1:51 PM EST on December 27, 2022
It only takes one punch to change your whole perspective on things. One punch can bring you to the instant realization that what you had thought to be true was in fact untrue. What you thought was easy was actually hard; what you thought was enlightenment was just a waiting room in a very long tunnel. It can instill the virtue of humility in a much faster and more profound way than any course of study ever could. As humility is the gateway to wisdom, a punch can open wisdom’s door.
There are really only two kinds of punches: regular, and bad. This is from the perspective of the person being punched. There’s no way to know anything about a punch except to be hit by it. The puncher is the chemist refining the drug, but the punchee is the one shooting it into his veins. The knowledge lies on the receiving end. You can tell a man who beats you up things that he could never know about himself. A small consolation, but something.
Regular punches come from a regular person hitting you regularly. These punches fall within the normal realm of boxing experience. They fall within the bell curve, not on the long tail. They feel like things that you have felt before. Which is not to say they feel good, or they feel like nothing—they feel like being punched in the fucking face. They may be light, medium or hard; they may slide off easily, or give you a momentary rattle, or make your head ring like when you walked into the top steel bar of the jungle gym in second grade. What makes them regular is not that they are something to be welcomed or shrugged off, but that you experience them as a human being, punching you with a fist that is inside a glove. This of course can be a jarring experience. But on the bright side, it could be much worse.
Bad punches do not feel like a man hitting you with a fist. Bad punches feel like a machine, perhaps a malicious robot, hitting you with a 2x4, the end of which has been covered with a small boxing glove as some sort of awful joke. Other times they feel like being hit with a boxing glove that has been filled with concrete and allowed to harden. Other times they feel like being hit with a cannonball that someone has carefully painted the image of a boxing glove on, like the WW2 fighter pilots who painted angry teeth on the front of their P-40 Warhawks. A bad punch seems unreal. As soon as it touches you, you instantly understand that you cannot allow another one to touch you again. While regular punches can be blocked, bad punches travel right through the hand you are blocking with and deliver a shockwave that resonates deep in your chest, making you fear your heart might just stop from surprise. Like people instinctively raising their hands to protect themselves from being shot, it quickly becomes clear that you might as well not bother. The only thing to do is to not be there when it arrives. Bad punches turn what is supposed to be a back-and-forth contest into a desperate scramble for survival, the difference between a sparring match and a person fleeing a baseball bat attack. More fundamentally, they make you ask yourself how much you want to be doing this at all.
The ability to throw these otherworldly type blows is dependent purely on the person, not on the technique. Regular people throw regular punches. These regular punches can certainly be improved; they can get faster, and harder, and more precise, and then they will be fast, hard, precise regular punches. Bad punches are a gift from god. Or maybe from the devil. The expression in boxing is that someone has “heavy hands,” an expression whose descriptive accuracy cannot be improved upon. Some of us punch with hands, and some punch with bricks. But everyone is expected to fight each other like it’s fair. It’s not fair.
Boxing’s appeal lies in its simplicity. Two hands, and no kicking. With two hands, it is only possible to throw a few different kinds of punches. The closer you look, though, the more fractal each of these kinds of punches gets, branching out into entire kingdoms. A book, an interminable book, could be written about the jab. To jab, get in a boxing stance, with one foot back, and shoot your lead hand directly off the shoulder and into the mouth of the person standing across from you. That is a fair enough description of a jab.
To round out the description, though, you would have to explain that you can also bend at the waist and slide your front foot forward and stab your jab into that person’s bellybutton, your head descending to a level that in theory is just below the height of the counterpunch that will be coming back. Or you can start with your lead hand low, by the waist, and fire an up jab that does not come straight forward at chest level but instead is flicked upward with your shoulder muscle like you were cracking a whip backhand, rising directly through the middle of your opponent’s raised guard and smacking him on the chin, which is also called a shotgun jab, because of its similarity to being blasted in the face with a wounding but not lethal dose of buckshot. Or you can start with a jab to the body and bring it straight up to the head, or start with a jab to the head and immediately collapse down as if sitting on a rock and sink the jab to the body. Or you can double jab, which is a tap-tap rapid-fire jab to the face, which, if you want, can be a soft lead jab designed just to move your opponent’s guard followed by a harder second jab; or, when he expects the double jab, you can triple the jab instead, drawing his hands tighter around his face with each tap until all his defense is in the middle and none on the sides, so you can bring the hook. Or you can just keep up a steady, poky jab that is not even designed to hit a guy so much as to keep him busy doing something besides hitting you. Or the feint to the body followed by a sharp jab to the head, or vice versa, or you can jab, then feint the right hand, then jab again. Or the hook off the jab, which is another full chapter in itself.
Hard jabs involve stepping in, just a tad, just enough to create the momentum of your body going forward, which makes the jab carry the weight of all of you and not just the little bit of flicking action that you can generate with your shoulder. That almost imperceptible forward movement in the hands of a master can endow a little jab with the power to stagger men and break noses. A hard jab is dispiriting, because you know that the jab is the weakest punch of all. If you put your hand up to catch a jab and the jab carries your hand back so that you hit yourself in the face, you are in for a bad day. If getting hit with the jab causes your head to snap back, your near term future can feel very dark. There are only worse things to come.
The jab is called “one,” as in “give him the one-two.” The two is the straight right hand (or left hand, for southpaws) that comes immediately behind the jab. The straight right is sometimes called the cross, but I prefer straight right, because the straighter it is, the better. When the average person wants to throw a very powerful punch they typically throw a wild hook, because this is the thing that naturally feels hardest to us, the wild haymaker that you will see in any bar fight or first day of sparring. This is one of many cases in which your natural instinct is the opposite of what you should actually do, in boxing.
Ideally your hardest punch should be short. It should travel in a straight enough line that you could shoot it down a pipe in front of you without touching the sides. Your jab hand comes off your front shoulder, and your straight right comes from your back shoulder, so it goes farther and carries more power and also takes more time to get there and therefore is more challenging to land. Its power begins in your back foot, which rotates and pushes off the floor, which rotates your hip, which rotates your shoulder. The arm is just the delivery mechanism. You can do a million curls and get huge arm muscles and you will punch slowly and weakly. You will be beat up by a smaller, skinnier person who is able to turn their hips. Punching power begins in the center of the earth, which you push away from. It comes from torque, which comes from rotation. Take your right finger and touch your right hip bone, the pointy part of it in the front. The rotation of this point 90 degrees forward is what gives your right-handed power punch its power. Imagine an iron rod running from this point up to your right shoulder. These points are connected. They turn together, propelled by the back foot. When both the hip and shoulder have rotated so that your chest is facing your opponent, you let your fist go in a straight line. This is a properly executed power punch. This is the one that knocks someone out. Any punch thrown without this rotation is just a glorified jab. There is nothing morally wrong with it, but it is nothing to brag about.
The one-two exists because it is difficult to stand in front of someone who is looking right at you, who is a decent boxer, and hit that person with a straight right hand, blammo. It is too easy to see coming, and it comes from too far away. It is too unlikely, too abrupt. It is like trying to fuck without foreplay. The jab is the kiss that precedes the fuck. The jab is fast, and easy to land, and you can pop it into someone’s face, temporarily blinding them, and as soon as you pull it away, they find that the right hand has arrived. One two. Bang bang. A good one-two that lands sounds like BAPBAP, with almost no pause between the two. Men have made millions of dollars and risen to fame and glory by perfecting these two movements alone. Both punches can come perfectly straight, down the middle, and land on the chin, or only the jab can be straight, drawing the opponent’s hands together, and then the right hand can be looped just enough that it comes around the outside of the opponent’s left hand, cracking him on the temple.
It is a very basic motion that with many years of practice can become lethal. Perfecting it is easier said than done. Everything in boxing is easier said than done. There is nothing more worthless than a long discussion of what someone would do if they were in a boxing ring. The combined total value of everything you will read here is less than the value of a single black eye.
After the one-two comes the three. The three is the left hook. It is a pleasing testament to the fluidity of human anatomy to find that each individual punch in the one two three flows naturally into the next. You shoot your left jab; as you pull it back to your chin, you rotate your shoulders and fire the straight right; and then, as you pull that back to the other side of your chin, the shoulders turn again, back the other way, and you crook your arm and pull your elbow parallel to the ground and sweep the left hook straight through. Each punch puts you in position for the next. All you have to do is throw it. Unlike the jab and the right, the left hook comes from the side. Some people throw their hooks short and tight, which captures the power of the body best and carries it in the punch, but other people, with longer arms, can throw hooks that loop out to the side far enough that they reach outside their opponent’s peripheral vision, meaning that if you are not paying very close attention the punch may arrive on the side of your head without you seeing it coming. This is the reason why the proper boxing stance includes your back power hand carried flush against your jaw, always, unless you are punching with it. You keep it there so that if the left hook arrives unannounced, it hits your glove instead of your jaw. The moment that your right hand strays from your jaw, whether from laziness or just the urge to freelance, your jaw becomes a very attractive target. When learning to box, it is useful to imagine sticking that glove to a piece of velcro on your jaw and carrying it there wherever you go. Your feet will move, and your body will move, and your head will move, but one thing that will remain the same throughout all of those movements is your right hand, which is held right up by your jaw, so help you god. If you look closely you will see many boxers, when they finish punching, bring their hands back and tap their gloves against their face, a physical cue that verifies for you that, yes, your protection is in place. Proper hand placement should be taught by a coach; if not, it will be taught by getting punched in the jaw. You will learn it or stop boxing.
If you hold your left tightly by your jaw on one side, and your right hand tightly by your jaw on the other side, and you pull your elbows together so that they are almost touching, and squeeze your forearms in front of you, you are in a defensive shell that will catch most punches. In theory a fighter can just shell up like this and be safe, a turtle whose head and legs are all pulled in. This would not make for a thrilling fight. The best demonstration of boxing’s inherent balance is the fact that in order to punch, you must, by definition, open yourself up to be punched. You cannot hit someone while also keeping your hand against your face. This keeps things interesting. No matter how defensively skilled a fighter may be, every time he throws a punch it is absolutely certain that there will be a moment when his arm is extended away from his body, and the parts of his body and head that are usually protected by that arm are at least briefly unprotected. Every punch can be counterpunched. A successful counterpunch, however, must be delivered so that it arrives at its target between the time the opponent starts his punch and the time he brings his hand back into position after the punch. We are talking about a fraction of a second.
This is why boxers are obsessed with timing, a quality that is distinct from speed or quickness or agility. Timing is the ability to see a punch coming and, before it hits you, to throw your own punch through the opening that has been created, the wormhole in the spacetime of someone’s defense. The whole concept sounds impractical, considering how fast these things are happening, but it is helped along by the fact that certain punches are intrinsically matched to certain counterpunches, like proteins sliding into their own special cell receptors. A jab, for example, can be countered with a right hand thrown over the arriving jab. This is the single most straightforward counterpunch. It is a wonderful one, because the right hand is always harder than the jab, so that someone who may have just been probing you gently receives back a shattering and demoralizing blow. That will teach them.
The straight right, if you can slip it, can be countered with the left hook to the jaw that has been vacated by the punch in question. Or the left hook to the body, dug under the unprotected ribs. Every hook can be countered by a straight punch, which should arrive faster than a curved punch if thrown at the same time. Any punch that causes someone to lean forward can be countered with an uppercut; as soon as you see someone’s chin leave the line of their center of gravity, which is halfway between their feet, and creep forward over the front foot, it is time to start looking for a chance to throw the uppercut. It is nearly impossible to land unless someone is pushing their chin forward, in which case it can land with ruinous effect. The uppercut is the natural equalizer against a fighter who wants to come forward and apply pressure. But it is tricky, and if you throw one and miss, your hand will fly upwards, leaving your arm extended vertically, and you can be countered in turn by a vicious left hook, or really by anything else. Most body punches leave your head open to be hit; most punches to the head leave your body open to be hit. The harder you punch, the greater your risk of being out of position when you miss, and the harder the counterpunch you can eat in return. People spend decades acquiring the speed and timing and muscle memory and expertise to minimize their chances of being hit in a boxing ring, but there is no way to eliminate that risk. Getting it to zero would require not punching, which guarantees that you will lose a fight. In the physical universe, time slows as your velocity approaches the speed of light; in the boxing universe, risk to yourself increases with your own aggression. Both laws keep their respective universes in harmony.
Getting punched hurts. But pain in boxing comes in a variety of flavors, a palette appreciated by perverse connoisseurs. The only punches that really “hurt” in the traditional conception of pain—the kind of sharp, sudden, stabbing pain you feel when you stub your toe or slice your finger open chopping vegetables—are punches to the gut. Body shots. Body shots body shots body shots. Without freakishly long arms it is impossible to cover your entire body and head in a defensive position, so there is always a certain tradeoff between guarding your face and guarding the area from your waist to your neck, and most people tend to err in favor of covering their face, which is where your eyes are, which see the punches, which are scary. This is a long way of saying that you will often be hit in the body, because that is what’s open to be hit. Boxers do all of those situps and ab exercises not to look good or out of a wellness philosophy centered on the importance of a “strong core” but instead to build a literal layer of armor in their midsection to withstand punches. Your abs are a Kevlar vest for your internal organs. If you are in shape and haven’t skimped on your workouts, you will find that you can let most body punches bounce off your stomach, no problem. You don’t even feel it, at the moment. After you finish up and take a shower and go home and lay down on the couch you will find that you feel like you have a stomachache. Sometimes you can’t figure out why.
However. There are certain spots on your body that, if hit just right, will send an immediate electric shock through your stomach and liver and spleen and kidneys and cause your entire being to seize up as if your nervous system just detected that it had ingested poison. These are the bad ones. The difference between a bad body shot and one that bounces off harmlessly is just an inch of distance. You may absorb the first 99 punches to the belly in a perfectly carefree manner and then, with the hundredth one, which happens to land on that little, invisible pressure point, collapse in a heap and pray for death. The reaction to a bad body shot is indistinguishable from someone being shot with a pistol, and, for a brief time at least, the two experiences are equally incapacitating. Being knocked down by a body shot is not so much a sign of a broken will as it is an uncontrollable physical response.
Even very determined fighters who stay on their feet after one of these punches undergo an instant transformation from athlete to broken old man: a grimace, a half-hunch over, a hopeless shuffling step away from the source of the pain. No matter where your hands were before you took that body shot, after you take it, your hands will fall down to protect your body. There is not a single worse experience that you can imagine in that moment than taking another punch in the same place that the last punch landed. Boxers hurt to the body will drop their hands and leave their face exposed and then be knocked out with a punch to the face and ultimately go home happy, because at least they didn’t take another punch to the body. This is not unreasonable. Before judging someone for succumbing to a single well-placed underhook to the stomach it is useful to imagine the feeling of having very bad food poisoning—and, while you are feeling that feeling, having to participate in a fistfight. I suppose someone in this world may be able to drink a gallon of curdled milk and then run a marathon, but it should not be the baseline expectation.
Punches to the head are different. “Painful” is not quite the right word for them. A flat punch to the front of the face is jarring; shocking; somewhere on a sliding scale that runs from enraging or terrifying, depending on your personality. A really hard punch to the head makes your head ring, which is not a fanciful expression but a literal one. “Ding!” it says inside your skull. Just as you could feel your shin break from a baseball bat to the leg, so too can you feel your brain breaking, just a little. Hard head shots stun you, even if you feel that you are still processing things as usual. Your brain scatters, then takes a few moments to pull itself together again. In those moments, you may get hit and stunned again, and again, and that is how singular bad events build into an entire temple of doom.
Apart from the violent dissolution of your functional mind, punches to the head are bothersome more than devastating. A punch to the nose will make your eyes water; a punch to the mouth will split your lip, leaving you dripping blood in a most theatrical way, though with little pain; a hook that sneaks around and lands directly on your ear hole will force an explosion of air into your eardrum, leaving you deaf for a week or two, or for life if it’s not your lucky day. Even a soft punch to the thin-skinned area right under your eye will raise a welt and give you a telltale black eye and cause you to say “you should see the other guy!” with a forced smile for days to come. Scratches and cuts, black eyes and busted lips, flat noses and brows thick with scar tissue—the most visible signs of fighting are the least bad. If they were all that you had to worry about, boxing would be much more popular as a pastime.
Punch someone who has never boxed before dead in the face and they will experience a shot of adrenaline that will activate both their fight and their flight reflex, paralyzing them for a moment and then sending them into a wavelike series of paroxysms of intense anger and dread, pooling together into confusion. Punch someone who has boxed for years dead in the face and, unless the punch actually hurts them, it will just slide off. Like walking through a raindrop. There is something to be said for becoming inured to extreme situations. Much of boxing comes down to purging yourself of the natural panic reaction that nature has instilled in us all. When you spar with new guys, you know that the first solid shot to the face will fill them with all of those overwhelming emotions and that they will start swinging like they are in a bar fight, and this will tire them out in about a minute. Then you can do whatever you want. This is just one of the many normal human reflexes that will get you hurt if deployed in a boxing ring. You naturally want to pull your head back from a punch. This will get your jaw broken. Instead, you need to duck under the punch, like a surfer dipping under a roiling wave. You naturally want to move away from the source of a beating. This will just keep you forever on the end of an advancing attacker’s punches. Instead, you need to move counterintuitively forward into the violence, where you can smother the punches that need space to pick up their power. You naturally want to grimace in pain when pain strikes you. A boxer learns, from experience, to carry a poker face no matter what—not because he has stopped feeling the pain, but because he has come to understand that there is no sympathy to be found where he is. No outward expression of suffering will gain you any benefit. No one will come to save you. One imagines that an astronaut cut loose on a spacewalk, drifting irretrievably into the void, will eventually stop screaming for the same reason.
Every fighter is at all times under assault by two forces, one visible and one invisible. The visible one is the person across the ring, trying to beat you to death with fists. The other, equally ferocious opponent is fatigue. Everyone watching a fight from outside pays attention only to the fighters, but the fighters themselves must always pay attention to the specter of fatigue, stalking them from behind. If you allow fatigue to catch you, it will kill you just as certainly as your opponent will. To become tired first in a fight is to lose. Experienced boxers are masters at managing energy. They grab moments of rest for individual body parts. A boxer may take a step back and drop his front hand, just to rest his shoulder muscle for a few seconds. He may start showily bouncing on his toes as a distraction from the fact that he is letting his arms rest. A good defensive shell can be deployed while you lay back on the ropes and take punches on your forearms as you catch your breath. As fighters grow more refined, all extraneous motion is purged, leaving master boxers with no movement that does not serve a purpose. Twitchy, aggressive fighters wear down fast. Calmness is everything. Even if you are getting beaten to death, you may as well be calm about it. That way you can think. Getting all excited will just invite your doom in more quickly. The classic aspects of boxing training—the running, the jumping rope, the endless rounds on the heavy bag—are all just to get you in shape to do the rounds without collapsing. They don’t actually make you a good boxer. That’s a whole other set of training. Boxers must sweat and grind and torture themselves just to be able to beat the fatigue. Beating the other fighter is an entirely separate matter. Yet you can’t ignore either one. The visible and the invisible dangers are equally fatal.
“Toughness” is a concept that is often held up to explain fighters, but it does not capture the deal that is really being struck. The popular conception of toughness is some intrinsic quality that people possess that allows them to wade through fire that is too hot for most, a sort of metaphysical callus that protects its owner from the world. That is a myth. People who do things that are very hard, like fistfighting at its most extreme, are not separated from everyone else by a quality; instead, they are separated by a decision.. The decision they have made is to not care about the consequences of what they are doing to themselves. This is the price of entry to being a real fighter. Of course it requires hard work and persistence and struggle and the willingness to walk through an absurd amount of pain, but none of that can proceed until the primary decision to disregard death, disfigurement, and dementia has been made. There is no guarantee that all of these things will come a fighter’s way, but it is probable enough that worrying about them, like a normal human, is an insurmountable obstacle. You can’t give too much of a fuck in boxing. The person who gives less of a fuck about life will always go harder, and the person who gives more of a fuck will lose. This is why most professional boxers had hard lives before they ever started boxing. If you have anything nice to look forward to, it is hard to get excited about fighting for a living.
I have always thought of boxing as a ladder stretching from the ground all the way into the clouds. You begin on the bottom rung. Through pain, and pain, and study, and study, you ascend. Years go by. You can look down and feel superior to those beneath you, until you look up and see that the ladder continues rising far, far above you. Farther than you will ever climb. There is no absolute judgment of anything in boxing; there is only what you can do with the one person standing in front of you that day. There will always be a million more behind that. The reward for progress in boxing is just a scarier monster to play with.
Punches are the only absolute. Punches mark your time. Punches tell your story. Punches are your teacher, and punches are how you teach. The boxers, all of us, got together and punched each other as long as we could, then spent the rest of our time trying to remember what it was like. Add up all the punches we took and subtract all the punches we gave, and you end up back where you started. Wiped clean. All the memories are knocked out of us. We’re ready to be reborn.