Why chiseled boxers lose, and flabby boxers win
June 11, 2020 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Nothing about Butterbean? Really? :(
posted by xedrik at 10:02 PM on June 11, 2020 [12 favorites]

chiseled boxers

I generally prefer the cotton kind.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:31 PM on June 11, 2020 [24 favorites]

I too read the title as in underpants and misread 'lose' as 'loose'. My world pretty much revolves around loungewear and food these days.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:45 AM on June 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

I thought the article was interesting (though at least on my browser there weren't captions on the photos, which would have been nice). Over the years when I was first doing and then supervising manual labor, the strongest people were never "chiseled" or gym-toned. In my experience, the really strong person on the crew always has a thick layer of fat over a lot of muscle. You see a similar body type on a lot of Olympic powerlifters, for example. It's not a physique that our culture celebrates at all, but it seems to be immensely practical in the real world.

The article touched on steroids in passing, but I would think that for the boxing physiques they are discussing steroid use or non-use would be a central issue and hard to separate from questions about training and effectiveness.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:06 AM on June 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

It's the training donuts.
posted by thelonius at 6:10 AM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Art of Manliness had a useful article a while back called Getting Ripped vs. Getting Strong:
I’m going to lay some hard truth on you here: Despite what the internet or that dude-bro at the gym might say, you cannot get both super lean and super strong at the same time. They are goals that are diametrically opposed to each other.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you can’t be shredded and strong. There are lots of men out there who have 10% body fat and can deadlift and squat a ton.

You just can’t work on getting ripped and strong at the same time...

Muscle is calorically expensive. It requires a lot of energy to create. To create that new muscle, you need to consume more calories than you’re expending. How much more? More than you probably think...

When you’re in a caloric deficit, your body not only uses fat for energy, it also breaks down muscle tissue for the nutrients it needs to keep your physiological systems running. As muscle tissue cannibalizes, muscle mass and strength go down.

This is why you can’t get big and strong while you’re trying to get lean. Getting big and strong requires excess calories, while getting lean requires a caloric deficit.

You’ve got to pick a goal at the exclusion of the other.
Serious bodybuilders usually have a Bulk phase where they get bigger, stronger and fatter. Then a Cut phase where they get rid of the fat and some strength with it.

Powerlifters and strongmen usually have some body fat because they don't want to have a Cut phase when they get weaker.

I think boxers in the lighter weight divisions need to cut so they can stay in their division and not fight bigger competitors. But in the heaviest division that's not a consideration.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:27 AM on June 12, 2020 [19 favorites]

I just watched some of the Tomey / Holyfield fight, and Tomey looks like a beast. The description of him in the article is... not accurate.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:29 AM on June 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've been training Judo and BJJ for almost two decades, and it's taught me that you have no idea what the person who can beat you up looks like. One of the people who's been beating me up for a decade looks like just a random, fit, middle-aged dude. Another one is honestly kind of chubby because he, like everybody else, likes cake. You can't predict who is going to beat you just by how they look.

Somebody told me once that they wanted to train Judo because all Judo players were super ripped, and I had to be the one to tell them that one side-effect of having weight classes is that at the very highest level, you can't be carrying 'extra' weight. On the other hand, in the 100+ kg weight class ... here's a photo of Yamashita holding up his Olympic gold medal. In his book, he wrote something like "my parents wanted me to play Judo as a kid because I was fat. I never got thin, but got very good at Judo."

Movies lie to you and men can be kind of funny about fighting, and think that it's governed by all sort of strange things like 'who is an athlete' or 'who is more chiseled' or 'my crazy mindset, bro, I just see red and I'm not afraid to GOUGE'. Fighting is a skill, like any other, and every heavyweight can tell you that you can out-eat any training regimen. (We used to go out for buy-one-get-one-free personal pizzas after training until I looked up the caloric information; some people have still never forgiven me for it.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:30 AM on June 12, 2020 [27 favorites]

reminds me of Kelly Turnbull's tutorial on drawing muscly folk. Explains in comic form the difference between showy muscle and strong muscle. full tutorial is here and previously, on the blue :
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 6:31 AM on June 12, 2020 [13 favorites]

Rocky Balboa gets mentioned early, but it's worth repeating because of how Stallone got increasingly jacked and ripped throughout the first four films; in the first one, he's in good shape but nothing spectacular, but by the third and especially the fourth one, he's in bodybuiler-class shape. His opponents likewise got swole: again, Carl Weathers was in fine shape for the first two, but in the third he took on Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, and in the fourth Dolph Lundgren, playing a heavily-'roided fighter who is almost literally superhuman. The movie Predator came about from a joke that a reviewer made that, for Rocky V, the only way that Stallone could top the latest one was to fight an alien. Schwarzenegger got the part instead, and the fifth movie had the merely mortal Tommy Morrison and didn't do much box office.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:33 AM on June 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm really only scanning the article, but I gotta say about 2/3 of the way in, I sat up and started paying attention again, because of this line:
Galento, a beer-guzzling New Jersey heavyweight who once fought an octopus...
posted by uberchet at 6:43 AM on June 12, 2020 [21 favorites]

here's a photo of Yamashita holding up his Olympic gold medal. In his book, he wrote something like "my parents wanted me to play Judo as a kid because I was fat. I never got thin, but got very good at Judo."
This is delightful, thank you
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:25 AM on June 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

There is no mention of Muhammad Ali in the article. I find that odd.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:57 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been interested in fat for some time, and it doesn't surprise me that so many of the strongest bodies are muscle with a layer of fat over them: fat provides energy in a pinch, and it's relatively lightweight compared to muscle. Fat isn't the enemy unless all you care about is the aesthetic

Fat is also an endocrine organ, not just a passive source of energy, and fat signaling can direct the body to differentially invest in assorted kinds of organ tissue building. I have a deep suspicion that the "chiseled" look of a person who has artificially reduced the size of their fat pads, particularly the subcutaneous fat that is generally agreed to be most beneficial to health and least likely to interfere with cardiac functioning, is a trade of better aesthetics for worse health and function just generally. Sports select for extreme bodies that are extremely good at one particular sort of activity, of course, and I'm usually thinking about how an individual can maximize fitness given the constraints of the individual's body and context. But I would be surprised if people whose industries or hobbies require them to absolutely minimize the amount of subcutaneous fat in their bodies aren't paying a significant health cost to that, regardless of how much muscle they carry.

Incidentally, different fat pads do different things, and it does matter which pads you're aggressively trying to minimize. There's a cool paper from a couple of years ago that found that if you remove the epididymal fat pad that sits around the testicle from a rodent, the testicle won't produce sperm anymore until it grows back--and if you remove the fat pad completely, it won't grow back. This holds true even if you take that fat pad you removed from the testis and you implant it under the skin on the back of the mouse, and it's specific to the testis the fat has been removed from. It's not an overall-levels-of-fat thing either; removing a different fat pad does nothing.)

There is a tendency to think of fat as sacks of energy-rich glorp that weigh down a body, but that is beginning to change. I'm really fascinated by the work that is beginning to come out of the school of researchers who are now considering fat as an endocrine organ in its own right.
posted by sciatrix at 7:59 AM on June 12, 2020 [77 favorites]

sciatrix, that is fascinating! I had not heard this idea and now I will be reading for the rest of the day...
posted by blurker at 8:40 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think it's important to note that "why chiseled boxers lose, and flabby boxers win" applies primarily to the heavyweight class though.

The article says as much: because they're not bounded by weight class, heavyweights don't need to optimize for a balance of muscle versus fat and can take on all the benefits of fat without any of the costs.

In contrast, look at gymnast bodies, which are aesthetic than strongman / top boxer bodies. Gymnastic performance is still bounded by one's own bodyweight, and so gymnasts can't take on the same strategy vis-a-vis fat that heavyweight boxers do.

I'd expect flabbier guys to underperform in lower weight classes as well.
posted by Borborygmus at 9:18 AM on June 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

This was a pretty interesting read, but I am still annoyed by this:
While, heavyweight Toney is definitely not "ripped", this article keeps calling him "fat" when in the pictures he appears to still have a well below average body fat percentage.

The author needs to watch more Grand Sumo.
posted by 3j0hn at 9:26 AM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Sciatrix, that is really interesting, can you suggest any other reading material or search terms?
posted by agentofselection at 9:43 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

“He got more relaxed with his body and he started pulling cars and lifting tires and built a lot of natural strength that way."

Ah yes, nothing says relaxed and natural like pulling cars!

(Interesting article!!)
posted by ChuraChura at 10:10 AM on June 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'd expect flabbier guys to underperform in lower weight classes as well.

Absolutely. What you see across all weight class combat sports is body fat sufficient for training during training, which varies person to person and between the sexes but is generally on the order of 10-20%, and then — setting aside the brief, unfortunate, and self-destructive practice of water-weight cuts — dropping for competition to the lower end of that spectrum or maybe dipping to the upper single digits. This optimizes most athletic abilities during both training and peaking phases and is fairly consistent.

Fighting flabby usually puts you at a lean body mass disadvantage, which usually means being weaker than one's opponent, and in a fight that's not great. Smaller fighters going up a weight class often are unusually strong, or rely on other qualities to make up the difference, such as speed and agility for Fedor Emelianenko as an undersized heavyweight. Or there may be a simple skill disparity or bad style match-up, such as Anderson Silva taking superfights at light-heavyweight while holding the middleweight title—for those fights he would fight at his regular training weight, sans cut.

It's nice to be skeptical about ideals, including athletic ones, but I think this article might being leading us to a little contrarianism.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:12 AM on June 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

Ah yes, nothing says relaxed and natural like pulling cars!

One dimension I wish the article got into is the interplay between two aspects of boxing history: a long-time cultural prejudice against weight training, and how that plays against the steroid boom of the 80s and 90s. "Natural" is a signal flare that someone comes from the former tradition. A similar prejudice existed in judo until quite recently, only slowly dismantled by hard work such as Ishikawa & Draeger's excellent Judo Training Methods, which I wrote a summary of some years back.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:30 AM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Sure. Bear in mind this is relatively new enough that there's not a ton in the way of pop sci, so I'm linking you to review articles.

Nevertheless, try a few of these...

Poulos, S. P., Hausman, D. B., & Hausman, G. J. (2010). The development and endocrine functions of adipose tissue. Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 323(1), 20-34.

Ahima, R. S., & Flier, J. S. (2000). Adipose tissue as an endocrine organ. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 11(8), 327-332.

Chusyd, D. E., Wang, D., Huffman, D. M., & Nagy, T. R. (2016). Relationships between rodent white adipose fat pads and human white adipose fat depots. Frontiers in nutrition, 3, 10.

Much of the research I see is driven by questions of obesity rather than questions about how the body works ordinarily, fair warning. Those should be a good start, though. This is very, very much a still-developing field from my perspective, but then I'm totally immersed in the "so hang on, what DOES leptin do aside from induce hunger if you don't have enough?!" world.

I think it's important to note that "why chiseled boxers lose, and flabby boxers win" applies primarily to the heavyweight class though.

The article says as much: because they're not bounded by weight class, heavyweights don't need to optimize for a balance of muscle versus fat and can take on all the benefits of fat without any of the costs.

Yep. We can see here how the artificial boundaries of sports can impose boundaries on the "optimal" body to perform a task which may not have anything much to do with the optimal biophysics of bodies themselves. Because sports tend to rely on the idea that fair competition is more important than identifying and understanding the optimal bodily composition to perform a task, you get these constraints that prevent you from really asking those questions. (Admittedly, the versions with fair competition are much more fun to watch.)
posted by sciatrix at 10:30 AM on June 12, 2020 [9 favorites]

They're also more fun to participate in. Henry Cejudo, Olympic gold medalist and simultaneous champion in two weight classes in MMA (the lightest), would have no lucrative career or combat-athletic accolades if there were no weight classes. And weight classes, by natural consequence of their definition, are quite similar to height classes. This is in fact even more of a reliable rule in pure strength sports like powerlifting.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:35 AM on June 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, exactly! They make total sense from a "how do you make this an activity that actual humans want to participate in" standpoint, even if they interfere with biomechanical theorizing. ;)
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on June 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sciatrix, given that fat is an endocrine organ, how much is known about the response of fat pads to environmental endocrine disruptors?
posted by flabdablet at 10:52 AM on June 12, 2020

Those of you interested in how ideal/preferred physical characteristics, including amount of body fat, differs depending upon the sport might want to check out the video series: Anatomy of an Olympian, available on Youtube. Sports such as weightlifting, gymnastics, rowing, and ice hockey are covered.
posted by skye.dancer at 11:39 AM on June 12, 2020

skye.dancer, that reminded me of this photo series.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:48 AM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

The article is interesting, although the primary case study of Holyfield vs. Toney is a bit misleading, and probably not ideal for proving their case.

Yes, Holyfield was more "cut" than the relatively "flabby" Toney, but there were many other, probably more important factors in why Toney won than the difference in conditioning & extra energy provided by fat.

Holyfield is 6 years older than Toney and had his first heavyweight fight (19th fight overall) in 1988, a few months before Toney's professional debut (at middleweight/160lbs). When they fought in 2003, Toney had more fights overall (72 to Holyfield's 46), but it was Toney's first fight at heavyweight, and Holyfield's 28th. So, Holyfield had a lot more mileage on him at that point, relatively speaking.

On top of that, Toney is a very slick, quick defensive fighter, and his style gave Holyfield a lot of problems -- he is strong, fights close & rough, likes to counter-punch, but he couldn't really find Toney. Not incidentally, Holyfield's previous fight had been a loss to Chris Byrd, another much smaller defensive fighter who was coming up in weight.

For reference: Here's a young, slim Toney (on the left)

Slim Toney in action

Toney & Holyfield at the weigh-in

Not quite so slim Toney

I was at an academic conference in Boston (I think? or maybe L.A.?), and at the very large host hotel there also happened to be a pro boxing event going on one night -- low-level local fighters. But, there were two boxing celebrities in attendance: Ken Norton & James Toney. Norton was very generously talking to people, taking photos, and I got a couple with him. Toney was also walking around, but not really as into talking to fans. I was standing nearby while he was talking to somebody, waiting to get a chance to ask for a picture, and I saw him look at me and a couple other people standing around, and this look like "jeez, I don't want to take photos with these nerds, ugh" flashed over his face. After he was done talking to whomever it was, he walked off pretty fast to somewhere else... but I followed him and finally got my picture, goddamnit!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:25 PM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, a better example might have been the misadventures of the statuesque Wladimir Klitschko against comparatively doughy trio of Corrie Sanders, Lamon Brewster, and current champ Tyson Fury.

Of course, to be fair to Klitschko, he did avenge the Brewster loss and manage to be champion for a number of years.

Klitschko vs Sanders

Klitschko vs Brewster

Klitschko vs Fury
posted by eagles123 at 12:51 PM on June 12, 2020

It seems to me that "flabby" means soft, unexercised muscles. Presumably, almost no one can tell the difference between a strong person with some fat and a fat person who gets little exercise.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:53 PM on June 12, 2020

Don't get me started on all the ripped guys in military films. Actual in-the-field folks are either really lanky (run forever) or have that layer of fat over muscle (lift anything).
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 4:59 PM on June 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been training like Toney my whole life. I'm ready, put me in against Joshua.
posted by Cezar Golescu at 5:12 PM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

When I fought at 175 pounds I was a really fragile glass cannon. At 195 I was much more comfortable. At 225 I had plenty of time to watch my opponent. What was he going to do? Bleed on me?

Worked great until I ran into somebody 10 years younger, 2 inches taller, and 20 pounds heavier.

I used to lift with a gentleman who missed a spot on the US Olympic team. He did not have a six pack. Or the impediment of height. He could lift a Camry.
posted by pdoege at 8:04 PM on June 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've been chubby my whole life but also very active and high energy with a lot of muscles under the flab. I can outbike, outlift and outhike most of my friends - many of them younger and ostensibly less fat, and I don't really have a workout routine or goals or plans or anything, I just live my fairly active life hauling my fat ass around.

It's common that people are surprised not just by how strong I am but also how fast and agile I can be. The last time I had to wrassle someone being a jerk they didn't know what hit them and were really upset that I could just haul them around and tangle them up like that.

It's also not unusual for me to go all day without eating anything besides drinking coffee and water even though I hiked 6-10 miles or biked some equivalent amount of effort and do a bunch of high energy chores or work or something and not get hungry at all until a late dinner.
posted by loquacious at 8:16 PM on June 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd like to see more information on how rigid weight classes affect growing athletes. I was a not-very-good high school wrestler on a very good team and dropped out when our crazy, high pressure coach was fired for brawling with another teacher. It was a good thing for me, I think. We were pressured to wrestle in as low a weight category as possible. I can remember many times, running around the halls in plastic garbage bags trying to shed a bit of water on the morning of a meet. I was small for my age and was getting worried by the fact that there were several senior teammates still wrestling in the 104, 112, 119 lb catagories. It might have been a coincidence but I finally shot up in height in the 11th grade.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:09 AM on June 15, 2020

Roman gladiators were actually fed high-carb diets, supplemented with a beverage made with ashes to strengthen bones. They were even known as "barley men" in their time. It is believed that the layer of fat provided some protection against shallow cuts.
posted by Edgewise at 11:47 AM on June 15, 2020

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