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Tale of the Tape
Why HBO Sports has it Wrong


I watch a couple HBO fights a month, and must say I like their match-making. I like their unofficial scoring and commentary. However, at some point over the last few years, HBO dispensed with the reach measurement in favor of an arm-length measurement. In the early years of modern gloved boxing the fighters were measured like racehorses, and their anatomy even became the subject of newspaper articles. Remember, boxing was the premier sport of the day, and the only other popular sport was baseball, which was obsessed with [and still is] player statistics.

In 1908 a fighter would be measured like so:

1. Age

2. Height

3. Weight

4. Reach

5. Forearm

6. Biceps

7. Neck

8. Chest

9. Waist

10. Hips

11. Thigh

12. Calf

Additional measurements often included:

13. Wrist

14. Fist

15. Length-of-arm

Fist and length-of-arm were usually considered sub-measurements, included as they were in the wingspan measurement defined as reach. Of these 15 particulars eventually only the four most important were retained, being: age, height, weight and reach. Now reach, to a non-boxing arm-chair expert, is perplexing. Reach in boxing and MMA terms, is not arm-length. Arm-length is just a component of reach. Reach is a fingertip-to-fingertip measurement taken across the chest with the fighter’s arms spread. In terms of boxing, power and durability means as much as placement. Reach encompasses three factors:

1. Arm-length, indicating punching range

2. Shoulder width, indicating punching power

3. Hand size, indicating additional punching impact and fist durability [Dempsey and Foreman had notoriously large hands and ridiculous KO rates.]

If you are going to consider a boxer’s basic anatomical equipment for the sport, ‘wingspan’ reach is the single greatest factor, meaning more than height or weight, although all three are interconnected. The average person should have a wingspan or reach equal to their height. Most boxers have reaches that exceed their height. Thankfully MMA has retained reach as a measurement and not adopted arm-length.

For the supreme example of reach in action see the famous photo of Ali hitting Foreman with a right. In this particular photo Ali’s ‘wingspan’ comes into play as he fully rotates his shoulder through the punch after his foot push and hip pivot, amplifying and extending the duration of the shockwave travelling through Foreman’s brain. The hardest hitting boxers typically have slender frames, topped by wide shoulders, sometimes appearing, like Thomas Hearns, as if they are flesh-and-blood stick-figures with coat-hangers for shoulders.

The HBO nerds just don’t get it; have no idea how foolishly smug they sound as they sanctimoniously stress the superiority of their modern arm-length measurement over the archaic wingspan as a method for measuring a fighter’s raw material. This small thing is a measure of our contemporary arrogance. Boxing today is a mere fragment, a wisp of a reminder that it was once the single most popular sporting activity on Planet Earth. How can this small cadre of elite announcers, covering four fights per month out of a sport that is now a post-apocalyptic remnant of its former self, seriously think they are qualified to second guess the newspapermen of the 1920s and 30s who covered dozens of fights every week?

Caleb RamsbyJuly 4, 2016 12:44 AM EDT

Thanks James for the real world confirmation of my, greater mass equals taking more damage.

I've never boxed, just love to study the nuance, style and physics of it. I'm in my mid 30's and weigh 185 now, was 215 of muscle in my early 20's. Somehow, I feel just as strong, but have greater endurance now then before.

One thing I left out, but wanted to mention, was the efficiency with which a punch or ones inertia is transferred into a target.

Most all boxing manuals, the better ones, mention tensioning ones muscles at the point of impact. To do this and continue through the punch is extremely difficult, much more so then snapping the punch back with great force.

Thus, that, I believe, is where the value of the snap comes from. It's enactment is predicated upon the reversal of ones inertia, which requires great force and there is a slight moment where the final inch or so of the punch is going forward and the muscles are all pulling ones mass back, hopefully to a point of balance in preparation for another punch or an evasive move.

If, say, one is targeting one inch into the target, then the reversal will begin nearly at the point of impact. At which moment in time, ones muscles will by the nature of the effort required to snap the punch, be under a great deal of tension.

This is evidenced by Mike Tyson and how, when he floored guys with his body punches, then didn't fall away from the punch, they typically fell into it. Tyson snapped, he used the same technique or nearly so, as that of Dempsey and to an extent that of Jeffries.

Get in close, keep your elbows in so that ones larger muscle groups are providing the backup for ones arms, the extenders that transfer the energy of ones body and snap the hooks.

Tyson also snapped his uppercuts to a great extent. Dempsey said that an uppercut is essentially a step punch, straight, but with a percentage of upward movement to it. Rather far removed from the wild hooks that guys throw today.

Jack Johnson removed the teeth from one opponents jaw with a wicked uppercut in the late rounds of an exhibition match where his opponent threw a solid punch at him and made it a serious match..

I love Jack Johnson, for my money he and Ali were two of the most intelligent fighters to ever enter the squared circle, period. Yet, because of their blackness, they are seen as little more then physical freaks, with little more then "black fastness". That racially motivated lack of respect makes me furious.

Anyways, that snap, that's what allows for the efficient transfer of the punches energy into ones target.

The energy required for it can easily be felt if one goes all out, full speed and power at a heavy bag and then ditto at shadow boxing. Shadow boxing, there's nothing to take that energy, so it's all still there and you feel all of it when snapping back as hard as possible.

Thus, I think that's why shadow boxing at full tilt is so rarely done these days, its very difficult and tiring. As I said, I've never boxed, but I've practiced with bags, one heavy bag I left outside, let get soaked with rain, then freeze and still went at it, jumped lots of rope, ran, typical exercise drills, weight lifting, now do 3 hr bike rides, with dirt tires on the road for extra resistance, heck, I even blacksmithed for a few years and the most physical strenuous thing I've ever done is shadow box at full output. That says something, I'm not sure what, but it says something.

I'm curious to know what your thoughts, as a retired fighter and now trainer are on shadow boxing and where the value of the snap punch lies.
Caleb RamsbyJuly 2, 2016 3:59 PM EDT

Fantastic article.

May I add, to the issue regarding rangy speed punchers not having power and stout guys with slower punches having more power?

There is a common confusion regarding the Force = Mass X Velocity and how it is figured in regards to a punch. Typically people employ the weight of the fist as the mass and the speed of the fist as the velocity.

This is a misnomer. A proper calculation will include the mass and velocity, either positive towards the target, negative moving away from the target or neutral as in stationary.

If one studies Dempsey, one of the most devastating punchers in history, he accelerated his entire mass towards the target, often using his step punch technique, even with his jabs, which were potent.

Compare that to Ali and the jabs he would throw from outside, mainly he would twist a bit, give a shoulder pop, but his torso, hips, thighs, calves, etc. were not going into the punch.

Thus, for Ali's jab, only a small fraction of his mass was accelerated into the target, mainly the arm and fist, which was moving very quickly. For Dempsey, his jabs were step jabs, were he propelled all of his mass into the punch. To get all of the bits moving, takes longer, thus a slightly slower punch then, say, Ali, but the power of it is magnitudes greater

The greatest evidence of this total mass effect, is when someone walks into a punch thrown by their opponent and gets knocked out by an otherwise weak punch. The one getting knocked out wasn't sprinting into the punch, nor was their head moving at the speed of a jab being thrown, it is the effect of their greater mass going into their opponents punch.

This also belies how, from the extant test results, lighter fighters can hit as hard or harder then heavyweight fighters, yet, more heavyweight fighters get K.O.ed.

Why is this? My theory is that it is the heavyweights greater mass providing for more resistance and thus when the head is it, it is harder for them to roll with the punch or that is, reduce the effective impact or G load.

Speaking of G load, I would like to see a head measurement of the fighters. I have to imagine that the circumference of the skull has something to do with how much of a pounding one can take or maybe not.

I fail to see how we could have too many measurements though.
responds:July 3, 2016 12:31 PM EDT

Thank you so much for this breakdown, Caleb.

Neck strength and head mass—which can be measured by spacing the eyes as well as sizing the skull or just laying your head on a scale—do absorb some of the shock that would otherwise be transferred to the neck, cutting off messages from the brain.

As for weight of the fighter providing resistance, I can tell you from experience that this is huge. Since I have ballooned up to 200 pounds from a fight weight of 143-157 I find myself still able to hang with the young guys I coach in terms of mobility and punch output, but cannot take punches anymore. The more I weigh the harder I get hit, even when not moving into the punch. My neck is just as strong, my head the same, but attachment to a larger mass provides more of a "punch-through" effect for whoever is hitting me. Body punches also hurt much more as well.
ArmandJune 12, 2016 10:32 PM EDT

Rocky Marciano-5'10"-reach-68", Joe Frazier-5'11.5"-reach-73", Mike Tyson-5'11"-reach-71"—-3 of the most devastating punchers of all time, all with short arms,not overly wide across the shoulders,and of course short reaches.
responds:June 13, 2016 8:28 AM EDT

Great Point, Armand

Short reaches, but strong shoulders anywhere south of a bodybuilding or powerlifting setting. Frazier—I think—had the narrowest shoulders for his build of these three. The more skill and synchronicity a fighter has the less the shoulder width matters for power punching. Also, a fighter with wide shoulder and bad hips might very well fail to use those wide shoulders.

Tyson and Rocky had cannon ball shoulders. All of these men had thick hips. Shoulders that are more in line with the hip width make synchronizing hip and shoulder torque more precise. Note how often narrow-shouldered fighters favor the shovel hook, which does just this, transferring hip torque [enabled by the close elbows].

Of course, wide-shouldered, long-armed fighters tend to tire easily and are often hard to coach, where guys with stature disadvantages like the three you mention get the value of training effectively impressed upon them early on. In ancient Greece, where jabbing was at more of a premium than in the modern game "a sturdy thigh" was considered the most important attribute of the boxer. During this period sculptures of boxers favor strong but not wide shoulders, with longer arms and thicker jabs, the hand gear they used permitting KOs with the jab.

The source of the power with such short-armed punchers is based on training and natural ability, with their shorter arms helping them calibrate the punches' landing more precisely than a rangier fighter. Punchers of this caliber throw punches that seem slow and somehow crush people. Conversely speedy punchers often lack stopping power. This would seem to fly in the face of physics, until you consider that their punches speed up at impact as a quicker puncher's strike often slows at impact.

Thank you, Armand.