How Punching Has Changed in the Sport of Boxing

Picture two pugilists stripped to the waist and standing in a makeshift ring formed by crowding spectators who have arrived to enjoy a little entertainment. The punchers “toe the scratch” and commence throwing hands.

Now, I want you to conjure up the image of the hands being thrown.

If you’re like most people, you’re envisioning semi-straightened arms held out in an extended guard, as well as sweeping and clubbing blows. That’s the common narrative, but it’s not necessarily accurate.

To see why, let’s take a trip into the world of behavioral economics, talk a little road biking, play some football and ponder an observation made by a skydiving pioneer, all before bringing it back to the titled topic.


In 1975 economist Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business published an intriguing article in the Journal of Political Economy. The title of the piece was “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation.”Peltzman asserted that advances in safety were not resulting in lowered deaths-per-mile stats or decreased injury rates. In other words, people were dying at similar rates despite the new-fangled gear.

He noted that widely touted safety improvements from Detroit were not precipitating safer outcomes when crashes occurred, and he blamed this on a change in the behavior of drivers. Specifically, he wrote, when drivers know they have a safer vehicle, they make riskier decisions because they assume that better engineering will save the day in the event of a close call or a collision.

This behavior is known as “risk compensation” or, to some, as the Peltzman Effect.

To be clear, cars were becoming safer, and they still are. However, drivers were not behaving better. In many instances, they were behaving worse, and that negated the engineering advances to some degree. The average human being behind the wheel reasoned thusly: “Oh, this is a safer car. I can drive it a bit more recklessly than that old clunker.” That faulty logic no doubt set off cascades of poor decisions.

Sports psychologists have noted the effects of risk compensation across the board. Bike helmets do indeed protect the noggins of riders, but there’s little decrease in the severity of injuries incurred because riders ramp up their performance to match the new margin of safety. In other words, they attempt things they might not have tried if improved helmets were not in play.

The increasing incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football has been linked by many to better helmets and neck-stabilization products. This has led to “gamifying the gear” and the use of altered tactics that ultimately increase the incidence of CTE, the very same malady the gear sought to defeat.(It is because of their knowledge of risk compensation that some forward-thinking football coaches advocate devoting days to helmetless play or old-school leather-helmet usage in an effort to adjust the behavior of the players for their own good.)In the skydiving world, pioneer Bill Booth has his own explanation for this trend toward reckless behavior, and it’s now enshrined as Booth’s Rule No. 2: “The safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take in order to keep the fatality rate constant.”

Let’s bring it back to the scenario with which we opened: our pugilists toeing the scratch. Contemporary accounts of the early days of the sport and more recent deep dives by historians like Elliott Gorn note that the transition from bare-knuckle boxing to gloved boxing brought an obvious change. “Gloves protected fighters’ hands more than their heads, added weight to each punch and allowed men to throw innumerable blows to such hard-but-vulnerable spots as the temples and jaws,” Gorn observed.

In the bare-fist era, boxing matches were not the unschooled, hard-swinging melees that many of us assume. Precision straight punches held sway more often than not, and a staggering array of cutting punches saw usage. These blows were designed to “give the claret,” or initiate bloodletting, while saving the hands of the puncher.

After the adoption of gloves, spectators began witnessing techniques that in the past were deemed too likely to lead to a hand injury — roundhouse punches, hooks and lateral attacks to the elbow-protected ribs.

The addition of gear was not the only change that affected boxing. Temporal adjustments also followed the Peltzman Effect. In competition, the adoption of a 10-count to determine a knockout — as opposed to the previous “30 seconds of recovery time” after a knockdown — altered tactics in another direction: Fighters realized it was far easier to drop an opponent for 10 seconds than for an entire half minute.

To drop a skilled opponent for half a minute, one had to be prepared to engage in a marathon bout (a common occurrence) while looking for fist-saving ways to punish the body, precision ways to render the eyes unable to open and efficient ways to flag the spirit by breaking the skin. In contrast, winning by way of the 10-count could be accomplished via wilder and stronger clubbing attacks.

We martial artists can learn a lot from boxing. In this case, we can learn what not to do. Yes, we should take full advantage of safety equipment, but we must not adjust our techniques to exploit the limitations of said equipment. On the street, the ability to game the gear will not come to our aid. Thus, studying boxing “as it was” is beneficial, and assuming that all aspects of the modern sport transfer to self-defense is not wise.

Mark Hatmaker’s website isextremeselfprotection.com.


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