taking a punch to the face

What Happens When You Get Punched in the Face

It’s easy to work out in a boxing gym, pounding the heavy bag, focusing on your combinations, power, footwork, and cardio. You can do round after round on the speed bag and double-end bag, getting your timing and coordination right. But when you get in the ring and get punched in the face that very first time, pretty much everything you’ve worked so hard to learn flies straight out the window.

Mike Tyson said it well. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

When you’re working with newer boxers, it’s not hard to accidentally tag them hard. Even if I’m pulling punches, working for touches rather than hard hits, sometimes they walk into one. And it is no fun, I know from experience. That damn glove pops you bam! on nose and you think, Shit! What the hell was that!?

You immediately drop your guard, your plan, your everything, and try to figure out whether or not you’re bleeding, whether this is important, whether or not you intend to keep boxing.

I did this to a friend in the ring recently, so it’s fresh in my mind. And I’m remembering my first few (dozen, hah) sparring rounds and how much of a shock it was to actually be hit, hard. Not necessarily because someone has it in for you, but come on, this is boxing. It’s going to happen. I knew that. My sparring partner who took two heavy straight rights from me this week (in the very first round, ugh) knew that. But it can still put a hard stop on operations.

What happens in your head, when you take your first hard shot

The first thing you experience is outright shock. You know you’re boxing, but being punched in the face is just not something we’re used to. How could it be? The shock is what causes you to falter, to stop working and stand there in disbelief.

This is the first and greatest hurdle to get over in boxing, and of course there are lots of people who say “Why would I want to get over that hurdle? What an insane sport.” And I understand those people, I truly do. But the simple fact is that learning to take a punch taught me a much bigger lesson about myself, and about life.

Let’s admit it, life is not an insulated little nursery school play yard. If you don’t grow a pair (ovaries or balls, you choose) NOW, you are actively, knowingly putting at great risk all the good gifts you’ve been given and the future you deserve to have. There are things in life you must fight for, or they’ll be taken away from you by force.

Learning that I could take a punch and not be stopped in my tracks by it was one of the most empowering moments of my entire life.

The pain sets in a second after the shock. And it’s tempting to let pain derail your plans the way shock can. Pain is powerfully persuasive. A straight shot to the nose stings, makes your eyes immediately well up, and sends a jolt of sparks across your whole face. Your nose feels squashed, although it won’t swell for another minute or so. Sometimes you bleed, sometimes your nose simply drips. It’s hard not to believe you’re seriously injured, but usually you aren’t. You simply aren’t used to it.

What happens to the rest of your game

Nothing, that’s what. You drop your guard and paw at your face. You stare at your sparring partner as if you’ve never actually met before. You shake your head and try to figure out what to do next. You swear over your mouthguard.

If you have a good sparring partner or trainer, they’ll pick up the slack for you by telling you to get your guard back up and get your ass back in the game. The bell hasn’t rung, and it’s your job to keep working until it does.

Why it’s important to get punched in the face, hard

If you intend to box you are going to take some hard damn shots. It’s a thousand times better to experience this in the ring with a trusted partner than it is to learn it for the first time when you’re in a real match against an opponent who really is trying to knock your head off.

The simple truth is you get experienced at taking shots. You find out what it is going to feel like, you begin to understand how to avoid the worst of the pain, you learn how to deal with the shock and keep fighting, blood or no blood. That’s a hugely valuable lesson.

One time I was driving on the interstate when I saw a powerline suddenly snap loose and drop down across the highway, and a policeman on a motorcycle (right in front of me) hit the cable and went flying off his bike, right into oncoming traffic. It was a damned miracle that he wasn’t killed outright. I immediately pulled into the central lane that divided the highway and came to a quick stop, as did several other cars whose drivers saw it happen.

I distinctly remember standing in the middle of the highway in shock, staring at the downed officer laying in the middle of a lane of traffic. It was exactly like being punched hard in the face. I was in complete shock when I should have been working with the other people jumping out of their cars to stop traffic, get to the officer, and call for help.

Fortunately, others on the scene were more experienced than I was, and the end of the story is that the officer and the motorcycle were banged up but essentially okay. There were no other wrecks. The power line was taken care of.

If I were to be in a similar situation now I know I would do a better job of shaking off the shock and working through a plan. Maybe I wouldn’t perform with style and grace, but I’d at least have a chance at it.

One last truth, one secret joy

My husband is reading Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. (You may have seen the movie with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.) The author talks about how the major leagues are great at chewing up and spitting out hitters. You might be able to hit in the minors, but when you come up to the show, every pitcher in the game has studied your weaknesses, and if you don’t like ’em high and inside, that’s what you’re gonna get. They’ll find out exactly what you can’t hit, and pitch it to you.

Sound anything like life? It’s definitely true in boxing. You have to get good at being punched hard in the face, because that’s exactly what someone is going to be doing to you. And the better you can shrug it off, slip it off, let it slide past without stunning and stopping you, the faster you’ll move up in the game.

And the secret truth that every boxer holds tight in his or her soul? It’s empowering. It feels fucking awesome to be able to take a hard shot and keep fighting. No other way to say it than that.

It’s a high cost, perhaps, but well worth the pay out.

What do you think? What was it like, the first time you took a shot, in the ring or in life, and how did you do? Would you do better now? Leave me a comment and share your story!

CC image by ennuiislife on Flickr

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18 Responses to What Happens When You Get Punched in the Face

  1. Kara October 29, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    What a great post! Reading the section about the officer downed and you standing there brought tears to my eyes: I so clearly know that shocked and frozen feeling. I also know that my training during my teens and early 20’s as a first responder allowed me to jump into action when I witnessed a pedestrian get hit by a car. I was the one that took action. I’d practiced a response a million times and it just kicked in.

    But in other parts of life, where I have fantasized (and, essentially practiced) only for a completely positive, sunny future (say in marriage, having a family, when starting a new eating plan), I have been stunned when the punch came. I remained shocked and frozen, guard down for far too long. Or, I have been so thrown my the sting that I have left the ring and gone to hide out, refusing to return while running the slow mo replay reel over and over in my head as “protection”. This has cost me things I dearly wish to have in my life: a spouse in a loving and long-term partnership, kids, a healthy body.

    So, the question this post stirs for me is: How can I be fully in touch with the fact that punches will land hard, my nose will hurt (maybe even A LOT) while simultaneously imagining success, being confident in my ability, and positive about the next round. How can I think positive AND think punches?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 29, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      Hi, Kara girlfriend!

      I think it’s fascinating how your experience as a first responder helped you jump into action. I CANNOT imagine seeing someone get hit by a car like that, and I know it happens all the time. /shaking my head/ I’m stopping for a minute to just thank God that you were there.

      And you already know the secret. It’s all about the actual experience. That’s why some of those “attraction” schemes are not helpful. You can visualize it, read about it, let yourself feel the emotion of it, but in the end, when you’re actually IN a situation, it just may not go like you planned or expected. You may get punched in the face. And until you’ve had those shocks a few times, you won’t know how best to shake them off and keep moving forward.

      One of the great things about being punched in the face (I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence!!) is that you can get punched in the face a lot in boxing. So if you screw THIS one up, you’ll get better on the next one. 🙂

      Punches are just tiny, constantly present bits of the game… Like being body checked in basketball.

    • Wreck September 7, 2022 at 8:49 pm #

      Damn. I relate to your story all too well. Flat on my back and getting the shit kicked out of me like Groundhog’s day for FAR too long!
      All my great plans for kicking life’s ass were tossed to meds & train wreck migraines.

  2. Kara October 29, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    Or maybe that is “Think positive and plan for punches?”

  3. Laura October 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    Discovering I could take a punch was a revelation, I can certainly relate to your comment about it being empowering.

    I don’t think you can avoid that “what the hell?!” moment right after you’ve taken a swift one, I’m working on moving through it and onto the next – preferably where I’m delivering instead of receiving.

    I have a tough time allowing myself to be aggressive, this is all pretty new to me and I’m trying to sort out what this means about my character…all this time working on being a Nice Girl and now look what’s happened.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      You and me both, Nice Girl. 🙂

      So my thought is that we were too damn nice, and now we’re nice AND powerful. Not to be messed with. S’right, bitches!

    • Maja Elise June 14, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

      agree with you laura. it really does feel empowering. I’ve got punched in the face a few times and that really just makes you wake up and feel a bit more alive, but I’ve been punched in the throat a couple more times than I like and know full well that I keep going. I can’t help but feel badass when my sensei (who’s the one who accidentally punched me in the throat) couldn’t get over how I jsut kept gonig.

      and yes. me too! my dad has spent most of my life trying to toughen me up, but I’m still always worried I’ll hurt someone. I’m on my way to get over it though, as I’m sure you are too!

  4. Kara October 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Wow- this all has my brain firing! When I combine the above post with the insights from this Fight For It piece you wrote, http://archive.aweber.com/boxingreasons/4kTfM/h/Are_you_sitting_down_.htm, I am having a total sparky connection moment where it is all making sense. This is the understanding that I think is coming together:

    There are many different ways to prepare: strategic planning, logistical mapping, to-do lists, doing mental imagery, making vision boards, reading up on it, talking with others who have done it, praying/meditating/calling it in or other rituals, watching video footage, etc. But none of these can do what TRAINING does, which is physically embodying the ACTION of it. It is the role-play, the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dress rehearsal for the real action.

    For example, I had never actually rescued anyone before the hit pedestrian, but I had physically moved through all of the elements of the work: staying calm, taking a leadership role, positioning the person’s body, calling out for someone to call 911, doing the visual assessment, doing the first aid. So the physical training was a vital preparatory component.

    But no other preparation touches experience in a real bout. The DOING part of planning is essential for being well-prepared in the ring, but what I realize now from reading your thoughts is that taking a genuine hit is the only thing that truly prepares you to take a genuine hit. This has been so helpful to think about. Thank you!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

      Thank GOODNESS I hired you! Wait, did I hire you? Well I SHOULD. Because you’re brilliant, and this just proves it.

      Prep is great.
      Experience trumps prep.

      Note to self: Always ask Kara! And give her cupcakes. (Wait no! Cupcakes is code for stair intervals, lol.) Give her extra pad work. She loves that.

  5. Mur October 30, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Gah. I remember sparring with a scrappy woman who was throwing hooks right and left, and someone yelled, “Linda, you haven’t thrown one straight punch!”

    I mean, they TOLD her (and me) what to do, and therefore what was coming. And I still got tagged like I had no idea what was happening.

    In kung fu we don’t have bells, if something (injury, tapping out) throws off the bout, you stop to make sure everyone’s OK. So I was done at that point, eyes streaming, nose stinging like hell. It didn’t break, or even bleed (She got me up high, closer to between the eyes) but damn, it hurt for days.

    I keep my hands up more now.

    Then there was the time I was holding the kicking pad and the dude kicked me so hard I went flying into the weightlifting equipment, but that’s another story. 🙂

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 30, 2012 at 10:09 am #

      I remember my first near-knockout punch like that. You musta got tagged HARD. But you kung fu people are crazy — sparring with eeny teeny gloves, right? That makes every punch much worse.

      And isn’t it crazy how often we actually HEAR a punch called for our opponents, and still get popped? Sad but true.

      Also, now I need to know: kung fu people just fight to the death (lol)? No “rounds” at all? A match is just one long thing until someone wins?

      And YIKES, that was a massive kick… I think it was *because* of the big honkin pad, though. It spread the force of the shot and other physics/thermodynamics shit. Heh.

  6. Jackie November 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    I actually took a few punches in the face for the first time last night! I finally sparred for the first time, and that first punch to the face was a complete shock! I felt like I completely forgot everything I’ve learned in my training after that and it took me a few rounds before I could kind of get back to remembering what I know I should be doing. But I think each time I got hit it definitely threw me off.

    I’m dying to spar again and hopefully will be much better next time! Oh, and having good headgear (purchased based on your recommendations) was really really helpful!

    Thanks again for the awesome posts 🙂

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe November 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      It’s weird to say it, but I’m so glad you got some hard punches to the face last night, Jackie! 🙂

      I PROMISE you it really does get better. You grow more accustomed to it, know how to mitigate the impact, and you aren’t surprised by it so much any more.

      What *really* makes me happy is to hear that your experience has you JUICED and ready to go again. Way to work!

  7. niamh November 13, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Another great post Lisa – it’s definitely a life-skill. So far nothing in my life has stung like a punch – editors, readers, boyfriends nothing hurts like that POW! And like you say, once you can deal with that …. Now admittedly I’ve never been mugged or had my life threatened but within my world, boxing has certainly given me that belief you talk about.
    The first time I got really knocked in training was pretty bad. My trainer had unknown to me decided I was almost ready to start competing but he wasn’t sure. So he took me in the ring and went to town on me – kicks, punches, knees, push-kicks – the works. Part of me wanted to curl up and scream but the other (crazy part clearly) kept standing up again – it hurt but a few days later he offered me my first fight. And my reaction – I cried! Ha! Out of pure fear. Funny now to look back on it but it was a big change for me. Of course after that first fight, all was well. But the life I built on fighting couldn’t have happened without what you write about here – being able to take a punch.
    Thanks for the post – good to remember this stuff!!

  8. Maja Elise June 14, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

    well, I do shotokan karate and our sparring and competing is very different from boxing. I’ve only ever competed in shobu ippon sparring and in theory that is no contact to the face and light touch to the body. that never happens and you won’t get a point unless there’s some actual contact.

    still, it’s wildly different from boxing and I can’t honestly say I know how I’ll react when I eventually find myself in a similar kind of sparring situation (most likely I’ll try mma or kickboxing some day. I don’t think I’d enjoy doing a striking art that doesn’t include kicks).

    still! I do have stories that answer your questions on this post!
    I remember asking one of our brown belts (now a black belt, and already then she’d won norwegian nationals in karate in her division) if maybe we could sparr a bit. she went light. no contact to skin touch (we wear no protection usually, and if we do it’s usually these gloves http://www.fighter.no/Shop/Product/Budo-Nord-tekstil-h%C3%A5ndbeskytter-Jr/14305-000- or something equally flimsy. control is the first thing you start learning) and was generally conciderate. then she kicked me in the head. it was light, felt like a gentle tap on my temple. I was completely in shock. it came out of nowhere and was super fast!! at least that’s how I felt. I was completely frozen and she got through with several more strikes (I have little to no memory of the 30 seconds or so that happened after the kick) and my sensei started yelling at me. he was all “WHAT HAPPENED!? WHAT ARE YOU DOING! YOU CAN NEVER NOT DEFEND YOURSELF LIKE THAT!!!” I replied “I was surprised. I panicked…” “yes, you were surprised. that’s ok, but we don’t stop fighting. we always keep going. NEVER GIVE UP!! it happens and then you deal with it and keep going!”
    yeah, I was useless in that situation.

    I’m much better now and it takes a lot more to overwhelm me now than it used to.

    still. I think today I’d be perfectly able to deal with being punched in the face or body pretty hard. as long as I can still breathe I’m fine. we do point sparring so when you get hit the judge calls “yame” (stop) and tells you what happened. the judges don’t always see it though, so you need to be able to keep going (I am) and I’m too proud to let it show when it hurts. really, I’ve internalised my sensei’s command. you just keep going. you’re not allowed to be weak or generally overwhelmed until you hear “yame”.

  9. Anon August 13, 2021 at 1:47 am #

    This is such an old post, but I just took a punch in a family violence situation. This post has completely helped me to reframe my response to it. Thank you! ✊

    “Learning that I could take a punch and not be stopped in my tracks by it was one of the most empowering moments of my entire life.”

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