“When you hit an opponent with your fullest power, you don’t even physically feel it. His little head isn’t anything to stop your fist, so you punch right through it. And then a whole shot of adrenaline goes through your body. It’s what you’re striving for, the ultimate.”
– Don Lalonde
“Finding out I could punch was like finding religion.”
– Joe Louis
* * *
Flat Statement: Fighters don’t know how to punch anymore.
Now, before we start getting angry letters from the Brandon Rios Fan Club, consider how many dull decisions you’ve had to sit through in recent years. Look at the anemic knockout ratios of some of our top rated fighters. When we do see a devastating knockout, it feels freakishly out of the ordinary.
There are theories. For instance, many of history’s great punchers were heavyweights. As the heavyweight division enters the second decade of a dry spell, we can forget about seeing another Joe Louis anytime soon. (Hell, right now we’d settle for another Mike Weaver.) Other theories include …
In an effort to further explain boxing’s current power outage, THE RING consulted three respected trainers on the subject: Joe Goossen, Emanuel Steward, and Harold Knight.
They assured us we were not imagining things.
“The de-evolution of punching can be traced to the revamped amateur system, where 10 pitter-pat punches are worth more than a knockdown,” said Goossen, who has worked with such punchers as Diego Corrales and the Ruelas brothers.
According to Goossen, an alarming number of young fighters come out of the amateur ranks not knowing how to punch.
“They don’t turn the knuckles,” Goossen said. “There is a spin technique to punching. They don’t know how to put the blade of the axe to work. They also don’t know how to read the body language of an opponent, to know when he might be ready to go. There is less of a problem with fighters from Mexico, because they turn professional early, and they think like professionals.
“But the European influence, and the melding of styles and rules, plus the reliance on punch stats, has corroded amateur boxing. The safety-first mindset has turned amateur boxing sterile. But boxing is never going to be a safe sport, and the amateur system has done a disservice to fighters who want to make a career of it. It’s as if the baseball farm system played an entirely different game than the MLB, where bunting was favored over home runs. That’s how bad amateur boxing has become.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Goossen points to AAU boxing in the 1960s and ’70s, when amateurs fought with pro gloves, no head gear and professional rules.
“The AAU style produced guys who are in the history books,” said Goossen. “When I see amateurs now, it’s horrendous, it’s disturbing. They have no left hand, and they’re all over the ring. But there was a time, let me tell you, when amateurs were so good that Aileen Eaton, the promoter at the old L.A. Olympic Auditorium, would bring amateurs to fight on the undercards of her professional shows just to get the crowd excited. The AAU and the California commission worked hand in hand, and the transition from amateur to professional was fantastic.”
Emanuel Steward agrees that modern amateur boxing has ruined an era of punchers, but mentioned other causes, such as ill-fitting gloves and bad training habits.
“You can’t make a solid fist in some of these new foam gloves,” said Steward. However, not even a return to horse-hair gloves could solve what Steward sees as the biggest detriment to punching – the popularity of rhythmic pad drills.
“I introduced the pads,” Steward told THE RING, chuckling at the irony. “But when my guys hit the pads, my entire body would shudder. I’d tell guys to rip a left hook to the body, and then come up with right hands. Now, the fighter just goes pop pop pop. They put on a show, but they aren’t learning to hit with full power.”
But these young fighters grew up watching Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis smash men to the canvas with brutal uppercuts and right crosses. Don’t they want to emulate the great punchers of the recent past?
“You’d be surprised,” Steward said. “They’ll see some unknown trainer, who can’t tape hands or anything, but they’ll see him working the pads with some guy going pop pop pop, and they’ll say, ‘I want him as my trainer.’ It’s like they’re hypnotized. I don’t know what it is. It’s frustrating. The trainer is meeting the punch halfway, and the fighter isn’t committing. They’re slapping each other.”
Goossen also mentioned the troubling trend of fighters babying their hands.
“Young amateurs, and most of the pros now, are using big boxing gloves to hit heavy bags,” Goossen said. “Their hands are wrapped in double wraps, with an inch and a half of padding on the knuckles, in 16-ounce gloves. They do that for eight weeks. Then they go into a fight with a miniscule amount of tape and eight-ounce gloves. How hard is the steel going to be if it’s not tempered? They need to go back to wearing the little gardening gloves like Joe Louis and Roberto Duran used to wear in training. They are so afraid of injuring their hands that they baby themselves. But what happens? They get into a fight and their hands are soft.”
Vanishing, too, is the straight right cross, the trademark of such knockout merchants as Tommy Hearns, Michael Spinks, Alexis Arguello, Bob Foster and Julian Jackson.
“The stiff one-two is too much of a challenge,” said Goossen. “Guys don’t take the risk. In order to do it, you are basically saying, ‘You know what? I’m coming with the straight right down the pike. Are you going to trade with me or try to slip it? Can I land it without getting hit in return?’ It’s the same as a baseball pitcher with a 98-mph fastball, challenging the batter. It takes guts to have faith in your punch.”
Heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko is a perfect example. He owns a good right, but he only throws it when the planets are perfectly aligned, his opponent is tired and there’s absolutely no chance for a counter. Wlad and his brother Vitali have very high knockout percentages, but they spend a half hour tenderizing an opponent before going in for the kill. The Klitschkos aren’t gunslingers; they’re more like scientists pulling the wings from flies.
As for the old argument that punchers are born and not made, Goossen disagrees.
“Technique can improve what you’re born with,” Goossen said. “Mike Nunn was a slapper; I taught him how to knock people out with one punch. The best punchers are just strong guys who learn how to do it the right way.”
Even a bomber like Hearns was not a naturally gifted hitter.
“I taught Tommy,” Steward said. “I showed him how to shift his weight and lock up on his wrist. He was a learned puncher, not a natural.”
Harold “Shadow” Knight was a pretty good boxer in his day. As a trainer, he has worked the corners of Lewis and Monte Barrett. He now works with amateurs in New Jersey. He says there are plenty of “good” punchers around, but no “great” ones. Unlike Steward and Goossen, he isn’t convinced power punching can be taught.
“You can make improvements, but you can’t teach them to be Earnie Shavers or John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi. Those kinds of punchers are few and far between,” Knight said.
Knight feels fighters have lost power because they’ve lost everything else along with it.
“It comes down to them not being taught the basics,” Knight said. “Paul Williams should be a big puncher. But he isn’t utilizing all of his natural gifts. Amir Khan does some things right, but I don’t think of him as a complete fighter. We give the fighters of today too much credit for doing one little thing. We praise a guy for having a left hook, but where’s his right hand? Very few fighters today are complete fighters. When you’re only working with one tool, it’s harder for the knockouts to come.”
Knight has also noticed that young fighters, particularly amateurs, exist in a bubble.
“They don’t fight often enough, and they aren’t around older fighters,” said Knight. “How can they learn the tricks of the trade?” But even if they did mingle more, it seems young fighters are hesitant to shake off their amateur habits.
“Many won’t adapt to the professional style, because they bring their amateur trainer with them,” said Goossen. “The amateur trainer is still using the amateur system.”
Soft hands. A lack of basics. A fear of risk. The corrosive effects of amateur boxing. Is there any hope for punching in the future?
Goossen doesn’t think anything will change unless the amateur system changes.
“There are too many restrictions in the amateur rings, and when you turn pro, you have to start from scratch. The hardest thing to teach these guys is how to hang in the pit and go nose to nose,” Goossen said.
Goossen sees some value in the recent World Series of Boxing, an amateur tournament involving teams such as The L.A. Matadors, The Bangkok Elephants and The Milano Thunder. “No headgear, small gloves,” said Goossen, who provides TV commentary for the WSB. “It’s allowing the amateurs to fight in a professional setting. That is a start.”
Knight is optimistic. “All we need are some trainers with old-school values. It’ll take time. Maybe two more Olympics.”
“I think we’ll get some punching power back,” Steward said. “They are starting to encourage the kids to follow through. I hope so, because you know I like knockouts.”
When asked to name a few top quality punchers working today, Steward took a long pause. He mumbled Manny Pacquiao’s name, said something about Pacquiao using angles. Then he sighed.
“You got me,’ he said. “I can’t think of one. It’s a bad generation.”
Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts.