Kayfabrication

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Eric Weinstein presents Kayfabrication for addition to our cognitive toolkit:

The sophisticated “scientific concept” with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity’s future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called “a promotion”) sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which “breaks Kayfabe” is called “shooting” to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called “working”.

Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. Perhaps confusing battles between “freshwater” Chicago macro economists and Ivy league “Saltwater” theorists could be best understood as happening within a single “orthodox promotion” given that both groups suffered no injury from failing (equally) to predict the recent financial crisis. The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the “string” and “loop” camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity.

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery. While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling’s status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as “catch” wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested. This highlighted the close relationship between two paradoxical risks which define the category of activity which wrestling shares with other human spheres:

  • Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants.
  • General Monotony for both audience and participants.

Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

A Highly Subversive, Deep, and Subtle Film

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Eric Weinstein — mathematician, economist, and managing director of Thiel Capital — answers an important question for our time. In Kung Fu Panda, how does Po end up developing the capability to be an awesome Kung Fu fighter? How does he shift from being a total fat slob to becoming capable of defeating Tai Lung?

First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this.

From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation.

Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both.

Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film.

Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers.

Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come.

This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.

Boys with Sticks

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Simcha Fisher tells a tale of boys with sticks:

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

There’s a larger point:

It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

[...]

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness.

[...]

Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules.

[...]

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

Dictator at the Basics

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

John Danaher, jiu-jitsu coach to UFC champions Georges St Pierre and Chris Weidman, discusses how jiu-jitsu has evolved and how he teaches:

In that regard, I have a very set idea about what I should be doing as a coach, when I’m working a room. At the level of fundamentals and basics, I’m a dictator. I won’t let anything go, at the basic level. You’ve got to have good escapes. The fundamental movements of the sport — elbow escaping. The fundamental body movements — bridging, shrimping. I won’t let you go with your own individual initiative on these things. These are fundamentals that everyone, regardless of body type, regardless of age, regardless of belt level, everyone has to have them. If you don’t have them, you’re never going to amount to anything. So, at the level of fundamentals, I’m a dictator. No one gets through that.

At the advanced level, I’m a libertarian. I’ll let you do whatever your personality and your body type make you favor. I’ve always said with students that ultimately, in the long run, the game that you favor will be determined by your body type and your personality. Some people are more aggressive, some people are more risk-takers, some people are introspective, some people are short, tall, fat, etc., etc. I never try to enforce what kind of game you develop at the advanced level. So, yes, I’m a dictator at the basics, but at the advanced level I’m very much a libertarian.

Boxing for Survival

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

James LaFond offers his advice on boxing for survival:

  • If called upon to fight, you do not. All fights are easily avoidable.
  • If attacked you have no time to box, and if you try and make time you are reacting instead of acting.
  • Overall, you never want to box in a civil or criminal altercation.
  • When confronted by a direct aggressor extend your jabbing hand into an open talking hand, arm half bent. This is your confrontational boxing position.
  • Most attacks are ambushes so learn to throw punches from a hands down position.

The Skull Punches Back

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

A certain savagery and danger is intrinsic to fighting sport and cannot be removed without ruining it, Jonathan Gottschall (The Professor in the Cage) reminds us, but the current level of brain trauma is not intrinsic but is the result of a single, simple mistake:

In an honest attempt to make fighting safer, authorities introduced a single rule that made it enormously more perilous. This is a mistake that can, and should, be undone.

[...]

They added rounds, they added weight classes, and they banned many of the most dangerous techniques. The UFC also ended the practice of bare knuckle fighting, which was the primary symbol, in the public eye, of cage fighting’s irredeemable brutality. After all, when we say “the gloves are coming off”—as members of the U.S. government did after the terror attacks of 9-11—we mean that we are through playing nice, and we are reverting to a ruthless style of aggression. Strapping gloves on fighters was the UFC’s most visible indication that they were changing cage fighting from a red-toothed Darwinian struggle into a civilized, rule-bound sport which would henceforth be rebranded as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

In PR terms, adding padded gloves was a wise move, but as a safety measure it was a tragic mistake. In the 19th century, boxing made the same mistake. Exactly like the early UFC, bareknuckle boxing was under constant threat from authorities who hoped to—and often did—shut the fights down. In 1867, The Queensbury Rules introduced many reforms intended to make boxing safer, including the mandatory use of padded gloves. The rule seemed logical. After all, if you were going to be punched by a strong, scary man wouldn’t you prefer that he first strap a pillow to his knuckles?

Think twice. The bones of the skull are thick, heavy, and hard; the bones of the fist are small, fine, and fragile. When you punch a man’s skull bare-fisted, the skull punches back. But if you cast a man’s hand and wrist stiffly in tape, and then encase it in foam and leather, you turn the fragile fist into a brutal cudgel. A padded glove allows a fist to attack a brain without having to reckon with its formidable defenses. Gloved-up, fighters can attack the skull savagely and recklessly, with no fear of crippling themselves. If a bare-knuckle fighter threw punches like a gloved fighter, he’d reduce his hands to sleeves of broken bone.

Here’s the bottom line: padded gloves do make fighting sports safer—for the hands. But the consequence of making fighting safer for the hands is making it exponentially more dangerous to the brain. And how would you rather walk away from a fighting career: with gnarled, arthritic hands or with a brain ravaged by CTE?

It’s not that boxing in the bare knuckle era was safe. On the contrary, bare-knuckle fighting was extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. For example, referees didn’t stop fights no matter how lopsided, and there were no time limits—fights could stretch on for many hours in the heat of the day, with both fighters swilling down brandy like Gatorade, and with cornermen repeatedly rousing unconscious fighters and dragging them back into the fray (methods of waking an unconscious pugilist included blowing mouthfuls of brandy up his nose or biting through his ears). Of course, in the bareknuckle era, guys got knocked out. But it was usually because—after hours of scrapping and bleeding–they were too exhausted to rise for the bell, not because they sustained a sudden “lights-out” concussion.

In short, there was exactly one safe thing about fighting in the bare knuckle era, and that was the bareness of the knuckles. Padded gloves instantly turned boxing from a contest of grit and stamina (what the old-timers called “bottom”) into a test of a man’s ability to inflict and absorb brain damage. (It’s worth noting that a similar story has played out in America’s most beloved combat sport, football. Increasingly robust football helmets were introduced in an honest effort to civilize play. But because they encourage players to treat their heads like rams, helmets have been a neurological catastrophe for athletes. Stripped of heavy armor, the brutal smash-up derby of American football would quickly revert to a saner, rugby-like level of mayhem).

Of course, stripping off the gloves would come with costs as well as benefits. The costs might include more injuries to the eyes (ungloved knuckles tuck too nicely into eye sockets) and the hands. But when it comes to hand injuries, I think fighters would quickly learn which punches are more likely to K.O. the barefisted puncher than the punchee (a windmilling overhand right, for example). Bare-knuckle fighting requires a different arsenal of offensive and defensive techniques (for instance, in the bare knuckle era fighters threw hooks sparingly, and threw more punches to the padded torso). Stripped of their gloves, modern fighters would quickly rediscover the lost wisdom of bareknuckle fighting, and they would learn to treat their hands as their most fragile and important tools.

But the fans love knockouts.

Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Jack Slack gives his advice for killing the queen, Ronda Rousey:

Really it all comes down to avoiding the clinch for as long as possible by circling off as Rousey comes in on a straight line. And using long, non-committal strikes to punish Rousey’s bull rushes, or intercepting elbows to hurt and deter Rousey. This can already be seen frequently in men’s MMA: it’s sound, proven strategy against a rushing opponent, whether he wants the infight, a brawl, a shot, or the clinch. Realistically though, anyone who doesn’t either 1) bumrush straight into the clinch with Rousey or 2) concede the clinch while swinging desperately for a knockout in the first minute is already way ahead of the game.  Then when the clinch does inevitably come, making sure it isn’t the be all and end all of the fight. But let’s face it, even avoiding one or two of Rousey’s charges would be considered a good performance.

The Ecstasy and Agony of Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Jack Slack goes beyond his usual technical analysis to describe the ecstasy and agony of Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald — a brutal bout I’m not sure I really want to see:

Much is made of ‘the art of fighting’, but it’s far from a perfect science. The manly art of self defense isn’t really so much about self preservation as it is about survival and reprisal. A competitor can fight an excellent, strategic fight, win, and come out with a more severe injury than his opponent. This game is one of trying to adapt to and make the best of chaos.

For this reason, some fighters develop this fetish for budo or the ‘way of the warrior’. Often, this leads to brilliant fighters throwing away their careers to prove they’ve got guts. In fact, there are men who have lost or come close to losing fights which have no business causing them trouble just because they let their machismo get the better of them.

But no matter how much we can despair at the silliness of it all, there is something stirred deep in the vast majority of us when we witness a battle of wills for stakes as high as a world championship. One of the reasons that combat sports produce such sincere emotion in fans is that the sacrifices and pain endured by the competitor is that of being physically assaulted. I have seen plenty of men beaten to death, I am outspoken against referees who even come close to letting that happen, and I have no desire to see another ring fatality. And yet… there is something about seeing how willing two men are to lay down their health and livelihood while taking a hellacious beating which appeals to a more basic instinct in me.

[...]

As we all rejoiced and said to our companions “What a fight!”, Robbie Lawler went berserk, running around the cage in celebration. The gash in his lip seemed to open as wide as his mouth each time he roared. On one of the most memorable fight cards of the year, this fight had taken the cake. It was the kind of fight you’re lucky to see once every three or four years and even as we joked about it, no-one expected that the main event to follow could live up to this.

And then, amid all of that, there was the reminder of guilt. It went largely missed due to the camera angle, and the tendency to focus on the winner. The same is true when you are live in the arena, the victor grows to become a titan, and the defeated fighter suddenly shrinks down and disappears. But directly behind the champion, as he ran around the ring in jubilation, was MacDonald, collapsing again as he sat up in front of the doctor.

The great tragedy of this story is not that MacDonald performed out of his skin and was unable to take the title, or that imbeciles on the internet are accusing him of quitting because he didn’t fall to the floor unconscious in the manner they were most familiar with, or even that MacDonald has likely done himself some significant long term damage. The real tragedy, and the thing which every fight fan has to try to come to grips with each time he watches a terrific war with a brutal and uncomfortable ending, is that this is exactly the kind of fight we all wish we could watch every weekend.

What’s the deal with the stance?

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Jack Slack is always recommending Edwin Haislet’s Boxing to students of the sweet science, and they often come back asking, What’s the deal with the stance?

This knock-kneed position is the one which Haislet prescribes as the best for mobility and hitting power, yet if you saw someone in this position without the gloves or shorts, you’d assume they had been in some kind of terrible accident.

Edwin Haislet Boxng Fundamental Stance

What you’ll notice is that the lead knee being pointed slightly inward almost as like a spring. Square your hips as if you had thrown the right hand or as if to load up the left hook. You will notice that your body is providing resistance. You are coiled and ready to explode into a wicked left hook with tremendous speed and force. It’s not as if you are creating force to square yourself up and then stopping and changing direction, your lead hip joint halts your squaring movement and launches you back the other way, you just need to let it go. But equally, throw a right straight and you can get decent pop on it because of the positioning of the rear foot.

His closing paragraph struck me as more of an introduction:

It’s no secret that the art of hitting is about using the feet to drive off of the floor, and that the art of boxing is about hitting and not getting hit. But the combination of the two often seems to involve more complexity in the footwork than the most elaborate of flamencos. That is why the old timers always say, don’t look at the hands while you’re watching a fight, the hands mean nothing. Now the feet, those are what do the boxing.

Re-Instituting Dueling

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall discusses Why Men Fight & Why We Like to Watch on The Art of Manliness podcast and suggests that a re-institution of dueling codes could be a good thing:

One of the cool things I’ve read and, again, in the work with sociologists, is arguments for the re-institution of a dueling culture. For instance, in inner city neighborhoods or in prisons. We’re talking about specifically a culture of boxing duels.

The point is that what you have in an inner city neighborhood or many inner city neighborhoods and certainly in serious prisons are cultures of honor without dueling codes. If you are going to have a culture of honor, a culture where men are incredibly touchy about disrespect and willing to claim respect with physical violence, you don’t want to have that kind of honor culture without a dueling code because you have that kind of honor culture without a dueling code, then you get things like Hatfield-McCoy blood feuds. You get things like prison shankings. You get things like drive-by shootings.

The idea of a culture of boxing duels would be that it makes those other forms of violence dishonorable. You’re branded a coward and you have to eat a lot of shame if you go outside of the dueling code. So I think there’s at least an argument to be made that in certain situations, a re-institution even of dueling codes could be a good thing.

The Death of Boxing

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

The end of boxing’s Television Era came definitively when Mike Tyson KO’d Michael Spinks in the first round in Atlantic City, on June 27th 1987:

This fight dovetailed with a number of other factors to mark the end of a long transitional era in boxing. The biggest factor was economic. Although this was a closed circuit event seen in theaters, it opened eyes to the potential money of pay-per-view just as the technology was on the horizon. I remember listening to a live sports radio broadcast just after the fight, as some rich guy called into the radio host from what must have been a huge primitive car phone and gave the blow-by-blow. By morning everybody was talking about how many millions of dollars per a second Tyson had made.

[...]

Networks were bowing out and premium channels and pay-per-view was coming into vogue. Now boxing was just available some of the time for some of the fans.

By 1997 500 million a year was being spent on pay-per-view boxing events. Boxing was now just about the marketability of big names, and perfect records were paramount. Thanks to the deterioration of Olympic Style amateur boxing as a sport [with zero-clinch tolerance — see Chapter 3 Sidebar — and no points awarded for knockdowns], the rarity of fights between the top men in a given weight class, and the infrequency of fights in general, boxers were relatively less skilled and less exciting than ever in the pro ranks. This period can rightly be seen as the time when boxing matches were largely decided by the matchmaker, with almost no pro bouts and less than half of title bouts being competitive.

The big-name promoters destroyed a sport with dwindling human resources and filled their bank accounts. A sport that began with eight weight classes in the Old Time Era now had 17 weight classes. The sport which once had eight champions now has 153! All of this subdivision of talent came to a crescendo in the 1980s and 90s at the same time that the talent pool had dwindled to a trickle. As of now, the USA, which traditionally supplied most boxers, typically only has one Top 10 heavyweight — and the USA has the biggest people in the world!

Thanks to the foresight of MMA organizations there is still a way to see the two best guys at a given weight fight, but it is not a boxing match. The fact is boxing is on life-support.

[...]

Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that boxing’s best days are in the past. What is more, it seems destined to become a marginalized hold-over sport like fencing. Such a fate would be a supreme irony. You see, in the 1920s, Aldo Nadi, greatest fencer alive, and survivor of at least one duel, decried the popularity of boxing, disparaging the fistic art as crude and barbaric and too emotional. That assessment sounds much like the criticisms of MMA by many of the boxing people I know, and by our current best, Floyd Money.

Hopefully Floyd Money does not share Nadi’s gift for prophetic irony.

The Golden Age of Boxing

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

The Golden Age of Boxing lasted from 1920 to 1946:

Socially this was the springtime of boxing, when the largest gates were drawn, and boxers were considered not only the greatest athletes but the toughest men and best fighters in the world. As with baseball many of the best fighters had their careers gutted by World War Two.

There was boxing all the time, for everybody who cared to go to a club, theater or stadium or tune in on the radio.

Just as the first experiments with motion pictures began early in the 1890s with boxing, the first experiments with televised sports began with boxing in 1931. You must imagine, with only one camera, separated from the announcer, how difficult it would have been to televise baseball or football. In our own time we take the camera-angle changes and all of the work done by the film crew and onsite film-editing staff for granted. This made boxing the obvious subject for early TV. By 1944 NBC was airing fights, and by ’46 Conn versus Louis became the first televised heavyweight championship.

Very quickly this apparently good thing crushed local boxing shows, the theaters that hosted them, and the clubs that fielded the fighters. Why watch Joe Shmoe and John Doe at the local club when you can get Joe Louis at home? As with many trends in boxing it took one or two generations of fighters for this to effect significant change in the talent pool. Less local pro shows [in Baltimore, a half dozen a week in the 1920s to as many a year in the 1990s] resulted in a steady decline in the numbers and quality of opposition faced by top boxers, eventually resulting in a gradual decline in their functional skill, particularly versatility in the ring.

A Sport Called Sparring

Monday, May 25th, 2015

In the 1800s boxing manuals were written and a sport called “sparring” was born:

This practice with gloves was the seed of modern boxing.

After the American Civil War gloves began to gradually come into competitive use primarily as a way to avoid legal prohibitions against prize-fighting. Up until the end of the era, in the early 1890s, the sport was still pretty much a gangland affair, even though it had generated the first sports superstar, John L. Sullivan.

By 1885 boxing contests were being fought according to the Queensbury Rules, which are the basis for, and were similar to, our current gloved boxing rules. Although these rules were originally written for matches between gloved ‘sparrers’ of the upper class, and not the actual prize-fighters, they were adapted for prizefighting to facilitate the mainstreaming of the sport of boxing. This development has a modern parallel in the recent efforts by Las Vegas casino interests to gain acceptance with the Nevada State Athletic Commission for MMA.

The events that bracket this period are the first heavyweight title bout under Queensberry Rules between John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett on September 7th 1892, in New Orleans, and the passing of the Walker Law in New York State in 1920, which effectively legalized the rendering of a decision after a boxing match. The first two decades of the 20th Century in boxing is often referred to as the ‘No Decision Era’. Boxing was now out of the legal no-man’s land it had been in, and was poised to become a national sport.

There was a lot of technical evolution in this period, as fighters took two generations [I reckon a boxing generation as 12-15 years.] to finally adapt to the use of the padded glove.

The Clinch

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The clinch wasn’t always a lull in the action of a boxing match:

When modern boxing fans view 100 year old film of old-time boxers they come away with the conclusion that these guys could not box well because so much clinching occurred and that their epic length fights were not that strenuous because they spent so much time “resting” in the clinch.

The fact is that clinching was often permitted because hitting in the clinch was on the menu of choices that the fighters had at the beginning of the fight. When the referee brought the fighters together before the bout in old-times it meant something. It was not just a ritual but often a negotiation. Up until 1900 [eight years into the Marquis of Queensberry gloved boxing era] hitting in the clinches—what today is called dirty boxing in MMA—was still often an agreed upon tactic.

Clinching was falling out of favor with observers though. Spectators wanted something more visually appealing, and a wider audience requires tactics that are more easily understood. By 1910 fighters could expect to be disqualified for hitting in the clinches, although it still happened a lot.

What did all of this clinching mean?

Fighting in the clinch is more anaerobic than boxing at jabbing range and is therefore more exhausting. Grappling in general is more strenuous than striking. Modern boxers generally do “rest” in the clinch because they are not permitted to do anything in the clinch and are expected to lay there until separated. Clinching is still the best defense against getting knocked out. Although it is generally not taught in the gym, it is learned there when a fighter finds himself in danger sparring.

The most notorious modern clinch fighter was Ali, who clinched a record number of times with Frazier in Manila. Ali used an overhook and a come-along. Old-time fighters were just one generation removed from bare-knuckle fighting, where hip throws and holding and hitting were acceptable tactics. They generally used an overhook sunk in above the elbow while they threw uppercuts, hooks and crosses with their free hand. This looks sloppy but is effective if it is trained for and executed properly.

You need really good hips to pull this off.

The fact is old-time clinch-boxers would have to be retrained to fight according to modern rules and would probably end up being disqualified today. This did happen. One only has to look at the many DQ losses on old-time records. Likewise, if you took a modern boxer back in time he would get mauled in the clinch and probably KO’d there too. Most modern fighters do not know how to clinch, and are generally incapable of breaking a clinch. This is why modern boxers are not able to compete in MMA until they are extensively retrained. The one prominent modern boxer who I believe would do well under old-time or bare-knuckle conditions is Bernard Hopkins. He actually trains and teaches the clinch, and employs such old-time tactics as punching the hip and thigh.

Old-time boxers often fought and trained with wrestlers. In fact, James Corbett wrestled for a half hour a day just to practice staying out of the clinch and escaping. Corbett hated fighting in the clinch but had to adapt and train. Sam Mcvey actually went to Japan and defeated a Jujitsu champion in an MMA bout. Granted the Jujitsu fighter was probably giving away 60 pounds. But none of our current heavyweight boxers would last more than a round with a good Brazilian jiu-jitsu welterweight in open competition today.

Always keep in mind that boxing as a sport has evolved away from boxing as an art and science for the purpose of being more entertaining. All of the old-time clinching might look sloppy but it was effective. Now, there are clinching countermeasures that do work, and permit a properly trained boxer to avoid and break clinches. Jack Blackburn was instrumental in teaching this style of boxing, with the result that the Black boxers under his direct and indirect influence such as Joe Louis and Ray Robinson became the best all around boxers that have ever practiced the art. It was not until aggressive officiating encouraged boxers to look to a third party to take care of the clinch in our own time that these skills finally eroded to the point that only 1 in 40 pro boxers were able to avoid the clinch of a less skilled opponent in a study of 106 cable TV bouts conducted in 1998.

Most boxing coaches spend the vast majority of their time preparing fighters for amateur competition, which has zero tolerance for clinching, often resulting in the referee being the busiest guy in the ring. The clinch is not taught as part of the fundamental skill set because it is a foul. Keep in mind that it is always, at any given time, to one fighter’s advantage to clinch. At that time, it is to the other fighter’s disadvantage to clinch.

Old-Timey Boxing Techniques

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

The modern boxing glove — or, rather, the gauzed and taped fist sheathed within the modern thumb-attached glove — is a weapon system:

Anyone who has studied film, photos and illustrations of old-time boxers and bare-knuckle boxers realizes that these fighters punched differently than modern boxers. This has been explained as evidence of the evolution of punching mechanics, finally resulting in a more skilled modern boxer. So, when an MMA fighter looks to develop punching skills he looks to the latest in boxing techniques. The problem with this very reasonable assumption is that it ignores the primary influence upon the evolution of boxing techniques: the development of the boxing glove. The result has been a high frequency of hand injuries (particularly to the unprotected thumb) among MMA fighters.

[...]

Before we continue let us establish the terminology.

  • A fist that lands with the palm and thumb down is pronated.
  • A fist that lands with the thumb up is vertical.
  • A fist that lands with the palm and thumb up (like an uppercut) is supinated.

[...]

The vertical jab was the overwhelmingly dominant punch for 4,000 years of boxing. It is not as powerful, and does not have quite the reach of the pronated jab. Its advantages are that it gets through the opponents hands more easily, with minimal risk of thumb injury. It was used primarily for striking up the middle to the nose and mouth (Bare-knuckle punches to the mouth that are pronated or supinated can result in teeth entering the fingers or knuckles.) Modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call it the sneaky jab.

The supinated jab was used primarily for punching over the guard while stepping to the outside. It offers total protection to the thumb. It was called the “special punch”, a maiming blow intended to strike the eye-ball directly as the two large knuckles slide into the socket from below. With MMA gloves this can be used to crack the orbital bone or cut the eye-lid. Those few modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call this an up-jab.

Before boxing gloves pronated jabs were used primarily to strike the body, allowing the thumb to hang safely beneath the hand, away from the descending elbow. Other applications included striking the jaw of an opponent with a low guard, or the forehead of a shorter fighter.

Like the jab [the straight right] was used as a sneaky vertical punch up the middle, or pronated to the body. It was used as a finishing blow to the jaw over a low guard. Bare-knuckle boxers were primarily jabbers, and were very picky about when they uncorked the right hand. There is no evidence that a supinated straight right was ever used.

Modern boxers throw supinated (shovel) and vertical (Philadelphia) hooks to the body, and vertical and pronated hooks to the head. This was reversed in the days before thumb protection. To keep the thumb out of harm’s way pronate the hook to the body and throw it with a vertical fist to the head. You don’t want to have someone duck under your pronated hook to the head and have your thumb snap on their skull.

The ancients and old timers only used [the uppercut] for striking the groin and while in the clinch. It is a punch you definitely want in your arsenal, but should be used sparingly, primarily to the chin, where it may well finish the fight. It does not make any sense to slam an uppercut or shovel hook into the body of a highly conditioned athlete who can take it, just to have him come down with a late block or intentional elbow catch to your thumb, which could disable that hand for punching, grappling and parrying for the rest of the fight.