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“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.”

-Jack Dempsey

Note: this essay grew out of notes for an as yet unfinished review of Jack Dempsey’s 1950 book “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” and personal notes that developed over the course of a year of intensive work on punching

What does a black belt know about punching?

I first read about Jack Dempsey in an article written by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo for Classical Fighting Arts in 2006. The article, entitled “Jack Dempsey, Master of Xingyiquan” focused on a boxing manual written by the 1919 heavy weight world boxing champion. As I began reading the article, I wondered what an old-school Western boxer had to do with an Asian martial art, or karate training in general. I was still in the “karate is superior to boxing because it uses the whole body” phase of thinking that some people go through early on in their training (and some never leave, to their detriment). The book in question, “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” (1950) seemed quaint and outdated, right down to the rolled up sleeves and pompadours in the accompanying illustrations. By the end of the article however, my interest was piqued, and suddenly my dichotomous conceptions of boxing and karate began to mutate some. The utter clarity of Dempsey’s cited examples set off a new train of thinking: regardless of styles or arts, punching is punching. Using the fists to damage or knock another person out is a skill that is governed by the same principles, regardless of the art that develops it. To borrow a phrase from Harry Cook, we all practice the “two hands, two feet, one head” style of fighting.

We all practice this style, but the training methods that one chooses to pursue can either develop or detract from making it practical and usable. After reading this article, I began to look objectively at the differences between the way that a boxer trains a punch and the way that karate people- both in general and at my particular dojo- trained punching. Before long, I reflected that boxers, on average, spend far more time than karate people hitting things: stationary targets, heavy bags, focus mitts, reflex bags/balls, and of course, other people (yes, there are exceptions, but I am addressing generalities here). Their learning environment is incredibly rich with varied stimulus (static targets, moving targets, responsive targets, non-responsive targets) and opportunities to apply their skills under varying levels of pressure. Simply put, the best way to get good at hitting things is to hit things. I had earned shodan a year earlier, but I did not feel like I was hitting any harder, faster or better. Despite the fact that the dojo I trained in spent a considerable amount of time on pad work, and a makiwara and heavy bags were present and well-used, it was clear to me that despite hard, frequent training, my own punching ability was not what it needed to be (and this is in no way a disparaging reflection on my teacher- it was a critical look at my own pursuit of the skill).

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A properly stacked body’s inherent elasticity will absorb and rebound the force of striking an opponent most effectively in a certain direction.  This is called the body’s power line.  The goal of learning to be stacked and developing our kinesthetic sense is to maximize our ability to generate power in technique and be able to maintain this power line in relation to our opponent at all times.

In addition, we can use ground reaction force to “bounce” out of our frame.  When we compress our weight into the ground, it exerts an equal and opposite force against us, which stretches the muscle-tendon complexes.  This “loading,” as it is called, causes a storage of potential energy.  That energy enables us to spring forward into the opponent as the muscles shorten, or contract, during the “unloading” phase.  Developing this elastic strength is the goal of modern plyometric training. 

These are all aspects of compression.  But, it’s important to always remember that alignment comes first.  Compressing a body that is not properly aligned can lead to injury.  Often, we need to prepare our bodies for more stressful activities through physical therapy or corrective exercises.  Don’t be in a hurry to do the rough stuff.  Your body will thank you, later.

Rotation, or swinging the body around an axis, generates angular momentum.  Some form of compression always initiates the rotation of the body.  And, we rarely use pure angular momentum.  Practical applications will usually combine rotation with body shifting.

Body shifting is the primary method of generating linear momentum and always involves some sort of footwork, either a specific stepping method or, at least, a change in stance.  We use footwork to generate momentum by putting the entire body mass in motion.  The best example of this is Jack Dempsey’s “falling step.”

In the 1950 classic book, Championship Fighting, Dempsey gives a detailed description of punching mechanics.  He divides a punch into two parts:  (a) setting the weight in motion, and (b) relaying the moving weight to a desired point on an opponent with a stepped-up impact or explosion.

Dempsey uses two examples to illustrate the force of gravity.  First, he asks the reader to imagine what would happen if a baby fell from a fourth-floor window and struck a truck driver in the head, standing on the sidewalk below.  Obviously, we would predict serious injury to the man on the sidewalk.  As Dempsey wrote, “Even an innocent little baby can become a dangerous missile WHEN ITS BODY-WEIGHT IS SET INTO FAST MOTION.”

In the second example, we picture a boy sledding down a snowy hill.  The slope of the hill prevents him from falling straight down, but it is still the force of gravity that propels him.  At the bottom of the hill, the boy will continue sledding at a right angle to the straight-down pull of gravity for a while.  This demonstrates that weight-in-motion can be deflected away from the perpendicular.

Dempsey goes on to describe how these principles apply to the performance of his falling step.  When standing with his weight on the front leg, he causes himself to fall by stepping without shifting the weight to his back leg first.  This allows the force of gravity to set his body weight in motion.  He then redirects that motion forward by pushing off the rear foot.

This motion will be conveyed to the opponent as we literally “catch” ourselves by planting our fist in him.  If the momentum is transferred correctly through our power line, we will be able to explode into the opponent with our stacked frame.  This can be considered the “follow-through” part of the technique and has to do with proper timing and distancing.  These we practice by hitting the makiwara or heavy bag…and karate people love to hit stuff, right?!?

My next article will discuss moving rhythmically as a coherent unit centered in the hips to conclude this series on the basic principles of body use.

Fans of old-school hard-hitting boxers will appreciate this excellent piece on Jack Dempsey. The author examines  the record of his brutally explosive style and the influence that he had on  future boxers (Mike Tyson being chief among these- right down to the hairstyle and right hook), as well as the factors that have made him grossly under appreciated by current boxing commentators and ring sports trend-followers.

Read it Here

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


May 2020

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