The Science of a
Boxing fans live for the thrill of a
knockout punch. But that KO comes at a steep physical price for the
Right jab, left hook, right jab, and then
... bam! Knockout.
There is nothing more exhilarating for a
boxing audience than to see a fighter hit the mat in a knockout. But
being on the losing end of a KO punch can damage a lot more than a
pugilist's pride—research suggests that the blows that cause
knockouts can be debilitating to a boxer's short and long-term
Repeated blows to the brain can cause
chronic damage such as personality changes and dementia. If the
punches have enough impact to cause uncontrollable brain swelling or
hemorrhage, the fighter could even die.
So what causes a knockout? Concussions, and
lots of them. While it often seems as though the effect is caused by
a single well-placed shot, it is usually the result of many quick
punches. Each punch creates a concussion (technically defined as any
head injury that causes a disruption of neurological function), and
each concussion brings the boxer closer to a state of darkness.
Here's how it happens: The body contains
dissolved sodium, potassium and calcium, collectively known as
electrolytes, which are responsible for conducting impulses along
neurons. Every time a fighter receives a blow to a nerve, potassium
leaves the cell and calcium rushes in, destabilizing the electrolyte
balance, while the brain does all it can to keep these levels in
balance. With each successive blow, this balance becomes harder and
harder to maintain, and more and more energy must be spent in the
process. When the body reaches the point where the damage outweighs
the body's ability to repair itself, the brain shuts down to
conserve enough energy to fix the injured neurons at a later point.
"After a brain injury, the heart must supply
sufficient blood flow for the brain to repair itself. If the demand
outweighs the supply the brain then shuts down and leads to an
eventual loss of consciousness," says Anthony Alessi, M.D., a
neurologist and ringside physician for the Connecticut State Boxing
Commission. "That's when I know to end the match, because if we keep
going the fighter is going to die."
Surprisingly, the boxer's feet are often the
first clear signal that he is on the verge of being knocked out.
When the neural networks that emanate from the cerebellum (the part
of the brain responsible for coordinating motor activity) are
disrupted by a concussion, a fighter loses his ability to coordinate
"They become flat-footed, which is the
inability to adjust. Boxers can't move forward or backward quickly,"
Alessi says. "As you watch their feet, you realize that the same
lack of coordination is going on in their upper extremities in their
hands. And eventually they are unable to defend themselves."
Once their feet start to go, they are often
just a single punch away from a knockout.
Back | Top | Next