Well, well, well. It’s a bit of a landmark this week. Pretty much exactly a year ago, on the 11th November 2014, the first ‘Turley on Tuesday’ article went up. “Write what you like” the guys at Instant Boxing said. “As long as it’s about boxing, it’s fine. Really, you’ve got free rein…” About 46 articles later, (I had a few weeks off in the summer) we’re still here.
In that time this page has covered aspects of the fight game that you will rarely read about elsewhere. There’s been a critique of the Pay-per-View model of boxing broadcasting, a serious discussion of pugilistica dementia and its possible causes, a rallying cry for independent journalism, plenty of iconoclasm and the odd piece of personal reflection. As it’s the column’s birthday this week, it seemed appropriate to continue the theme by getting into something that strikes at the heart of what boxing is all about – the knockout. Few subjects speak more directly to the nature of boxing as a sport.
Every time a fighter climbs into the ring, a KO victory is the best possible end-point of his or her night’s work. When undergoing pre-fight preparations and visualising positive outcomes, many will close their eyes and imagine a perfectly executed game-plan that results in an opponent flat on the canvas. It comes with the territory.
This is equally true for fans attending a show or watching on TV – a KO is also the pinnacle of their expectations. Knockout compilation DVDs do great business every Christmas and a spectacular KO artist will invariably attract large numbers of supporters. Indeed, some of the most popular boxers ever have been those who demonstrate KO power while also showing vulnerability. Thomas Hearns, Nigel Benn, Ricardo Mayorga, everybody loves a chinny banger! But what does it actually mean to be knocked out? And what effect does it have on the loser?
The first obvious point to make is that there are different types of KO. Within the rules of boxing a knockout is simply a punch that causes a fighter to fall to the canvas and not return to their feet before a count of ten. A very common scenario is to see a fighter partially rise, sit up, take a knee or something similar then stand fully after the count has concluded. They may well be capable of walking back to their corner and holding a conversation, but officially they are ‘knocked out.’
If that is at one end of the scale of knockout outcomes – a ‘mild’ knockout, at the other would be what is considered a ‘clean’ knockout. Even in elite-level boxing where some ferocious punchers ply their trade, this is relatively rare, but for anyone who has witnessed it happen from ringside or on a screen, it is an exhilarating, then often worrying event. Few things are as capable of creating inner conflict within a spectator as seeing a boxer completely separated from his senses with either one punch or a combination.
At first it fills the viewer with a sense of awe at the fighter delivering it, then a sense of concern for the one receiving it. The longer a stricken man stays down, the deeper the unease. Everyone knows that boxing can be fatal or cause serious brain trauma, even though we still love to witness a heavy KO. In engaging within this set of parameters we sit upon a very thin line of acceptability. We want to see someone get sparked out – we enjoy that – but we also want to see them get up again afterwards, even though we know that does not always happen. Untangle that one, if you can. It is boxing’s most fundamental moral conundrum.
So what exactly is a knockout?
In short it’s a serious concussion and can be caused either by one blow or lots of them. And a concussion is medically defined as any head injury that causes a disruption of neurological function. The more extreme the concussion, the closer it brings a fighter to a state of darkness.
The human body contains dissolved sodium, potassium and calcium which are collectively known as electrolytes. They are responsible for conducting impulses along neurones. Every time a fighter receives a blow to a nerve, potassium leaves the cell and calcium rushes in, destabilizing the electrolyte balance, while the brain does all it can to keep these levels in balance. With each successive blow, this balance becomes harder and harder to maintain, and more and more energy must be spent in the process. When the body reaches the point where the damage outweighs the body’s ability to repair itself (and how quickly this happens depends on the severity of the blows received), the brain shuts down to conserve energy to fix the injured neurones at a later point.
Speaking to popularmechanics.com, Anthony Alessi M.D, a neurologist and ringside physician for the Connecticut State Boxing Commission explained, “After a brain injury, the heart must supply sufficient blood flow for the brain to repair itself. If the demand outweighs the supply the brain then shuts down and leads to an eventual loss of consciousness.”
He goes on to explain that the boxer’s feet are often the first clear signal that he is already concussed and perhaps therefore on the verge of being knocked out. When the neural networks that emanate from the cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for coordinating motor activity) are disrupted, a fighter loses his ability to coordinate foot movements.
“They become flat-footed, which is the inability to adjust. Boxers can’t move forward or backward quickly,” Alessi said. “As you watch their feet, you realize that the same lack of coordination is going on in their upper extremities in their hands. And eventually they are unable to defend themselves.”
Brain imaging shows that the thalamus region of the brain is significantly disturbed by a concussion, potentially resulting in excessive formation of abnormalities as it repairs itself. Subsequently, this may alter perception, memory, mood, sleep, and coordination. How fully the brain is able to recover from this is open to debate. Some suggest that an amount of residual damage is permanent. Others that concussion can cause the brain to produce an excess of substance P, which encourages the brain to repair itself in a chaotic and unpredictable way. It has been proposed that this can be addressed through careful diet and that nutrients that reduce inflammatory brain injury and substance P include DHA, grape seed extract and blueberries.
It is still an emerging field, but the realities are that for those who suffer knockouts, particularly repeatedly, there is a very high risk of long-term neurological problems. This is not something to be taken lightly. Those fan-feelings of guilt that follow the excitement are well deserved.
By way of illustration, here are the ‘Turley on Tuesday’ top five knockouts, all of which still stir those conflicting emotions.
- Julian Jackson v Herol Graham WBC Middleweight title 1990
Sheffield’s Herold ‘Bomber’ Graham was so talented and boxed Virgin Islander Jackson’s ears off for three and a half rounds. He was on the verge of taking the title as Jackson’s left eye was closed and he had been given one more round by the ref at the end of the third. All Graham had to do was keep his distance, but just over a minute into the fourth he left himself uncharacteristically open and was caught with a right hook. The ref could have counted to a thousand…
2. Jim McDonnell v Kenny Vice 1990
There used to be a video of this on YouTube, but it seems to have been removed. Jim McDonnell’s penultimate fight came nearly a year on from his brave but unsuccessful challenge for Azumah Nelson’s WBC super-featherweight title. He was already on the slide by then and perhaps unwise to take on someone as dangerous as Vice, a rugged puncher from Louisiana who rocked McDonnell and put him down in the first. From then it was mostly one-way traffic. Ironically it was at the start of the fourth and final round that McDonnell finally had a bit of success. Vice pretended to be hurt and goaded McDonnell in. McDonnell fell for it, went after him and Vice landed a vicious combination that sent McDonnell staggering back to the ropes. Vice pursued and landed a perfect left hook. McDonnell went down in a heap, couldn’t be revived and eventually had to be carried out of the ring. Vice was in tears. Fortunately the London man regained consciousness in his dressing room later.
3. Sergio Martinez v Paul Williams, WBC Middleweight title, 2010
This meeting was a repeat of their fight the previous year when they traded first-round knockdowns and Williams won by split decision. Martinez sought revenge and got it. At the start of the 2nd Williams was looking to land his own left hook but walked into a left which landed flush. Promoter Lou DiBella described it as the best knockout he had ever seen.
4. Jersey Joe Walcott v Rocky Marciano, World Heavyweight title, 1952
The Brockton Brawler picked up the world heavyweight title with a hard-fought victory over defending champ Walcott. Down in the first, then picked off throughout the fight, he turned things around and finished it with a perfect hook in the 13th round. Walcott went down in slow motion, partially supported by the ropes. Marciano would go on to defend 6 times and retire unbeaten.
5. Sergey Kovalev v Ismael Sillakh, WBO Light Heavyweight title, 2013
The most devastating puncher in the modern game, Russian Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev was making his first defence against Sillakh. There was some kind of personal vendetta involved, hung-over from the amateurs and Krusher’s usual intensity was ramped up a notch. He scrambled Sillakh’s senses with a left hook at the start of the second, then ran across the ring and nearly smashed his head off with a three-punch salvo. Good night Ismael.