The mystique of power (aka: Why a scrawny dude can knock your block off)

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Swollen biceps and chiseled pecs can’t talk, yet they still say plenty. And in boxing, it’s mostly lies that they tell.

PBC School of Hard Knocks: Power

It takes far more than brute strength for a boxer to develop punching power. Technique can play a big role, while some fighters simply possess natural ability. (Photo illustration by Paul Palmer/Premier Boxing Champions)

Here, there’s no eye test for power. Hulk-worthy muscles do little to extinguish one of the sport’s most burning questions: How can a dude who looks like he’d lose an arm-wrestling match to a distracted Steve Urkel knock grown men out cold with a single punch, while some would-be Muscle & Fitness cover boys punch as if their fists were made by Nerf?

The answer lies at the heart of prizefighting itself.

In most sports, power is discernible at a glance, telegraphed by superhuman physiques, from Tiger Woods’ bricklayer shoulders to LeBron James’ shredded, rim-bending torso to J.J. Watt’s centaur-worthy lower body.

There are always exceptions, those athletes who are able to translate bulk into force without exactly possessing a beach body—unless by “beach body” we’re talking about a sunbathing manatee.

But for the most part, an athlete’s jacked-up body is usually a sign of jacked-up power.

This may be the case in the gym, but not always in the ring. Take former 200-pound champ Steve Cunningham, a physical specimen who looks like he eats sit-ups for breakfast, yet has knocked out fewer than half (13) of the 28 opponents he’s felled.

“I’ve got a bodybuilder-looking physique,” Cunningham says. “But I’m not known as a powerful guy.”

He’s talking about boxing, not bench pressing.

And then there’s the flip side—call it the Kelly Pavlik syndrome—where a fighter looks as if he’s never pumped iron yet he punches as if his hands were fashioned from the stuff.

“The hardest puncher I ever fought had no muscle structure, no muscle definition whatsoever,” says former 154-pound champ Sergio Mora. “The more muscular a fighter looks, usually he doesn’t translate that into power. Tim Bradley is a good example: He has no power, and he looks like he could knock down a wall with a punch.”

But why is this the case?

To find the answer, we have to excavate the roots of power.

Certainly, some natural ability is part of the equation.

“It’s definitely a gift,” 140-pound bomber John Molina Jr. says of his formidable punching strength, which has resulted in 23 KOs in 28 victories. “Let’s just [pretend] I never boxed a day in my life, and I didn’t know how to fight. I would still possess this power.

“If I just hit somebody completely raw, I would be able to knock them out because I’m blessed with such heavy hands.”

Adds Mora: “Power punchers are born.”

Maybe so, but clearly, being a big puncher requires no small amount of skill when it comes to truly accomplished knockout artists.

“It’s not just brute strength,” explains unbeaten 154-pound contender Julian Williams, he of 14 KOs in 22 career wins, including 10 in his last 13 bouts. “Very few Mike Tysons come around. Even a guy like [160-pound champion Gennady Golovkin], he’s a devastating puncher, but he has a lot of technique, a lot of different punch variations.

“Then you’ve got certain guys whose power comes with speed, twisting and turning on your punches at the hips and at your feet, and more importantly, hitting guys in the right spot. I think it’s an accumulation of a whole bunch of things.”

Ask any boxer, and he’ll tell you that, while it’s nice to have iron fists, knockouts are born from another part of the body: the legs.

Sure, when we think of throwing a devastating punch, the mind naturally goes to flying fists and the pellets of sweat sprayed upon impact.

“Power comes from the ground up,” says rising 147-pound contender Sammy Vasquez Jr., who’s knocked out 15 of his 21 opponents.

To illustrate how to efficiently deliver a lights-out punch, Vasquez cites another sport that’s synonymous with slugging.

“It’s kind of like swinging a baseball bat,” he says. “When you swing a baseball bat, you step into the ball and you twist your hips—like when you’re throwing a jab, you step when you throw. That’s where all that power derives from: your hips.”

The key is to transfer this power as seamlessly as possible, from the feet to the legs up through the core and out to the knuckles, twisting your torso along the way to heighten the torque.

The degree to which a fighter can put his entire body into a punch is perhaps the truest measure of the power of said blow.

Former 154-pound champ Austin Trout singles out Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. as being skilled in this area. Even though Chavez doesn’t have a ripped physique, he can let ’er rip in the ring, with 32 of his 49 wins coming by knockout.

“He throws his legs, hips, shoulders and his arms all into one punch,” Trout says. “People who have mastered getting their bodies into sync when throwing a punch or combinations, they’re the harder hitters.”

The key word from Trout: mastered. The point being that even if a fighter doesn’t rocket from the womb with fists of steel, he can learn to enhance whatever natural power he possesses.

This is something that Mora, never known as a KO specialist—he has nine in 28 victories—has been working on as his career advances.

“What I’ve been doing to become a harder puncher is just being stationary,” he says, noting the value of sitting down on his shots more often. “But by being more stationary, I’m getting hit more myself.”

As Mora acknowledges, power comes with both rewards and risks. While he has gained stoppages in two of his last four wins, he also has been knocked down by his last three opponents, including twice in two rounds as he was stopped by 160-pound champion Daniel Jacobs in August.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” Molina says, “because when you realize you have power, you tend to not pay attention to all the different aspects of the game. But when you get to the upper echelon of fighters, if all you have is power, it’s easy to nullify that.”

Few current fighters grasp this more firmly than 147-pound champ Keith Thurman (26-0, 22 KOs), who earned 18 of his first 19 wins by knockout. In the last couple of years, though, Thurman’s game has evolved as he’s refined his boxing skills.

“I understand the puncher mentality,” he says. “I started off as a puncher-brawler, then as a pro, I established more of the jab and footwork. Now I’m a brawler who can counterpunch and utilize other tools outside of my power alone.”

Still, power is the most intoxicating component of the sweet science, and few current fighters have left more opponents punch-drunk than heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder.

In 36 pro fights, only one man has gone the distance with the undefeated “Bronze Bomber.”

“When I feel that power and that face in my glove,” Wilder says. “I know for sure that it’s over.”

He likes to close the show—this one included.

“School of Hard Knocks” is a recurring series in which takes fight fans inside the ring for an in-depth lesson about the inner workings of the sweet science. Up next: Speed.

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