Letters: Which knuckles?

28 October 2006

I appreciate that this is likely a stupid question, but what is your view of the debate on which connecting knuckles are best used in punching? I ask as I have always felt that the more natural landing area is middle to little knuckle. In contrast, archaic martial arts ( and curiously also Chris Eubank, as briefly hinted at in his autobiography ) favour the landing area of the larger index and middle knuckle. This to me seems to require an unnatural twisting of the wrist on delivery and consequentially what seems to be poor first / fore-arm alignment.

–Howard Watson

It’s not a stupid question, and let’s hope I don’t give you a stupid answer.  The truth is, in a fight, because you really don’t know what part of your hand you’re going to hit with when the going really gets tough, you have to condition all of your hand, wrists, forearms.  Anything that you might be using to hit with needs to be conditioned.  With the exception of your head (although Kung Fu Tak, an old student, even used to do that! Much to my dismay.)  And I do mean anything: I once took a guy out with my hip because his head was in the perfect position and I wasn’t going to wait.  You also need to condition those parts of your body that may be on the receiving end of his blows (with the exception, again, of your head.  And your balls.  I don’t think even Kung tried that, publicly, anyway!).   

Regarding alignment, when you actually start looking for the perfect punch (whether in terms of dynamics or anatomical alignment), you’re getting caught up in an ideal, not a reality.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, you won’t get to execute anything like a perfect shot.  And if you try, you’ll be waiting for fucking ever.  Sure, you’ll see the occasional knockout with the ‘perfect’ left hook or right cross or round kick, but these are exceptions rather than the rule.  It’s always better to play the percentage of what the fight’s going to be, rather than what you/your master want it to be.  And it’s going to be chaotic.   

Martial artists tend to look at alignments in terms of the vertical plane: the military position.  This is understandable, because as you’ll read elsewhere on the site, martial arts in Japan and Korea were a part of the militaristic system.  But leaving aside your own observations, consider the observations of kinesiologists over the course of many years.  Most movement responses take place in the diagonal plane.  It’s within this plane that more forces are coupled, with the head providing the rooting and stabilization of the axis.  Angles are not only tactical, they are biomechanically more effective.  You somehow have to try to marry the tactics and the dynamics of natural movements in the fight.  

If you’re doing static work like breaking bricks or punching makiwaras, that’s something that will damage you if you don’t get the angle right, particularly if you’re putting in full power.  Then, obviously, anatomical alignment is important.  When I look at the films I have of myself doing breaks, sometimes I’ve used the bottom three knuckles , sometimes the top.  Much of it depends on the angle of the strike.  But as these angles are unpredictable within a fight, just as the forces acting upon you and created by you are unpredictable as they occur, you have to act as the opportunity arises.  And that opportunity isn’t usually pitch-perfect.  So you hit him with whatever you’ve got available at the time, wherever it is, on the feet, on the ground, you name it.  That’s why Emelianenko is a great fighter.  He hasn’t got caught up in the detail.  He’s just concerned with the hitting.  

No matter what you’re hitting, one of the problems is putting too much power into the shot, particularly if you’re not wearing a mitt or a glove.  That’s when usually the problems occur: going for the big one-punch kill.  If you get it right (which is rare), great.  But if you get it wrong, or you hit him wrong, then tough shit.  You could disastrously miss him, or, if you hit him with a part you haven’t conditioned, you could damage your hand.  That’s why punches with the knuckles (as opposed to using your hands like clubs) are best done short and repetitive (in a cyclonic, chainsaw action as opposed to a piston-like action).  You get a cumulative effect: stunning, cuts, disorientation, disruption of breathing and vision, etc.  and you also create openings for bigger shots with the elbows, knees, and takedowns and finishes.  Because the shots are less powerful individually, the damage to your hands in a street situation is lessened.  And because your actions are shorter, they can be more rapid.  This means that you can not only deal with the retaliation of one guy better, but you can also deal with other guys in the mix.  They’re going to find it harder to enter your space, time, and rhythm. 

But really, the only way you find out what you need is not by my technical reply, but by actually engaging in reality-based scenarios and situations within training, where the responses are not prescribed.  If you do this often enough, against those who are good enough, the answer will be forthcoming.

One idea, when you are conditioning your hands, is to wear gloves. One of my favorite shots is performed like a claw-hammer, particularly to the liver. It produces a ripping effect, and guys go down like sacks of shit if you get them with that one. But if you’re hitting the bag with all different angles with a ripping effect like you’re trying to take chunks out of it (rather than compressing it) you will graze your hands.  Preferably, use the old Lonsdale-type gloves which are thin mitts with an iron bar across the top of the palm that you can grip onto.  This is because the hand isn’t really strong unless it’s actually gripping on to something; this is how it was designed.  Your jaw is the same way; biting on to something like a gumshield or a rag strengthens the structure.  If you don’t have the bar in the glove, you can still get this effect.  I used to get a piece of paper, roll it up, and hold it in my hand.  When you’re doing these vicious, ripping power shots, you grip onto it.  The bar in the hand facilitates the momentum of the shot, which enhances your sense of ‘throwing’ your fist–very important biomechanically.  Proprioceptively, gripping on the palm increases the response of the extensors.  What I found, not intentionally, but because I used to engage in a lot of slapping on the bag as well, was that after a time my palm got thicker, and that actually aided in my grip.  I developed what I used to call a ‘fat hand’. By gripping my own flesh, I could do more than some guys, who have got really skinny hands and have nothing to grip on to.   

With regards to conditioning of the skin, dit dat jow (herbal medicines for conditioning muscles and skin) didn’t have really much effect.  I experimented with it a lot, but you just end up smelling like a polecat (maybe this is one way to keep your opponent at a distance!)  Same with wine and vinegar, though I never got round to the old prescribed method of sheep’s piss and vinegar.  I’m committed, but I’m not that committed!

I found that if I wore a light pair of gloves and got into some really heavy bag work, really ripped into that bag for an hour or so in short-duration intervals, the conditioning just came.  I could then take the gloves off and the feeling of power was there.  And that’s the important bit: having the sense of the destructive effect you want to cause, the generative forces you need, and the kinesthetic perception of how you’re going to produce them.  All of this is translated within the integrative action of the CNS into a response, at an unconscious level.  Your unconscious takes care of the details.

As regarding form, to show how diametrically opposite I am to some people, when I did the article for Traditional Karate nearly twenty years ago, people were coming back saying my hands were in the ‘wrong position’ in the photographs.  But those people weren’t present to see what I was doing to the bag, or what I’ve done to people.  Form is the consequence of what you need to do, and therefore it’s always different in the details.  I’m not a robot, and neither should you be.