If you frequent many online martial arts forums, then you will be familiar with the “Orthodox vs. Southpaw” discussion. It usually begins with someone who is relatively new to the martial arts, or someone who has a boxing background. The question can vary, a bit, but it always has the same general theme–trying to figure out what the benefits are to fighting out of a Southpaw stance as a right-handed fighter, either by switching stances or by using it as your standard fighting stance. This type of question really applies more to combat sports than self defense, but it can have an effect on both.
As all martial artists and fighters should know, power and mobility both come from your stance. Based on the stance you are in, you can generate power in certain ways, and move in certain ways, which affects the types of techniques you can use, and how you use them. This is why a cross is more powerful than a jab, for example, or why it is easier to defend a takedown with shiko-dachi (sumo stance) than from neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot stance). With this in mind, there are a few schools of thought on fighting stances.
The first school of thought is based on having the most powerful punch possible. This is done by utilizing a stance that places your dominant hand to the rear, which allows you to power the punches thrown with that hand by pushing with the rear leg, and giving the punches enough space to build up speed and momentum. This is where the “Orthodox” stance comes from, and it can be seen in everything from sport karate, to Western boxing, to European martial arts (although they tend to step forward as they strike, much like Dan Henderson does in the animated GIF, above). For most fighters, this is a very natural stance, and when the goal is to knock out the opponent, it makes sense that you would want to hit them as hard as you can. Whether you are fighting in a competition, or defending yourself, the faster you can end the fight, the better.
The second school of thought is based on having a fast and versatile lead hand. This is done by placing the dominant hand to the front, where its superior dexterity and speed can be utilized for jabs, parries, and traps. Since the jab is arguably the most important strike in boxing, and lands the most often, this approach can be very valuable in combat sports. The fact that it allows you to more easily parry and trap your opponent’s attacks also has a lot of benefit for both sport fighting and self defense. Additionally, it helps improve the power of your non-dominant hand by placing it to the rear, so that you can put more leg strength and body weight into it. When used in conjunction with a parrying or pulling lead hand, the non-dominant hand can land a fairly significant blow. This school of thought is far less common than Power-Ryu, but styles which are heavily reliant on hand speed and trapping–such as Wing Chun–often utilize it.
The third school of thought is that you should be able to switch stances in order to employ a wider variety of strategies, depending on what your opponent is doing. This school subscribes to the idea that there are situations in which you want to hit as hard as possible, and situations where you want to have a fast, versatile lead hand, and you will not always be able to dictate which situation you will find yourself in. With that in mind, it is important to be able to switch stances–not just statically, from your base fighting stance, but also dynamically, in the midst of combinations. This school of thought is followed by a wide array of traditional martial arts styles, either as a method of balancing the development of the body, or as a method of developing a well-rounded skill-set.
In addition to affecting your offense, your stance also impacts your movement and your defense. Due to this widespread influence, your opponent’s stance is also important. We can look at this in the form of “open” and “closed” stance relationships. An “open” stance relationship is one where the fighters are mirrored, so that one is in an Orthodox stance, and the other is in a Southpaw stance. A “closed” stance relationship is one where the fighters have the same stance, whether that be Orthodox vs. Orthodox, or Southpaw vs. Southpaw. Most striking combinations and footwork are based on having two Orthodox fighters in a “closed” stance relationship, but if you change the stances or schools of thought, you can expand on the combinations and footwork that are possible. For example, it is easier to slip to the outside of an opponent’s jab if you are in an “open” stance relationship, which sets you up for different strikes than if you slipped to the outside of an opponent’s jab from a “closed” stance relationship.” Similarly, there are targets available from “open” stance relationships that are not as easily reached from “closed” stance relationships, and vice versa. This is important to keep in mind, because it will dictate how you approach fights with people using different stances and schools of thought.
Stances in Self Defense
From a self defense perspective, fighting stances are somewhat less important, because if you have the time to take up a proper fighting stance, you are probably not defending yourself, but rather engaging in mutual combat. That said, there are situations in which you may find yourself and your attacker in fighting stances, either in the midst of an altercation, or in the lead-up to an attack. For example, as a situation escalates, you may take up a “fence” type of posture, as seen in Geoff Thompson Sensei’s video, above, or your opponent may push you, which would put them in a stance in order to deliver the push, and would put you in a stance to regain your balance. In these situations, it is important to be able to identify the stance relationship you have been put in, and be able to use that to your advantage. This is where the “Variety-Ryu” school of thought really shines, because you will not always get to choose the stances you end up in when it comes to fighting, but it is even less likely in self defense.
In the end, your fighting stance will be the one that is most comfortable for your personal approach to fighting, and that approach will be developed over time. There is no need to keep yourself locked into one stance or school of thought, and as your personal art evolves, you may change your fighting methods. This article merely provides some basic information that you can use to inform your training. It is up to you to experiment and personalize your art.