I've never taken a punch in the head from a professional boxer. If I had, I probably wouldn't have enough brain cells left to write about it. But back in the 1970s, when I was a regular visitor at Joe Frazier's Gym in North Philly, middleweight contender Bennie Briscoe occasionally gave me a love tap on the upper arm as he walked past.
It was a gesture of recognition from a bona fide badass, and as much as I cherished the acknowledgement, my arm always ached the next day. Briscoe had what is known in the fight biz as "heavy hands," and consequently, when Matthew Macklin used the term to describe the punches from Gennady Golovkin that had left him writhing in agony on the canvas, I knew what he meant.
The excitement surrounding Golovkin is understandable. From all appearances, the undefeated middleweight from Kazakhstan has almost supernatural punching power, more suited to his country's legendary hero, Manas, than a 21st-century boxer. For those who face him in the ring, however, Golovkin is all too real, a swift and crippling puncher who has now tallied 14 consecutive knockouts with no end in sight.
Centuries after dragon slayer Manas inspired an epic poem and decades after Briscoe embodied the very concept of a Philadelphia fighter, I stood just outside the Miccosukee Indian Gambling Resort's boxing venue. A few feet away, Floyd Mayweather Jr. shadowboxed in the semi-darkness of the parking lot, waiting to make his ring walk. His hands were a blur as they sliced through the humid Miami night, his boyish face aglow with sweat and a now-familiar smile.
Approximately 15 minutes later, the newly minted junior lightweight titleholder had made his first successful defense, blowing away highly ranked contender Angel Manfredy in less than two rounds. Some folks thought the fight was terminated too quickly, but when referee Frank Santore Jr. called a halt, Manfredy was trapped in a corner, reeling from a series of blistering combinations.
Regardless of one's opinion of the timing of the stoppage, nobody could deny Mayweather's freakish hand speed and pinpoint accuracy. Although he was hampered by chronic hand injuries, the speed of Mayweather's delivery produced explosive power over the next five years. Sometimes he coasted to preserve his hands, but when he was pumped, Little Floyd was lethal.
After moving up to junior welter and welterweight, his knockout percentage diminished due to a more prudent approach and the size of his opponents. Today, Mayweather is a sharp and searing puncher, but far from the thrashing machine that wasted Manfredy all those years ago.
There is a lot of truth to the old saying that punchers are born, not made. Yes, a boxer can improve his punching power by applying correct technique, but that will only take him so far. No amount of training can turn an average puncher into a knockout artist. It's either part of his DNA or it's not.
Generally speaking, big punchers can be divided into two categories: Those who have speed-based power and those with heavy hands. There are several subgroups within those categories, including the rare fighter fortunate enough to possess both qualities.
The young Mayweather was a good example of a speed-based power puncher. During their primes, the same could be said of Roy Jones Jr., Oscar De La Hoya, Naseem Hamed, Terry Norris and Shane Mosley. There have, of course, been numerous others in every category over the years, but the intent here is not to list every boxer who falls into the individual groupings. It is, rather, to explore the phenomenon by referring to illustrative samples.
Not only does velocity create power, it also enhances the element of surprise, which is why victims of speed-based power punchers almost invariably say they were hit by a punch they didn't see. Moreover, speed-based power also allows certain fighters to do things they otherwise couldn't get away with.
"Hamed's flamboyant style of clowning around in the ring was made possible by his unexpected hand speed and punching power," wrote BleacherReport.com columnist Justin Tate.
George Foreman was arguably the foremost proponent of the Heavy Hands School of Punching. Even during his first incarnation, he was never very quick, and he was even slower during his highly successful comeback. By then, however, Big George threw straight, accurate punches instead of the roundhouse swings he had previously employed, and when they connected flush, rivals fell like steers whacked by a slaughterhouse maul.
Other heavyweights in the heavy-hands group include Sam Langford, Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey and Lennox Lewis. But the classification isn't limited to fighters weighing more than 200 pounds. Light heavyweights Archie Moore, who tallied 131 knockouts (more than any other boxer in history) and Bob Foster definitely belong. So do much smaller men such as Ruben Olivares, Julian Jackson, Wilfredo Gomez and Khaosai Gallaxy. Among contemporary fighters, Adonis Stevenson, Lucas Matthysee, Marcos Maidana and Roman "El Chocolatito" Gonzalez certainly make the cut.
One of the supplementary categories consists of fighters who could bang with the best but had trouble staying on their feet. Bob Satterfield, a lights-out puncher who campaigned as a heavyweight in the 1940s and '50s, stands out among this star-crossed group. He won 35 bouts via KO, but he was also stopped himself 13 times.
"Satterfield threw so many hard punches early in a fight that he often burned himself out early and then collapsed as soon as he caught something back," wrote Bill Dettloff. "But for the first few rounds, he was hell."
Probably the most famous speed-based puncher with a chin made of china was Floyd Patterson. Before the coming of Muhammad Ali, Patterson was widely considered to have the quickest hands in heavyweight history. He won 40 fights by knockout, but he was floored an astonishing 19 times -- more than any other heavyweight champion of the gloved era.
Some claim that Earnie Shavers was the hardest puncher of them all, and regardless of whether he deserves that lofty status, nobody ranks his chin anywhere near the top. Seven of his 13 losses came inside the distance, proving yet again that many who live by the knockout are prone to suffer the same fate.
Supporters of British prospect David Price hope he isn't the next in a long line of horizontal heavyweights from the U.K. Price had streaked to 15 straight wins (13 by KO) before American Tony Thompson unceremoniously sparked him out with one punch. That was back in February; they will meet again this Saturday in Liverpool, with both Price's title aspirations and chin on the line.
And it isn't only hard-hitting heavyweights who suffer from glass jaws and/or endurance problems. It occurs in all weight classes, and some fighters of that ilk actually seem to revel in the fun of it all.
"I try to provide the fans with some excitement, whether it's me or the other guy who goes down," said Roger Mayweather, who held titles at junior lightweight and junior welter during his career. "I like it that way."
Finally, we come to the most prestigious class of knockout puncher: Fighters who are blessed with both heavy hands and speed-based power. Let's start with Joe Louis. Although he was neither overly quick nor overly slow on his feet, the "Brown Bomber" fired his right hand with devastating speed. Those who claimed the punch traveled only six inches might have been exaggerating a tad, but there's no doubt Joe's payoff punch was short, quick and deadly.
Both of the Sugar Rays -- Robinson and Leonard -- had it all, as did Manny Pacquiao, up to and including his 2009 knockout of Miguel Cotto. The same was true of Roberto Duran during his lengthy reign as lightweight champion. And we can't forget Mike Tyson, whose heavy hands and blazing speed made him one of the most feared heavyweights of all time. Sadly, that form didn't last long, and following his 1988 knockout of Michael Spinks, Tyson's skills gradually dissipated.
But what about Golovkin? Where does he fit in the range of punchers under discussion?
It will take additional fights against top-notch opposition before we know for sure. I still have some reservations. (Consider how long he labored to stop club fighter Gabriel Rosado, for instance.) Still, if he continues to ravage adversaries in the manner to which we are rapidly becoming accustomed, GGG could eventually fall into the same bracket as -- dare I say it? -- Duran, the fighter he reminds me of most.
What's more, if Golovin's greatness is confirmed, instead of a snarling Latino full of bloodlust and macho posturing, we would have a cool and casual assassin from Central Asia who shrugs at spectacular success and has, so far at least, always left us begging for more.