IntroWhile sparring, most martial arts, including taekwondo, require students to hear wear hand protectors. In class, they strike padded bags, padded target paddles, and padded body shields. When breaking with hand techniques, most students prefer to use the elbow, hammer fist, or palm heel and tend to avoid using the fore fist punch.
None of these practices help prepare a student for punching something hard with a bare hand such as a skull. When sparring, most students use the fore fist punch so, on the street, most will use a fore fist punch and most will punch to the head. When this happens, since they have only training using punches against padded targets, the knuckles, hand, or wrist are usually damaged more than the attacker's face. For self-defense purposes, students need to learn to punch with bare knuckles since they won’t be wearing safety equipment on the street.
Bare knucklesLook at the structure of the human hand; it is designed more for gripping, than for punching. The opposing thumb and its position on the hand provide an increased gripping ability, which is one reason why defensive techniques that use grabbing and grappling seem easier and more natural to do than ones that require punching. When children hit each other, it is usually with open hand slaps or hammer fist type strikes, rather than direct punches with the fist. The thumb and fingers that make gripping so easy are relatively fragile so punching safely requires proper training to help prevent the thumb or fingers from being jammed, sprained, or broken.
When you make a fist, there is a small but discernible gap in the finger/palm area. This is because nature intended some object to be in that gap. The natural position of the hand is with the thumb and fingers relaxed, not in a fist. Proper punching requires the hand to be in a properly formed fist or injury may result. To hold a tightly closed fist requires intent, mental concentration, and a great degree of muscle contraction.
Early karateka trained to build large calluses on the knuckles so the fist almost became a solid object. However, for self-defense purposes, this is not needed and it is almost impossible to undo. The late Karate master Masutaru Oyama, the founder of the kyokushinkai style of karate, was well known for the development of his fist and knuckles, his breaking prowess, and his ability to knock out bulls in the bullring. He developed his fists using ancient iron hand training techniques until his first two knuckles looked more like a single knuckle. Although this made it easier to break objects, it meant he was unable to pick up small objects. He gave up dexterity to develop what was essentially clubs at the end of his wrists.
This training was acceptable centuries ago when being a warrior was a way of life. However, nowadays we like to write, text on our smartphones, and play computer games so we need flexible fingers and thumbs. Since most people will never be in a self-defense situation during their lifetimes and, if they are there are other more effective ways to defend themselves than punching to the head.
Nowadays, we prefer to learn proper punching techniques, so our hands are not deformed. Proper training for punching still involves some impact training but more importantly, it involves an understanding of correct punching technique and constant training to make correct punching as natural as walking.
Impact trainingRepetitious punching the makiwara, sandbags, or bags of pebbles will harden the outer skin of the knuckles, but it hampers knuckle movement, so it is not recommended. Impact training is not so much to develop the fist as it is to strengthen the wrist, which must be locked during impact to prevent it from being injured. However, there are easier ways to develop the wrist, such as push-ups on the knuckles or on spread fingertips and wrist curls with weights.
To learn how to punch a person with bare knuckles, watch and learn from people who once did it for a living or now do it for sport, such as bare-knuckle boxers. Early bare-knuckle boxers of the 1800s punched heavy canvas punching bags to toughen their hands on the rough canvas surface. Afterward, they rubbed sheep urine and alum crystals into their hands to toughen them even more. Nowadays, a better substitute is to rub the hands with methylated spirits. After punching a heavy canvas bag, the knuckles will be reddened, so rub them in the spirits and let them dry. After a month of doing this three or four times a week, the skin on the knuckles will become quite tough.
Impact area of the fistKarate style punches were created to penetrate the wooden armor of the common samurai warrior (only the officers could afford metal armor). The punches impacted with the first two knuckles with hopes the wood would break and the broken ends would possibly jab into the soldier.
Some think the impact area of a punch should be the last three knuckles. In this position, the top of the fist is not parallel to the floor; the first knuckle is angled inward and downward about 30-degrees, so the last three knuckles are in line with the wrist and the forearm. It’s debatable which way is best, so use the method you are taught by your instructor. If you practice both ways, when you are suddenly attacked on the street, you will end up using something in between the two that is ineffective.
Last bare-knuckle prize fightJohn L. Sullivan was devastating puncher who toured the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s offering $1,000 to anyone who could last 4 rounds in the ring with him. By 1889 he had flattened 59 men in a row, most in the first round, none in the fourth.
Then, on July 8, 1889, at 10 A.M. in Richburg, Mississippi, in 100-degree heat, Sullivan faced Jake Kilrain, a well-conditioned fighter from Baltimore, in the ring. Even though bare-knuckle fighting was illegal in all 38 states, a crowd of about 3,000 had gathered, most of which had come by train from New Orleans.
Kilrain was not a slugger but he had endurance and he was a good wrestler, and wrestling skills were useful in bare-knuckle fighting where grappling was allowed. and a fall could be almost as punishing as a hard punch. Kilrain's fight plan was to avoid toe-to-toe slugging and to sidestep Sullivan's rushes. Sullivan drank a lot, so there was some doubt about his being able to beat Kilrain.
By the 4th round (which lasted over 15 minutes since a round ended only when a man went down), Kilrain’s tactics drove Sullivan into a fury.
In the 7th round, as the fighters clinched, a Kilrain hook to Sullivan’s head brought blood from Sullivan's ear. Referee John Fitzpatrick called "First blood, Kilrain," and money changed hands in the crowd; betting was always heavy on first blood and first knockdown.
In the 8th round, Sullivan scored the first clean knockdown.
The blood-soaked fighters fought on until 30th round when Sullivan seemed to be gaining an edge. Kilrain was tiring and Sullivan was now scoring all the knockdowns and most of the falls.
Finally, in the 75th round, after 2 hours and 16 minutes of fighting, on a recommendation from the ring doctor, Kilrain's corner tossed in the sponge and the fight was over.
After the fight, Sullivan was the champion by popular acclaim but Richard K. Fox, the publisher of the Police Gazette, ignored Sullivan's claim and awarded the Gazette's championship belt to Kilrain.
Soon after this fight, the bare-knuckle rules were replaced by the modern Queensberry rules and gloves were required in prizefights. Three years later, Sullivan lost his crown to Jim Corbett in a glove fight. Kilrain was a pallbearer at Sullivan's funeral in 1918 and lived until 1937 when he died at age 78.