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The secrets of taking a punch

Hamed V Wayne McCullough taking a punch
Is there a secret to taking a punch? In order to find out, Elliot Worsell speaks to three former world titlists, each known for having a great chin

ONE moment he was doing all he could to avoid the punches of his opponent and the next he was sitting in a hotel room watching television with his wife. He remembers the punches but not the day of the week, the room number, or what played on screen. It was quick. All of it. It was time travel, it was transference, and it was terrifying.

It had all been caused by a single blow to the chin.

“The only time I was out on my feet was against Victor Rabanales,” said Wayne McCullough, who boxed Rabanales in June 1994. “I fought him in my 13th fight and he was a former world champion who hit me with some devastating shots and almost took my head off my shoulders.

“I remember I was watching TV with my wife in the hotel room after one of the punches landed. I thought I was somewhere else. It was almost a calming effect. You relax. Then all of a sudden I saw black and a flashing light and three people in front of me. I remember nodding at him and he didn’t even know. I didn’t show any real signs of being hurt but I knew I had been. I knew I had just gone somewhere else.”

That night McCullough managed to stay upright, go the distance, and ultimately win a unanimous decision after 12 rounds. He then later watched television in his hotel room with his wife – for real this time. Had McCullough not been blessed with the ability to hold a shot, his night, and his memory of this night, might have been dramatically different. His career, too, might have been defined not by a WBC bantamweight title and heroic performances against legends but instead knockout defeats, headaches, and disappointment.

McCullough, though, was one of the lucky ones. He was, as both an amateur and pro, a boxer for whom a shot on the chin did not have to signal The End but merely acted as a reminder that he should do a better job of protecting himself. He was a boxer so tough he experienced everything in boxing except the sensation of being put on the canvas – either on fight night or in the gym – and then having to drag himself upright.

As one of the lucky ones, McCullough accepts that just as punches vary in terms of the power they carry, so do chins in terms of their ability to withstand power. Some absorb the heaviest of punches, while others disintegrate when caught by even the most innocuous blow. This we all know but nobody knows why. All we know, in fact, is that a chin, like power, cannot be developed, changed, or improved. You get what you are given and you better either learn to protect it or, if gifted a good one, understand that it benefits no boxer to rely too much on it.

“I think it’s all to do with genetics,” said former WBO middleweight and super-middleweight champion Steve Collins. “I had an uncle who was one of the hardest men in amateur boxing. He bashed up the Krays and he bashed up everybody. He wasn’t a great puncher but he was the toughest man you’ll ever see. I then had another uncle on my mother’s side who was an Irish middleweight and heavyweight champion, and also British army champion, and he used to spar and not even know he was being hit. It was pointless sparring him. He just wasn’t fussed.

“So, I guess it’s hereditary. Some guys can train as hard as possible and do everything right in the gym and on fight night one punch undoes everything. Then there are other guys who perhaps don’t train as hard and don’t fight intelligently who can somehow weather the storm and take punches without flinching.”

Collins, a proud Irishman, boxed professionally for 11 years and lost just three of 39 fights. He was never stopped during this time, nor did he ever imagine, much less fear, the possibility of one day being left on his back.

“Mindset has something to do with it as well,” he said. “I never accepted the possibility I could be knocked out.

“On reflection, I reckon there were actually times when I was knocked out on my feet but I stayed upright because I wouldn’t accept the reality.” He laughed. He can afford to now. “What was I thinking? That’s madness. But that’s the mindset I thought you had to have. It worked at the time but I do look back now and think, Oh my God, what was all that about?”

McCullough, 27-7 (18), also attributes his own chin to genetics and believes his environment, too, may well have played a part in his ability to keep motoring forward. If it didn’t harden his jaw necessarily, growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland surely did something to McCullough’s perception of what is painful and what is not.

“Maybe my upbringing had something to do with my toughness,” he said. “Growing up in Belfast doesn’t mean you have been born with a chin but you certainly feel like an adult when you’re a kid and you learn quickly that you need to be tough to survive. When you see people being shot, hear bombs going off, and have to deal with hatred between religions for no reason, you develop a toughness.

“Also, my doctor said my skull was twice as thick as the average person’s, so maybe that helped too. Maybe it’s like a shock absorber. By the time the punch registers with the brain, it forgets. I heard [Julio Cesar] Chavez has that as well. It’s not a bad thing to have in common.”

Nottingham’s Carl Froch, a former world champion in Collins’ old super-middleweight division, was another man revered for his grit and determination. He, like Collins, never came close to being stopped in a 35-fight pro career and was somehow able to walk through punches one would expect to fell trees, never mind 12-stone men.

Carl Froch on taking a punch

“I’ve been blessed with a solid jaw, and I know that because if I didn’t have a good chin I guarantee I would have at least two or three knockout defeats to my name,” Froch, 33-2 (24), said. “Fighters with good chins still get hit and hurt by punches, but they react to them differently. Rather than taking a shot and landing flat on my back in a daze, I can recall each time I’ve been buzzed and remember exactly how I felt at the time. Fighters with bad chins, or even just decent chins, don’t remember stuff like that. They switch off and short circuit when something big lands on their chin. I was still able to think fairly rationally when hit by something big. I was aware of what was going on, even if I happened to be a bit hurt by the punch itself.”

It could be argued one of the perks of owning a good chin is that it increases a boxer’s ability to remember and recall details of fights in a way foreign to those not as blessed in that department. McCullough channel-hopping with his wife in their hotel room while under fire from Rabanales, for example, is not the sort of account a boxer prone to being knocked out will be able to provide if asked to take their mind back to 1994. Similarly, Collins, the scourge of men like Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, can describe not only the sights and sounds of his time in the ring with big punchers but also the tastes.

“Nigel Benn was easily the hardest puncher I ever faced,” he said. “If Nigel Benn knew how hard he hit, he would still be boxing today. He never even knew it. He didn’t even think he hit me clean. I put him right on that and I’m having flashbacks now just thinking of all the times he did catch me. It was horrible. It was sickening. It left this taste in my mouth. I felt sick. He would then come back with another one and I would think, ‘What am I doing here? I should have been a footballer. As soon as this fight’s over, I’m packing it in.’ But then the fight ends and you forget all about it.
“Pain was nothing to me really. I knew when I’d been tagged, but I’d block it out. I didn’t want them seeing. I’d never change my expression. I felt the shots, of course I did, but my opponents might not have known that at the time. And that’s the most important thing.”

The punches endure. They leave an impression. Some stick around so long, in fact, that they often outlast the boxer who threw them, as proven in the case of Carl Froch, whose biggest crisis points arrived early and may come as a surprise.

“Early on in my career Robin Reid hit me with a really big overhand right,” said Froch, “and that was probably the most hurtful shot I had taken in my career. Vage Kocharyan also caught me with a good shot that I’ll always remember.

“Then there was Varuzhan Davtyan. He hit me with an absolute pi**er back in the day. I felt that one run right down my leg all the way to my foot. I can still remember the moment it landed and how I felt. I backed Davtyan up to a corner, continued backing him up, got a little bit wild, and then I remember him putting his head down and winding one up straight on to my chin. I then backed up, ducked the next shot and the one after that, rolled a little bit, and the bell went. As I walked back to my corner I thought, ‘F**king hell, that hurt.’

“When I watched it back on the replay, it was an absolute pi**er. My arms were down by my sides and I was backing him up into a corner and he just threw a Hail Mary over the top that nearly paid off. Some of those can hit you and flatten you. You don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It’s best to just not get lazy and try avoiding them altogether.”

To a man, they do. They try. They develop ways of avoiding punches and damage and will rarely seek out punishment, even if the image of them taking it and sucking it up is the one that both sustains and brings them respect. “I was caught flush by punches now and again but if you really look at it I wasn’t taking as many clean shots as people probably thought,” said Collins, 36-3 (21). “I learnt the ability to ride shots while based in America and I think I used that to good effect at times. Roberto Duran was the same. He would get hit with shots but ride them and move with them to lessen the impact. I still got caught flush, obviously, and I could take it, but it wasn’t very often. I never took a beating.”

“People think I got hit a lot because I was able to take a good shot,” said McCullough. “But that wasn’t the case. “Eddie [Futch, coach] always showed me these little moves, like tilting your head, catching shots with your palm, and giving your opponent your temple. Eddie practised these with me when I came here [to America]. He would teach me to block body shots with my elbows and then deal with head shots by tilting my head a little bit. But the commentators watching my fights weren’t seeing or remarking on that. They were just seeing the one big shot I got hit with now and again. They would always say, ‘How does he take that shot?’ I did have a good chin, thank goodness, but I didn’t get hit as much as people thought. If I did get hit that much, we wouldn’t be speaking now. I wouldn’t be able to put a sentence together.”

As well as lucid, these men know what it takes to be tough, they know how it feels, and they know, also, that their club is a small and exclusive one. Within this club McCullough considers Julio Cesar Chavez the benchmark of toughness, while Collins, in 1995, met what he believed was something like his equal. “I was never in the ring with a tougher man than Chris Eubank,” he said. “I mean, I had tougher fights, in terms of styles, but never did I hit someone as hard and tough as Eubank. It became abundantly clear just seconds into our first fight that he wasn’t shifting. He was there for the duration and I knew it. He was going to stand there with me and punch when I did and go blow-for-blow the whole way.

Steve Collins on taking a punch

“I caught him with shots that I know hurt him – and I could point out those shots to this day – but because he’s such a tough guy, mentally and physically, most people watching at home would never realise he was hurt. It’s only because I was right there with him, feeling everything he felt, sharing the same experience, that I could sense he was hurt. Even then, within half a minute of me sensing he was hurt, he’d be chucking back dangerous right hands, hard enough to take you out. That’s a very rare ability.

“Sometimes you can be too tough for your own good, though, and I think Eubank’s last two fights against Carl Thompson at cruiserweight were too much for him. He took more punishment in those two fights than he did in all his previous fights combined. Thompson was a big, hard-hitting cruiserweight and even then Eubank was willing to stand and trade with him. That shows what courage the guy had, but he also took a lot of punishment.”

McCullough has an alternative word for toughness: craziness. He considers himself crazy to have eaten the big shots he did during his career but doesn’t regret it and is just as quick to point out the method behind his approach. “I remember when I fought [Erik] Morales, he hit me hard, and I yelled at him to hit me harder,” he said. “It was almost like a game to me. I knew he was hitting me with shots that had, in the past, knocked people over and now he couldn’t achieve the same result against me. It was the same with [Naseem] Hamed. When he hit me with a great shot on the chin, I felt a little spark – like, oh s**t – but I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I was going to go straight back at him and that’s what I did.

“When you fight a guy who’s known as a big puncher, if you go straight back at them after they land their best shot I think you break their heart a little bit. Hamed had 18 knockouts in a row and Morales had nine knockouts in a row when they fought me. After fighting me, though, their knockout ratios diminished and they lost fights as well. I’m not saying I’m responsible for that but I put them through hard fights and showed them they wouldn’t knock out everybody they hit.”

The sensible thing to do at this point is to reiterate that a solid chin can be both a blessing and a curse. As defence and back-up – that is, used correctly – it will naturally stand a boxer in good stead. However, if used incorrectly, or embraced as some kind of attribute, there is always the danger of it being overused and then, in time, disappearing altogether.

“Even if you’ve got a good chin, you can’t depend on it,” said McCullough. “I’ve spoken to people who have been knocked out and they say that every time they have been knocked out it has depreciated them a little bit and their punch resistance has decreased as a result. You basically get weaker and weaker.

“I didn’t want to get to the point where my chin was just completely smashed and I ended up on my back. But that could have happened if I went on and on.

“I have brain scans regularly and nothing has changed in mine, thankfully. One thing they do say, however, is that your skull changes as you get older and that the top part of your head sort of opens up a little bit. They say it’s perfectly normal but it’s probably not so normal if you’re still getting hit upside the head for a living.”

Never will the likes of Carl Froch, Steve Collins and Wayne McCullough be synonymous with elusiveness. Yet, in the end, each one of them mastered an art lost on many: the art of escape.

For if great chins weather storms, the greatest chins belong to the boxers who were able to not only remember situations in which their chin came to the rescue but realised why being bulletproof wasn’t something they could ever take for granted or use as a weapon.

Tough boxers, even the toughest, will eventually get knocked down and out, whereas the smart ones tend to anticipate and see it coming – the punch, the end – and try to then avoid it.

Which is to say, perhaps, in boxing, the only thing more crucial to survival than toughness is good timing.

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