The Physics of Punching Someone in the Face Just how hard did Ivan Drago really hit in Rocky IV?

Illustration by Slug Signorino

In the movie Rocky IV , Ivan Drago registers a 2,150-psi punch. That seems unrealistic to me, and yet I’m hearing Internet rumors about mixed martial arts fighters and boxers coming close to that number. Is it possible to throw a punch that hard? What would that sort of power do to someone’s face? —Dave

 

The Rocky movies are fiction, Dave. That tells you pretty much all you need to know. But let me add some details.

First we need to clear up the difference between force and pressure. Force is what causes something to accelerate, e.g., a fighter’s head in the direction of a thrown punch. In the U.S., force is normally measured in pounds. Pressure is force per unit of contact area, commonly expressed in pounds per square inch (psi). When researchers study punching ability they usually focus on force rather than pressure, since the pressure varies as the contact area expands on impact.

With that in mind, let’s look at the research:

• A study of seven Olympic boxers in weight classes ranging from flyweight to super heavyweight showed a range of 447 to 1,066 pounds of peak punching force. Energy transferred from punch to target varied widely depending on how heavy the boxers’ hands and gloves were, how fast they punched, and how rigidly they held their wrists. The three flyweights, interestingly, delivered more oomph than all but the two super heavyweights.

• A study of 70 boxers found elite-level fighters could punch with an average of 776 pounds of force. Another study of 23 boxers showed elite fighters were able to punch more than twice as hard as novices, the hardest hitter generating almost 1,300 pounds of force.

• An oft-cited 1985 study of Frank Bruno, who’d go on to be World Boxing Council heavyweight champ, showed he could punch with a force of 920 pounds in the lab. Researchers extrapolated that to a real-life blow of 1,420 pounds, enough to accelerate his opponent’s head at a rate of 53 g—that is, 53 times the force of gravity.

• Martial arts punches generally involve much less force than those in boxing. A study of 12 karate black belts showed so-called reverse punches delivered an average force of 325 pounds, with the strongest measuring 412 pounds. Short-range power punches averaged 178 pounds. Another study found martial artists needed 687 pounds of force to break a concrete slab 1.5 inches thick. One early researcher estimated karate strikes could reach 1,500 pounds, but that figure was an outlier.

If a punch thrown by Rocky IV villain Ivan Drago is supposed to measure 2,150 psi and his glove’s impact area is something like four square inches, he’d be exerting a force of 8,600 pounds, or more than four tons. Based on the professional literature, no boxer in real life comes anywhere close to that. I did find a 2007 news account about World Boxing Organization cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccarinelli, whose punches supposedly packed a wallop of around 3.85 tons. However, the researchers making this claim have yet to publish their findings in a scientific journal.

Even without Drago in the ring, boxing is a punishing sport, especially where the head is involved. Damage comes from three things: (1) the impact itself, which may be manifested in, say, a broken jaw; (2) acceleration to the brain leading to abrupt contact with the skull, possibly resulting in concussion; and (3) the rotational force that twists the brain within the skull, increasing the severity of injury and the likelihood of a knockout.

One metric for gauging the risk and seriousness of a brain injury is the Wayne State Tolerance Curve, which looks at both the g-force imparted to the head and the span of time involved. Generally speaking you don’t want to take a shot of more than 50 g, although you can stand more if the impact is really brief—say, a couple thousandths of a second. If you’re on the receiving end of a Bruno-class impact, my guess is you won’t soon get up.

Head punches can cause detached retinas, brain hemorrhage, fractured bones, and permanent neurological disorders. As I’ve mentioned before, something like a fifth of boxers suffer from dementia pugilistica, the consequence of repeated blows to the skull. Worse can happen. According to one estimate, boxing killed at least 650 fighters from 1918 through 1997.

Besides maybe getting killed, cumulative brain damage is the scariest part of boxing, as most fighters now recognize. To quote Terry Marsh, the undefeated light welterweight champion, “I don’t need the British Medical Association to tell me getting hit on the head can’t do me any good.” Muhammad Ali would surely concur. —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

Our Readers Say

If someone punched a woman in the face 6 times, A) would she keep "popping" up to get another punch? B)wouldn't her face be a bloody mess? C)if she did sustain a fracture in her face, why wouldn't it show up for 3 days and if were 6 punches with a closed fist, wouldn't there be more than a fracture? D) what would it do the guy/person who administered the 6 punches? If he hit this woman 6 times with bare fists, would'nt his hands really hurt and probably fracture his own hand or something? E) If the woman were a professional rugby player, how would you differentiate the punch from her getting punched in the face 6 times? Who can I ask medical questions of, can you help me? Really important to nail a liar. I don't know of any women, big or small that would keep coming back for more "supposed" punches. I'd be crying and run like hell. Meanwhile, your husband to be; his brother; your future mother in law and your own Mom don't come and jump on this guy and try to maim him? I look forward to your comments. How do you nail this woman who makes ridiculous claims like this. I think she needs her head examined and it ain't from the 6 punches. Thank you.
Cain Velasquez, UFC HW champion put up 2230 lbs of force on one punch. It was on Sports Science http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1L3sBSTYSE
Yeah, Jamal, it's clearly pure fabrication. Theres videos of him sparring olympic middleweight boxers and getting tooled.

sorry to say but 2230 lbs of force is a ridiculous amount, that show just gives numbers that the fans want.

even 1000 lbs of force is a monstrous number. Punching twice your weight is even a good number.
I pretty much agree with Becky
yeah...If i got punched six times in the face (especially by whatever super-human can punch 2000lb)I would pretty much dodge and retaliate or flee. and most likely cry. Big time.
If you punch a still steaming human .5 lb turd that was recently left on a sidewalk on a 95 degree F day with 85% relative humidity and zero wind with a force of 2000 lbs, what would the radius of turd spatter be, and could crime scene investigators determine who left the turd in the first place?
Hey Bill - Easy answer: lay down with your arms and legs splayed out like that DaVinci drawing. Let's draw a circle. There's your answer... turd.

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