Although he has fought professionally for only about 3 years, UFC Welterweight Anthony Johnson has already authored a series of devastating knockout victories that have raised his profi le to that of major prospect. Johnson’s background is as a wrestler, but he has looked up to Brazilian strikers Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and has discovered his own heavy hands by accident.
“I got tired of getting hit in the mouth during practice and decided to punch back,” he says of his early MMA sparring sessions. “So next time I was in there, I started punching back and connecting. My confi dence went up, and my hands just sort of developed overnight.”
Johnson fi rst made a name for himself with a 13-second KO over Chad Reiner in his UFC debut, but he says his favorite highlight- reel moment was a 51-second steamrolling of Tommy Speer that ended with an overhand right that crumpled Speer against the cage.
The energy for such a punch actually starts in the feet, travels up through the legs into the hips, and then moves into the large muscles of the back, chest, and shoulders. It multiplies through leverage and travels out of the fi st before it unleashes its torrent of power against an unwitting subject.
“When someone gets knocked out, you’re disrupting the blood fl ow to those [brain] cells on a temporary basis, and also disrupting the brain chemistry on a temporary basis,” says Dr. Margaret Goodman, a Las Vegas neurologist who served as a ringside physician for both boxing and MMA for a decade. “A KO is a protective mechanism by the brain to get you out of the line of fi re.”
People around the fi ght game often refer to a knockout occurring “on the button” as if there is only one spot that will lead to unconsciousness. But in reality, several different kinds of punches can do the damage necessary for such an outcome.
First, there are two kinds of blows: acceleration, where a stationary head is hit by a moving hand; and deceleration, where a moving head hits something stationary, like the canvas, and knocks you out. In either case, the brain recoils and rebounds in the skull, leading to a potential concussion or knockout.
Two of the most common acceleration blows are strikes to the chin or the side of the head. The former disrupts the circulation in the back of the brain and also disrupts the mechanism in the back of the brain that controls alertness. As a result, the brain temporarily switches off. A punch to the side of the head can close off the carotid artery, stopping the blood fl ow temporarily.
“Your body wants to reboot, similar to a computer,” Goodman says. “It wants to get out of the line of fi re and let blood fl ow resume. One of the techniques to do that is to get the body fl at on the ground. That’s why you don’t want to see knocked-out fi ghters getting up fast. You want to let the blood get to the brain.”
When it comes to knockouts, size matters. The bigger the puncher, the more mass there is in the whiplash effect, which is why you see Heavyweights like Shane Carwin fi nishing more fi ghts with a single blow than Lightweights.
“When you do it right, it’s effortless,” says Carwin, who, as a full-time engineer, likely understand the physics behind the power. “You don’t even realize the guy is going down. It’s 10 weeks of hard work into one punch, and it’s exhilarating to get all the speed and snap and weight behind your punch.”
Johnson concurs, saying, “You don’t feel it. When I knocked out Tommy, I don’t even remember my fi st connecting with his face. The ones you don’t feel are the ones that are perfect.”
That is because the force of a perfect punch is absorbed not by the fi st, but by the recipient of the strike. This is caused by the puncher’s relaxed state as he fi res and connects, which is why you often hear about fi ghters not rushing in for the kill. Nervous energy can cause tension in the muscles, which dissipates power. But what can a fi ghter on the business end do? Especially if he has what is termed a “glass jaw”?
Goodman says the phenomenon refers to the actual anatomy of a fi ghter’s jaw and how the joints work together. The more stable one’s jaw, the less chance he will get KO’d. While some fi ghters won the genetic lottery in that regard, others should focus on strengthening their neck muscles, getting a custom-fi t mouthpiece, and keeping their chin down while fi ghting.
Goodman ultimately left her role as a ringside doctor because of concerns for fi ghter safety that she felt she could better publicize as a private citizen. While she praises the UFC and their handling of medicals, she warns that fi ghters need to pay close attention to the head trauma they receive not only during fi ghts, but in training.
“I know plenty of MMA fi ghters who get knocked out in the gym and don’t tell anyone,” she says. “They train so hard and so aggressively, and we need to make sure licensing and suspensions for fi ghters who get knocked out are rigorous. In a lot of respects MMA is safer than boxing, but we need to stay vigilant on how serious knockouts can be.”