Boxing witnessed a rarity on Saturday night in Las Vegas: not just a fight of relative consequence — when the dominant English junior welterweight Amir Khan faced American part-champ Zab Judah — but a body-shot knockout. In the fifth round, Khan lifted a right hand directly into Judah’s beltline. It was one of those singular punches that boxing’s remaining fans will talk about for a long time. Everyone will remember the night when Zab Judah’s bladder exploded. It was awesome.
After, Judah said it was a low blow, but it wasn’t. (He would have had a stronger case had he claimed that Khan dropped an elbow into his back right before the finishing punch, which he did.) It was just a fast, technically perfect punch tossed into the dead center of Judah’s soul. For punch connoisseurs, it was a thing of beauty.
Only its location might have been improved. I don’t mean the head. Head shots are overrated. Body shots are the essence of great fundamental boxing, the heart of it. And great body shots — all-time body shots — are almost always delivered to the ribs. Better yet, they’re delivered to that soft little target on a man’s right side, where, for whatever biological or evolutionary reason, a few square inches of his liver have been left exposed.
Making the short list of the modern era’s all-time body shots, the 1998 punch thrown by Roy Jones Jr. into Virgil Hill’s left kidney is probably the first to come to mind.1 That’s not wrong, exactly. That punch knocked out Hill for the first time in his long and mostly very good career, but more important, it was impossible to forget how it looked: There was something both awful and thrilling about watching Hill in those seconds after, trying to crawl into the canvas, his glove pressed to his broken side. Even in boxing, we rarely see pain like that. We see hurt, mostly. There’s a difference.
“Sometimes when you’re hunting, the shotgun makes a sound like that,” Jones said of his handiwork. “But I’ve never heard anything as devastating as that, or I would have given up hunting a long time ago.”
Ricky Hatton also has an outside claim to the body-shot title with the precision left hook that he put into Jose Luis Castillo’s liver in 2007. Hatton went for that spot time and again during the opening rounds of that fight, leaving himself vulnerable to counters. “I should have shown a bit more caution,” Hatton said after. But throwing that liver shot is like aiming for the target on a dunk tank. Finally, in the fourth round, he connected perfectly. Castillo twisted away and went down on one knee. The referee counted him out, shouting in his face — Ocho! Nueve! — and Castillo never once looked like he was going to get back up, because he wasn’t.
“It just about cut him in half,” Hatton said.
But my all-time favorite body shot is the one Bernard Hopkins delivered to Oscar De La Hoya in 2004. It came in a big fight. It was the textbook left hook-to-the-liver combination that fighters dream about. It came shortly after some really loud guy in the crowd called it, yelling “BODY SHOT!” over and over again. It was perfect.
Watching it again now, I love the brutality of it — and if you’re a boxing fan, you might as well admit that, deep down, you’re in love with the brutal — and I love how long it left De La Hoya on his knees, hitting the canvas with his fists. A head shot puts a man to sleep. A body shot makes him wish for it.
But here’s why I love that punch most of all: So many people thought then, and probably still think today, that a punch like that couldn’t have put down De La Hoya. He must have thrown the fight. It didn’t look like much of anything. It didn’t sound like much of anything. It was a phantom, a whisper, a glancing blow.
Those many people don’t know. I’ve taken a five-finger death punch like that, and let me tell you how it feels: A punch like that causes all sorts of strange satellite pain, express-delivered by your scrambled, panicking nervous system. You can feel a punch like that in the arches of your feet, in your balls, in your back, in your eyes. A punch like that somehow leaves you gasping for air and feeling as though you’re full of air all at once. A punch like that makes you feel, frankly, like you’re going to shit your trunks. But more than anything else, a punch like that puts a terrible picture in your head: You can see this black, spreading stain just under your skin, all of your body’s essentials bleeding out and filling spaces where they don’t have any business. A punch to the head can make you feel dizzy or woozy or sleepy, but it doesn’t hurt, exactly. A punch like that one, like the one Hopkins slipped into De La Hoya, makes you feel as though you’re about to die.
Body-shot knockouts are rare because of our modern obsession with the human head and its well-documented vulnerabilities; there’s something almost hard-wired into us to equate punches with faces. Noses seem like a better target, because noses break, and besides, fans want to see blood. Body-shot knockouts aren’t bloody until the victim tries to take a piss later. Body-shot knockouts also make it possible for fans to say that the opponent was weak or in the tank or just wanted to quit. They make it possible for the recipient to say that it was low or illegal or unsporting, the way Judah did on Saturday night. In a sport that often demands a more mathematical proof, body-shot knockouts are too abstract, too mysterious.
But they’re beautiful precisely because of their rarity — because they’re so fundamentally sound, because they require discipline and technique and art. Body-shot knockouts are boxing’s equivalent of a great wraparound, open-field tackle in football, or those nights when Michael Jordan went after Grant Hill’s ankles, because Jordan knew that’s where Hill’s worst weakness hid. They display an intelligence, a determination, a self-control that, for me, is far more impressive than fireworks.
They tell me that I’m watching a man who isn’t worried about how things look; he’s more concerned with how things feel.
Watch Oscar De La Hoya cry out again. That’s how it feels.
Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire; he covers the American League East for Grantland. You can find him on Twitter here: @MySecondEmpire.