- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Boxing purists don’t call the sport the “sweet science” for nothing.

When the bell rings, boxers go through a series of athletic moves that depend mightily on science. Everything from the biology of the knockout to the size and make of the boxing glove administering it relies on science.

The simple art of a knockout punch involves a series of chemical reactions that can leave a fighter dazed for seconds or much longer, says Dr. Douglas Frankel, a Rockville-based fighters physician.

A knockout, or loss of consciousness, happens for one of three reasons, the trauma expert says.

When a boxer is on the business end of a serious blow, the jolt is comparable to what is felt during a car accident, he says.

“The brain bangs against the opposite side of the skull,” he says. That’s one reason a fighter might drop to the canvas. “The brain doesn’t like any change at all.”

Another is that the boxer may suffer a disruption in the nerve message systems of the brain.

Finally, a fighter could experience a change in his body’s circulatory flow, also known as the shearing force, from the punch.

Knockouts, Dr. Frankel adds, can occur in the ring without a telltale crushing blow.

“A sudden jerk of the head or twisting could cause a change in the electrical or blood flow,” he says.

Or it could come from a steady procession of blows, one reason today’s referees often stop a fight if one puncher lands repeated blows to his opponent’s head without the fighter offering a defense or counterattack.

One way to revive a fallen or dazed fighter is to wave smelling salts under his nose. Those salts are made up of ammonium carbonate and a perfume material to create a fast-acting stimulant that triggers the inhalation reflex. The fumes are absorbed by the mucus membrane in the nose and, seconds later, those in the lungs. That, in turn, triggers the muscles that control breathing to work faster, forcing more oxygen into the person’s system and quickening his awakening.

Dr. Frankel says the salts might work as intended, but physicians often prefer not to use them because they can mask serious symptoms. A boxer who gets an artificial boost from smelling salts might be robbing the ringside doctor of key information regarding how long the boxer would have stayed unconscious, he says.

Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, Washington Hospital Center’s director of sports medicine, says doctors aren’t sure why a boxer springs back to life after a knockout.

“It’s kind of like a shock to the brain. The body partially shuts down and then recovers spontaneously,” Dr. Douoguih says.

The big blow itself might not look impressive to those at ringside. That doesn’t mean the punch defied the laws of physics.

“They say, ‘You just caught it right.’ The more force and the greater the impact, the greater potential for damage,” Dr. Douoguih says.

Even if it doesn’t appear that the punch had that kind of speed and force.

Take former heavyweight George Foreman, for example. Dr. Douoguih says the pudgy pugilist had “deceptive quickness,” which added oomph to his punches.

Dennis Reilly, a former boxer and physical trainer based in Plantation, Fla., understands the sweet science label better than most.

“A lot of people think it’s a brutal sport. They don’t think about adapting to someone’s [fighting] style or the different things you have to do,” Mr. Reilly says. “There are so many things involved with boxing.”

Just throwing a punch demonstrates a boxer’s understanding of how to generate speed and power.

“Everything comes from the core,” Mr. Reilly says. “You’re turning the hips, and you want to keep the left foot down and turn on the right … put your whole body into it.”

Mr. Reilly adds that a jab — a short, snapping punch — doesn’t involve that kind of physics.

“It’s a setup punch for your power punch,” he says, but a jab from a heavyweight still can knock someone down.

Mr. Reilly, who had 12 professional fights and also played for football’s New York Giants, says a boxer’s hands are meticulously wrapped in tape and gauze before the boxing gloves are put on.

“After they tape your hands up, it feels like you could kill somebody,” he says.

That’s why boxing gloves play such a crucial part in the sport’s safety measures.

Mr. Reilly says that during the 1970s, boxers used to enter the ring wearing 8-ounce gloves, but today they’re more likely to be sporting 10-ounce models. Boxers 147 pounds and lighter still use 8-ounce models.

“The lighter the glove, the more damage it can do,” he explains, because less material stands between the fighter’s clenched fist and his opponent’s jaw.

Some boxers also use headgear to minimize the sport’s health risks.

It isn’t foolproof.

“I’ve seen people get dropped, even while sparring, with the headgear on,” Mr. Reilly says, adding that boxers need to wear models that fit properly so the blows don’t knock the material into their line of sight.

Adam Geisler, director of marketing for Everlast Worldwide sporting goods company, says the right headgear does more than absorb some of a punch’s impact. It also can prevent facial lacerations and burst eardrums. Everlast’s headgear, like the kind worn at the amateur level and during sparring, features what he calls “ear channels” that dissipate the air pressure from a blow to the side of the head to protect the eardrum.

Joe Guzman, Everlast’s director of professional boxing, says when former champion Joe Louis ruled the sport, boxing gloves weighed but 6 ounces.

Today, not only does the average glove weigh more, but companies such as Everlast also have ditched the horsehair that formed the gloves’ main padding in favor of foam and turned to seamless thumbs to prevent cuts.

Everlast also offers specialized glove wraps for those fighters who may not know how to tape their hands properly before a fight.

The gloves, designed by hand surgeon Dr. Charles Malone, protect the knuckles and tendons with a gel padding covered by neoprene wrapping. Velcro wraps keep the wrists’ position firm to provide further support.

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