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The forgotten science of the vertical punch

Exponents of ancient fighting arts such as Pankration and Pugilatum, European medieval combat arts’ experts, Chinese martial artists (image 1) and Siamese warriors (image 2), they all knew the efficiency of the straight vertical punch for hand to hand fighting.
Also 18th century bare knuckle boxers and fighters with gloves in 19th (images 3 and 4) and early 20th century (image 5) in Europe and America, who made a science of fist fighting, used to throw straight punches in the thumb up position.
This way of punching is opposed to the palm down fist position that is common in many Martial Arts as well as in modern Boxing.

1. China-1915

2. Phra-Palad-Thaen-1824

In Thailand, according to Master Chaisawat, the standard hand position for straight punching is thumb up (image 6). The original reason was that a warrior who carried a sword (the Thai Daab, in this case) may be forced to punch straight forward in close range fighting situations. It is clear that to do that he had to keep his closed hand vertical because twisting his fist was not an option while the sword was in his hand. Bare hand techniques followed the biomechanics of armed fighting: therefore the basic straight head punch was executed with a vertical fist. Furthermore, the style of north-east Thailand, Muay Korat, has made the vertical straight punch, a true trademark of that system, feared by the exponents of all other regional styles. The question is: why this efficient hand position so common in the past is no more practised nowadays, when thousands of expert fighters around the globe have used it with great results for centuries?
The answer may be found in the words of Boxing’s great Jack Dempsey who studied punching for real fighting like very few of his fellow champions ever did. In his 1950 text book on Fist Fighting (i.e., the sweet science of self-defence, not the sport of Boxing) titled Championship Fighting: explosive punching and aggressive defence he made clear that a fundamental concept in punching is the principle of power lines. In straight punching, the power line is an imaginary line that runs from the body through the shoulder and elbow and exits at the 3 bottom knuckles of the vertical fist. Since this position is anatomically strong and safe for the striker, it is the purest and more powerful way to throw a straight punch. According to Dempsey, the basics of real punching are not taught to beginners and the extremely important concept of the power line has been forgotten.



Let’s try to further analyse this concept.
In bare knuckle punching it advisable to strike with the largest and flattest surface of the closed fist in order to spread the force of the impact over a larger area. That means it is right to hit with the three lowest knuckles,i.e., the pinkie, the ring finger and the middle finger. The ring finger knuckle is the viewfinder we shall use to aim the target. Our anatomy determines the efficiency of the thumb up hand position: in fact, if you keep your arm extended and clench your fist in the vertical position, you will notice that a straight line runs from your shoulder to the three bottom knuckles. The same is not true with the first two knuckles. Therefore, since by striking with the bottom part of the fist you get a straight line from the hand to the elbow and then to the shoulder, the vertical punch is anatomically more solid than the palm down punch. This way of striking, based on correct body mechanics, offers the most solid line to absorb the kinetic energy of the strike. When you exert your energy on an object (the target) you will get back the same amount of energy. This is Newton’s 3rd law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


Therefore, the harder you punch, the more energy you will have to withstand. In vertical fist punching, the entire arm (not just a part of it) absorbs the energy of the blow that is projected back into the striking hand. The easiest way to “feel” this (as Dempsey advocates) is to stiffly extend your arm towards a wall pressing your fist held in the vertical position at chin-height. Lean your body and let your arm support all your weight. You will notice that the 3 lowest knuckles provide a natural solid support to your weight. You will feel a strong line of energy that runs from your body to your shoulder, elbow, wrist and the 3 lowest knuckles. You are actually feeling the vertical straight punches’ power line. That’s the famous “three knuckles landing” that Jack Dempsey considered the best application of a pure power line. A vertical straight punch has many possible application, as far as distance from the opponent is concerned. The most obvious applications are at a long range but even at close range it can be an impressive weapon.


Long range applications.
Most of the times, a vertical straight punch ought to be used to attack the opponent from a distance, while out-fighting. An explosive forward step and a well-timed straight lead is all you need to knock your opponent out cold. This is what Jack Dempsey called explosive punching: step forward as if you were falling down and throw you punch along the power line, remembering to aim with the ring finger knuckle. In Muay Lert Rit the kind of energy expressed by the powerful combination of forward step and simultaneous straight blow is called “the poisoned arrow” (image 7).
In fact, the punch thrown with this explosive power is comparable to an arrow thrown by a large bow which causes irreparable damage if it connects with vulnerable targets. Indeed, if you connect with the opponent’s chin, jaw, eye socket or nose, chances are he will be put down and out.


At long range, you can also apply the step and vertical punch against roundhouse kicks (like in the Combat Muay Boran technique called “the crow pecks the egg”). When the opponent is starting to turn his hips to swing his leg, waste no time and take a quick forward step exploding with a powerful vertical straight punch, smashing into the target (his face, throat or side of the head). A quick knock out is oftentimes the dramatic result of this maneuver (image 8 ).


Short range applications.
In some instances you are forced to punch from a short distance from the target. This is the case of grappling situations where you don’t want to wrestle with the opponent and instead you prefer to trap and strike. Even at grappling range, a vertical straight punch may be your best choice to quickly knock your opponent out. In fact, the vertical punch also allows for great power at short distance from the target. This is mainly due to the anatomically correct position of the shoulder. In fact, when the arm is extended in front of you and the fist is in the thumb up position, the shoulder is naturally connected to the body and is locked in a position that strongly connects your body mass with your arm, This is a guarantee of optimal energy transfer and safety for the striker in the moment of impact.

For more information about the vertical punch and its applications: official IMBA Lert Rit guide