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The Truth About Knockouts

Yves Edwards was having a dream. In the dream he sat in the locker room before his fight with Sam Stout at UFC 131 in Vancouver, talking with his coaches and his wife.

That's how he knew it was a dream, because his wife was there in the locker room with him, and also because everything seemed just a little too strange, like a photograph that seems perfectly clear out of the corner of your eye but goes blurry as soon as you look directly at it.

At one point, Stout came into his room to talk to him mere minutes before the two were supposed to fight. He doesn't exactly remember what they talked about, but he remembers it being strange, too. A backstage conversation with a guy you were about to fight. The kind of stuff that could only happen in a dream.

Only later did Edwards realize he was actually awake, that the fight was already over, and that he'd been knocked out cold in the first round.

"I don't even remember leaving the cage," Edwards said. "You really lose that time. I watched [the fight], and I still don't remember it."

It was almost as if somebody else had gone out and lost the fight for him. He knew it was him in there, but he had no memory of it. Gradually, some of it came back to him. He remembered taking Stout down and being surprised that it wasn't more difficult to do. He remembered making a mental note that he could do it again later in the fight. He remembered landing a straight left, slipping and falling on a head kick attempt, and then scrambling quickly back to his feet.

After that, nothing.

Not the right hand he threw or the left hook that Stout countered with. Definitely not the feeling of his body going limp from the punch, sagging forward for just a moment before collapsing to the mat, his head whipping back and bouncing off the canvas with a sickening thud that echoed over every voice in the arena.

The things that happened over the next fifteen or so minutes -- waking up on his back with doctors hovering over him, leaving the cage, the short conversation he had with Stout on the arena floor, the walk back to the locker room -- are things that he knows must have happened, but has no recollection of. It's as if someone hit the restart button on his brain.

That someone, of course, was Stout. And the button was located somewhere in the vicinity of his chin.
You're hoping it happens, but you never know when it's going to happen.
-- Pat Barry

You keep getting in the cage often enough, trading leather with men who punch people for a living, and eventually this will happen to you. With the thin four-ounce gloves -- not to mention the elbows, the knees, the kicks that thwack the side of your head like a baseball bat -- it's less a question of if than when. On any given night in any given cage, somebody's number is likely to come up.

When you're on the receiving end of the knockout, you usually have to watch the replay to find out what happened. When you're the one delivering, you watch it just to relive a moment you're in no danger of forgetting anyway.

As former IFL lightweight champion Ryan Schultz once described the feeling of landing a knockout blow, "it's a little like punching your fist through a bowl full of jello."

Or as UFC middleweight Tim Credeur put it, "like punching a bag of light bulbs."

According to Pat Barry, who knocked out scores of opponents in his kickboxing career, you rarely know which blow is going to be that magic shot that turns out the lights.

"Knockouts, from my experience, are pretty surprising," said Barry. "They're never really planned. You remember when Rashad Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell with that right hand? If he would have known that that right hand was going to knock [Liddell] out, he wouldn't have thrown that looping left hook right after. Most knockouts via punch are followed with another punch, because you didn't expect it. You're hoping it happens, but you never know when it's going to happen."

It's also somewhat difficult to figure out exactly why it happens, said John Brenkus, the host of ESPN's "Sport Science." In Brenkus' southern California studio, his team has tested the force of every imaginable strike with every imaginable surface, from boxing gloves to MMA gloves to bare knuckles. He can tell you exactly how hard a Cain Velasquez punch is, but, Brenkus said, "what's happening inside the body when it hits you, I think that's still up for debate."

Part of the difficulty in figuring out the exact physics of the knockout lies with how hard it is to test in a controlled setting, according to Brenkus.

"You can't hook somebody up and hit them in the head and see what happens. It's way too dangerous."

What you can do, Brenkus said, is figure out what's happening inside the skull, even if you don't always know why one blow causes it and a similar one doesn't.

"It's really about jostling the brain. When people talk about being hit on the button, it's being hit on a place on your particular skull that forces the brain to move. The button does exist, but it exists not because you can just hit it and something happens, but because the amount of force in that specific spot forces the brain to move and that creates havoc."

You just have to accept that there's a chance that somebody is going to clip you."
-- Leonard Garcia
It's when the brain slams into the skull that the system shuts down, Brenkus added, but causing that reaction isn't just a matter of sheer force -- it's also about how focused that force is. Take Lyoto Machida's jumping front kick knockout of Randy Couture, which Brenkus called the "best example of physics meeting physiology."

"We went back and we analyzed it up one side and down the other," he said. "When you look at the surface area of the point of contact, it is so much smaller than a normal punch. It was just underneath his big toe."

That concentration of force in such a small area rather than a larger one, like a fist or an entire foot, was like the difference between getting hit by a hammer and getting hit by an oar. One small point of contact focuses the impact on just the right spot rather than allowing it to spread out.

But just as some people have greater bone density or more flexible limbs, Brenkus said, some have a button that's harder to press. Fighters like Mark Hunt, for instance, displayed a seemingly superhuman ability to take punches for years, most likely because of an anomaly in his physical makeup that made his brain harder to jostle for one reason or another.

But then there are also those, like Liddell or Wanderlei Silva, whose chin goes from rock solid to dangerously fragile seemingly all at once.

The conventional wisdom -- or perhaps popular myth -- has long held that once the off-switch gets pressed, it only becomes easier and easier to hit it in every successive outing. There's very little evidence to support this theory, according to Brenkus, but the more likely answer is far simpler.

"It's like everything else. Knees blow out over time. Shoulders blow out over time. Your ability to withstand a big punch wears down over time. It happens to everybody. Father Time catches up with you, and you can only take so many blows to the head. ...You can only jostle your brain inside your skull so much before a little bit of the movement causes a big reaction."

That might explain why, for many aging fighters, one knockout tends to beget more knockouts. Then again, not all fighters buy that explanation.

"I think it's mental," said Barry. "The guys who get knocked out once and then go out and get knocked out again and again, I think it's because they're scared of that knockout. Like Andrei Arlovski. He's in the ring, and he's just waiting to get knocked out again. He's not even trying to win the fights anymore. You can see it in his body language. He's waiting, hearing that clock count down."

But even if the phenomenon of the sudden glass jaw is less physical than mental -- even if it's mostly in a fighter's head -- what's he supposed to do about it?

Take Barry, for instance. He'd never been knocked out in either kickboxing or MMA, and he seemed to be no more than a punch or two away from finishing off a wounded and wobbly Kongo. All it took was one right hand followed by one off-balance uppercut to change that. He woke up on his back with no memory of the last few seconds, and had to watch it again on video to find out how he got there.

"I watched the replay and was like, oh man, I got knocked out with my eyes open," Barry said. "I'm the guy who gets knocked and is still staring at the ceiling. My mom's watching this. How am I going to explain this to her?"

Now he has to go into every fight with that image bouncing around somewhere in his mind. Now he knows -- rather than simply suspecting or fearing -- that no matter how well he's doing at any moment, he's just one punch or kick or knee away from another nap on the mat and another loss on his record.

For some fighters, that's a mental hurdle that's tough to clear -- and they don't necessarily need to be knocked all the way out in order to be haunted by it. That's how it was for Leonard Garcia, who was rocked for the first time in his featherweight title fight against Mike Brown at WEC 39.

"That was something that had never happened to me," said Garcia. "Never. I'd never had my bell rung like that. Of course, he hit me right behind the ear and knocked my equilibrium out. That was explained to me later and I didn't have a concussion or anything. But just knowing somebody could do that to me, that was a mental thing for me."

Garcia was so woozy after that shot, he got submitted moments later and lost his chance at a championship. Worse, he started carrying that concern into his fights, he said. With his brawling style, it presented an instant problem.

"I tried to change my game up a little bit and I thought about it way too much. It affected my ability to go out there and fight like I needed to fight. I struggled with that, and I think I finally found that comfort level. You just have to accept that there's a chance that somebody is going to clip you."

But no matter how bad it looks from the couch or the cageside seats, for nearly every fighter who has started the night on his feet and ended it on his back it's still the defeat that hurts the most.

"From the other end, it really does seem scary," explained Edwards, who said his wife "freaked out" after seeing him KO'd by Stout. "Sitting, watching your friends get knocked out, and hearing them say the same things over and over again afterwards, or asking the same questions, it does seem scary. But on this side it doesn't feel as bad as it looks from the other side. It sucks. But honestly, it sucks more to have lost than to have gotten knocked out."

And that's the part of the fear all fighters have to live with. A football team with the lead can run out the clock. A baseball team can pitch around the big hitters. A fighter has nowhere to hide, and he's never so far ahead that he can't be beaten by one perfect punch.

Once it happens, he has to find a way to put it out of his mind and take that risk all over again. For Edwards, who is still under medical suspension following the knockout that UFC president Dana White called "one of the nastiest I've ever seen," that might be the hardest step in his journey back inside the cage.

"I'm not scared to get hit, like I know some guys have been after they get knocked out, where they're not the same again," he said. "I've see that happen a lot, and I don't feel like that. Of course, that's what I'm saying right now. I might get in the cage four or five months from now and be like, man, I don't want to get hit. I don't think that will happen. I hope not."

'The Truth About' is a recurring series on that takes an in-depth look at various aspects of the sport. For past installments, such as 'The Truth About Trading Tomorrow for Today' and 'The Truth About Making Weight' click here.

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