by Hans Olson
In the final scene of the 1973 film Magnum Force, Clint Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan famously stated that “man’s got to know his limitations.” In boxing, truer wisdom can’t be spoken as it relates to a fighter and his chin.
So what makes a great chin?
The ability to take a massive shot is, for some, legendary. Guys like George Chuvalo, and Sugar Ray Robinson were known for having strong beards. Then there are those pugilists known for just the opposite. Fighters such as Floyd Patterson and Frank Bruno, who, despite their immense talent, always had the unfortunate inability to absorb the hardest of shots without going down.
So what is it? What separates those who can “take it,” and those who can’t?
Many feel a game of genetic roulette is at play.
“I believe it’s something you are born with,” says Johnathon Banks, heavyweight contender and current trainer of undisputed champ Wladimir Klitschko. Banks was a disciple of the late Emanuel Steward at the legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit, Michigan. “(Emanuel) taught me that either you can take a punch or you can’t.
Jr. lightweight contender Arash Usmanee agrees. “What makes a fighter have a chin in my opinion, is that he’s born with it, and what breaks it is taking lots of shots throughout his or her boxing career.”
There are mixed opinions as to what benefits, if any, diet and nutrition have when considering a fighter’s chin.
“Nutrition/diet has nothing to do with having a good chin,” feels Banks. “Just look at James Toney and George Foreman.”
A point well taken. Toney and Foreman both entered the ring in varying conditions over the years, yet their strong whiskers seemed to hold up regardless.
Douggy Berneche, trainer at Montréal’s Club de Boxe de L’est, notes a similar sentiment, but also points out that conditioning can help you—at least when it comes to recuperative powers. “Yes, it’s something you’re born with, but having good physical condition can help you recuperate faster after being knocked down.”
Even if eating right can’t give you the supernatural abilities of a Vitali Klitschko (who has never been knocked down in his pro career), proper nutrition can help improve your overall health, which enables you to spend more time to work harder in the gym, thus helping with those deficiencies. Jr. welterweight contender Danny O’Connor points this out.
“I have no research to back my opinion with facts, but my personal opinion is that nutrition and diet is essential for all aspects of life,” said Danny. “I’m a huge advocate of a healthy lifestyle, and even if it doesn’t help your chin per-say, it helps numerous other aspects of fighting which will lesson your chances of taking that impact.”
Still, even if you can’t control what qualities you’re born with, you have to wonder if there is anything that can be done, to improve one’s ability to take a punch apart from simply avoiding it all together. “You can improve it a bit by neck exercises, and I think jaw exercises as simple as chewing gum,” says Usmanee. “But mostly I believe you’re born with it.”
“I’ve never experienced in my 35 years, a case, or even something remotely close to somebody developing a good chin,” says Russ Anber, the renowned Canadian trainer, cut-man, manager, and CEO of Rival Boxing Gear. “Like, I’ve never seen a guy who didn’t have a good chin suddenly have one. I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen the contrary; I’ve seen guys who at one point you could hit them with everything but the kitchen sink and nothing would happen, but suddenly they get tapped by a girl and they’re dropped! You’d have to be a neurologist or a medical expert to know why something like that happens. I think it’s just a question of enough impact breaking through the cement. It’s just going to erode. The opposite of that? I’ve never seen it anymore-so than somebody who is blessed with knockout power. Of course, as you get better in boxing, as you get more technically skilled, you can add a little bit of quality to your power and make your punching power a little bit better. But you never go from being a guy that can’t break an egg to suddenly crushing guys with one-punch knockout power. I’ve seen people come into the gym who have never put on a pair of gloves before and two days later you’re seeing them hit the bag with more power than guys who have been in the gym for years. To me, that is something that is definitely God-given in the same way that a chin is.”
Despite the small things a fighter might be able to do, it appears you either you have it, or you don’t.
“There are some guys from the time they’re kids they can just take that shot and nothing happens,” says Anber.
In boxing, having a great chin is considered a source of pride for those who have it. Not having one however, can be quite damaging to the psyche of others. I wondered why then are some fighters derided for not having physical abilities they simply have no control over. I mean, a natural 135 lb. fighter can’t fight at heavyweight due to his size. Similarly, a glass-jawed fighter can’t be expected to take a punch for the same unknown, God-given reasons. “Sadly, a truth can seem a little disparaging,” says Anber. “When you say the guy doesn’t have a good chin, of course he can’t do anything about it, but it’s really not his fault either. It is hurtful, it’s disparaging, and you can’t really do anything about it other than have better-than-outstanding defense. Without it, you have to be extremely, extremely gifted to get by. That’s what sometimes people fail to realize. I’m not talking about ordinary four-round fighters who never make it out of a four-rounder because their chin doesn’t hold up. I’m talking about guys who reach the pinnacle, guys who reach world championship status. They beat world class guys, and they do it having a bad chin. It just goes to show you how talented and gifted they actually are.”
So what do you do in those circumstances where you have to help a fighter who has a susceptible chin?
“You have to protect him,” says Berneche. “You cannot increase his resistance, so you need to work on his defense; technical boxing.”
“A bad chin can’t improve, but with really good defense you can last a lot longer,” says Banks.
With that comes an old adage: the very best chin, is always the one that doesn’t get hit.
“Just because you have a good chin doesn’t mean you should test it all the time,” says O’Connor. “Boxing is about avoiding punishment and not willingly getting punished just because you believe you can take more than the other person.”
Although having one certainly can help. Some feel the confidence one has in his ability to absorb damage is a key factor in overcoming adversity in the instances where they do get hit.
“If you feel like you can take whatever someone gives you and keep coming, then your mentality would be different than the average person,” says Banks.
Sometimes though, even if you have the attitude of an Arturo Gatti, the brain does strange things.
“I have to think that when you get hit with a shot and all of a sudden the circuit breaker jumps, I don’t think you’re really in a position to make a conscious mental decision about that,” says Anber. “When the light goes, you haven’t done anything consciously for that to happen. It’s an unintentional reaction. It happens, and you have no control over it.”
In some of those very circumstances, with everything else equal (including the born ability to take or not take a punch) we could look to fighters with thick, muscular legs opposed to those who have disproportionate upper body muscularity to thin legs.
“I think it’s fair to say we see the difference between thinly legged guys taking punches as opposed to guys that have legs like tree trunks who aren’t going anywhere when they get hit,” continued Anber. “I’m sure there is some correlation to that. I think if you look at various fighters and see what kind of body types they have, I think you can easily make a claim that there are certain patterns that do exist which are indicators to being able to take a punch or not being able to take a punch, recuperate from taking a punch, or absorb better after taking a punch. I definitely feel there are certain body types and certain indicators which lead you to believe that that’s actually true. I don’t know medically speaking what makes it that way, but theoretically it makes perfect sense. You look at certain fighters throughout history, regardless of the weight class, the type of body-type that they have—now it’s not 100%—but I think it draws a certain consistency. I think there are certain examples that exist within boxing. It would be interesting for somebody who likes doing that kind of stuff to chart that and see what proof there is there, but off the top of my head, I think there’s some truth to it.”
So if training legs could lead somewhere, what about chewing gum or the other neck exercises done in the gym? Do those matter at all?
“Absolutely, of course they matter, no doubt about it. But there are guys that have never chewed a stick of gum or who have never done a neck exercise in their life that take an amazing shot. You can hit them with anything and nothing is going to happen. Then there are guys who sometimes might not even look like they have a neck and they get hit and they’re gone. If I was to make an amateur deduction—and I don’t know how factual this would be—but in simpleton terms, it’s all about the contact between the brain hitting the inside of the skull, and to what point that impact happens. My guess would be that the further distance your brain is from your skull with the liquid that is around it, could play a great role in how good your chin is. And I don’t know that there’s any way of determining that, at least not externally. But that might have a lot to do with it as well. When the brain doesn’t travel, doesn’t reach the skull area, you end up having this great chin and you take punishment because it doesn’t seem to have an effect on you, where as perhaps with other people where the brain would be closer to the skull, any little shot is able to trigger it when it hits the side of the skull, thereby causing the knockout, or causing it to be hurt. It would be interesting to see what the theory on that is. But that’s based on evaluating seeing fighters take punches for 35 years.”
I wondered then wondered about the headgear. How much does it help with guys who would be susceptible to being knocked out naturally if they didn’t have it on?
“The only thing that that it does help to protect besides the cauliflower ears, cuts, catching an elbow, that kind of stuff…the only type of punch that it protects against that you would not be protected with without the headgear is the temple shot. The shot that hits you on that temple where suddenly the circuit breaks and your legs start to do funny things that you’re not in control of anymore. It’s completely involuntary. With headgear, you see less of that because with the extra padding in the temple area and the padding of the glove you now double the thickness of that blunt force trauma that occurs on a fighter not wearing headgear who gets hit on the temple and suddenly funny things happen. Or the back of the head—which you’re not supposed to hit there but it happens—or behind the ear….those are the kind of shots that happen where headgear does protect against, which is one of the reasons why I’m so against amateur boxing now going to the no-headgear rule. I feel that we’re regressing in our protection of the athletes, especially when you’re talking about being amateur where they’re not getting paid anyway. You could be sustaining injury without even knowing it, on a fighter during his amateur career. When you have a chance to turn professional, he could be damaged goods already.
What about those who say headgear just gets in the way of a fighter’s vision, thereby making them more susceptible to get hit?
“That’s a weak argument that doesn’t really have much substance because if that were the case, than every pro fighter in the world would never box with headgear when he’s training, right? I don’t buy into that. It’s almost like saying a goalie in hockey can see the puck better if he doesn’t have a mask on.”
Then there’s the argument about glove size/style affecting how one does or doesn’t take a shot. “I think that people who talk about that stuff and pretend to know what they’re talking about is laughable,” continued Anber.
“They have no idea. First of all, when they talk about one glove or another being a ‘puncher’s glove’ or not a ‘puncher’s glove’…listen, when a guy can punch, it doesn’t matter what he’s got on, he’ll knock you out. I’ve seen living proof with that just with fighters I’ve had or have worked with that use a variation of different types of gloves whether they be foam padded, horse hair, whatever it is, and still get the same result. Then I’ve seen other guys wear what is supposedly a ‘puncher’s glove’ and never knock anybody out! So I don’t buy into that. I’ve seen guys get knocked out with thick sparring gloves. When you can punch, you can punch.”
Another age old practice is to have fighters come in to a fight warmed up with a lather of sweat to prevent being “caught cold early.” So what is it about being “cold” that makes one more susceptible to being starched?
“I think in anything—even a pool player wants to warm up and hit balls before he starts his pool match—-you want to warm up,” notes Anber. “You have to warm up. You have to get mentally into the frame of mind. I think your body has to be ready to work, blood has to be pumping through your body, there has to be a certain temperature degree that your body needs to reach in order to be that well oiled machine. I couldn’t answer factually or medically why that is, but from a practical point of view, in my opinion it’s vital that you would have to warm up to go out there.”
So what makes a great chin? Well, basically, you’re born with it.
And you don’t have one?
It can’t hurt to be conscious of your diet, to strengthen your legs, to chew some gum, and build your neck and the trapezius muscles around it. Make sure to wear headgear while training, and always be warmed up before a fight.
Truly though, the only way around sense-separating punishment for some is to avoid it altogether.
That said, some ill-fated, weak chinned fighters that knew their limitations have gone on to achieve great things in spite of them.
For those few, it makes their accomplishments all the more incredible.
Follow Hans Olson on Twitter @hanswolson.