punch coming from a long arm can reach close to its full extension and if the fighter with the more extended arm can move their body entirely.

Learning how to punch correctly, whether with long arms or short ones, is the best tactic to deliver a more powerful blow. There are many techniques and practices to understand how to do this properly, but they all revolve around certain basic principles.

Martial artist Bruce Lee described the theory behind his famous one-inch punch as the importance of putting weight behind your strike, and the way to do that is by using your entire body. Moving your whole body one inch will deliver a more powerful strike than moving your arm one foot. The trick to generating power in this way is to move your entire body all at once, even if only over a short distance.

This concept also applies to the importance of fighters using their legs to create additional force behind their punches. The leg muscles are some of the strongest ones in the entire body, and using them to generate extra power behind punches is necessary to deliver powerful strikes. 

Lastly, it is vital to understand the importance of using range effectively. The most potent punches are not delivered at the arm’s maximum extension but instead just before that point. This distance generates the full amount of force before it dissipates when the arm reaches the end of its extension. 

Conclusion

Height and reach are undeniably important elements of combat sports. In particular, while reach confers an advantage to the fighter with longer limbs, it is not an insurmountable obstacle, and proper training and education can overcome that hurdle. The history of combat sports is filled with examples of fighters on every part of the spectrum excelling at these disciplines. While natural advantages play their role in individual fighters’ careers, the training and practice that those combatants underwent were more critical than their innate capabilities.

Jeff J.

Jeff J is a retired Gunnery Sgt. with the United States Marine Corps and a former Federal Police officer. He was involved with extensive training with weapons systems, and hand to hand combat, mentored and trained hundreds of Marines in high-level fitness programs.

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