A Grip Training Lesson From an Oldtime Boxing Champ

A Grip Training Lesson From an Oldtime Boxing Champ
How stronger hands helped defeat one of the baddest men on the planet and turned Gene Tunney into the Heavy-Weight Champion of the World…
Recently, several boxers, martial artists and combat athletes have written to us looking for more information on how to train their hands specifically for the purpose of increasing punching power. Have no fear, we are putting together some training materials which will highlight several of the best methods of training the hands for building devastating striking power.

As I’ve been saying all along, building stronger hands will give you the edge in almost every combat situation… but you don’t need to take my word for it. In the meantime, here is a bit of history that teaches a very valuable lesson, especially if you make your living by punching people in the face:

Gene Tunney got his own trading card in the 1933 Goudy Sport Kings set
“James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney (heavyweight champion from 1926 to 1928) is perhaps the most underrated of the great heavyweights. He had the misfortune to take the title from an icon, Jack Dempsey, then defend it with a controversial win (“The Long Count”). But for me as well as plenty of other aficionados who appreciate the sweet science, Tunney represents all the best that a champion can be.

Like any other great athlete, Tunney possessed exceptional innate physical gifts, He also had significant disadvantages, such as fragile hands and a body that naturally fit better in the light-heavyweight divisions than in boxing’s highest class.

Tunney however, more than made up for his shortcomings. His hand development program is a prime example. To strengthen his grip, Tunney used that old standby exercise, squeezing a rubber ball, but he squeezed for hours, day after day, year after year. To toughen his fingers, Tunney did pushups on his fingers and pushed himself off a wall 500 times with each finger every day. Following the example of the bare-knucklers, Tunney soaked his hands in brine until the skin over his knuckles was as strong as leather. To strengthen his wrists, Tunney “vacationed” at lumber camps in Maine and Canada, swinging an ax and getting stronger… “
The above passage is part of “Lessons From the Champs #13” from The Savage Science of Street Fighting by Ned Beaumont. If you are looking for an outstanding book about street fighting that really “tells it like it is” this is a book that should be on your reading list. Punching, counter punching, timing, rhythm, accuracy, speed, defensive skills, guards, stances, roadwork, training …it’s all here.

Beaumont also goes into an in-depth analysis of the “secret” punches of the Champs- Kid McCoy’s Corkscrew Punch, Floyd Patterson’s Kangaroo Punch, Kid Gavilan’s Bolo Punch, George Carpentier’s Waltz Punch — and why they all worked like magic in the ring. Highly recommended!
Do you think Tunney’s focus on grip, wrist and hand strength development gave him edge? You bet it did!
Here is a passage from a blow-by-blow account of Dempsey vs. Tunney I which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on September 24, 1927 (written by famed sports writer Grantland Rice).
Dempsey’s Arms Pinioned

Tunney had seen his early lead shot away and he had felt his million dollar crown slipping over one ear. But he came up from the muck and dust of the rosin to win. From the technical side Tunney whipped Dempsey again for three rounds. One was a straight and constant left to the face that broke up Dempsey’s rushes. The other was an overhand right, used repeatedly to the head and jaw, that drove Dempsey back. And the third was Tunney’s complete ability to tie up Dempsey’s massive arms at close range. Dempsey tried time and again to break through Tunney’s barrage and put on a counter attack.

But when he broke through Tunney coolly and calmly pinioned his arms and held him in a vise-like grip that could not be broken. Dempsey scowled and tugged and struggled, but each time he looked to be in the toils of an octopus, as helpless as a child…
If Gene Tunney were alive today, I bet he would be using the Captains of Crush Hand Grippers to strengthen his fingers and increase his punching power. Of course, the old standby of chopping wood for developing upper body stamina is also hard to beat.

Why do I say this? It is because Gene Tunney was a “Thinking Man’s” Champion.

He was a good but not great boxer, but he made up for it with heart, toughness and strategy then he trained his tail off and made it happen. He did not whine or complain about all the things he didn’t have, but figured out all of the things that he needed to do to win that fight and then did it. Sure Jack Dempsey was one of the most feared punchers of all time, but Gene Tunney made up his mind that he was going to beat the champ and that would be that. Tunney spent six years analyzing every aspect of Jack Dempsey’s boxing style looking for weak points. He knew that standing toe-to-toe with Dempsey would be suicide so instead Tunney tailored and developed his strengths to Dempsey’s weaknesses. He toughened his hands and strengthened his grip so that he could could increase his punching power.

As outlined above, Tunney also use his “vise hands” to pin Dempsey’s arms to his sides, making him uncomfortable, throwing off his rhythm and, as a result, allowing Tunney to take command of the fight that he should have been losing. Tunney knew that most of Jack Dempsey’s fights ended by knockout in the early rounds so he did mile after mile of roadwork, preparing to wear the Champion down in the later rounds.

Every single minute of every day, Tunney kept his laser-like focus. He didn’t dwell on his shortcomings or the things he simply could not change. He focused on the things he did have control over and developed them to a level that few people could match.

“I’ve always liked to think things out for myself–to plan ahead. In deciding to go after the heavyweight championship, I knew that hit or miss methods wouldn’t get me far. So I concentrated on the problem and tried to list all its details in order.

“I decided that my task of winning the title consisted of three things: Perfecting my physical resources for the particular job; studying the man I was to meet, to learn the vulnerable spot in his armor; and acquiring a mental mastery over myself so that I could go through with the job unexcitedly, without mistakes and false motions.”
‘Tunney Tells How He Won The Title’ by Ed Van Every, Popular Science Monthly: December, 1926
When it did finally come time to step in the ring, Tunney beat Dempsey so badly that his own sister didn’t even recognize the now former champ after the beatin’ he took.

Now, I do think that Tunney’s hand strength program could be improved upon considerably, even with the limited tools that he had at his disposal…but that is a topic for another time. While it is true that grip training alone will not make you into a Champion, one thing is for sure, it is one of the tools you cannot afford to ignore if you want to be (and beat!) the best. Gene Tunney certainly knew this…

Goals … Planning … ACTION!… a recipe for success once again…

Train hard,

John Wood

P.S. If you want to get started in another great exercise that many of the oldtime boxing champs used in their training, go to this page right now.

According to ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells…

In strength training, there are many books that are well thought of as ‘classics.’ One great example from way back in 1926 is Super Strength by Alan Calvert, and another more recent example is ‘Dinosaur Training’ by Brooks Kubik. I’m talking about the books that are well-known and highly regarded, in terms of the quality of information as well as the reputation of the author.

If you are seriously interested in training you can’t help but run into classics like these either though word of mouth or through your own individual research. Even if they haven’t read them, most people are at least familiar with the titles and so they are pretty well-known in most circles.

There are, however, some outstanding training books that have somehow slipped though the cracks. To me, these books are like buried treasure since they often contain information written from a totally different perspective than the typical stuff you’ll find.

You would be every surprised at some of the names who have written training guides – many people you would not expect although most are written by very obscure authors who simply thought enough of their experience to put it down on paper in order to teach others what they have learned.

Quite by accident, I ran across a great training book written by ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, a well- known English prize fighter from the early part of the last century. Wells was British Empire Champion from 1911 until 1919 and was the winner of one of the first Lonsdale Champion belts. Evidently he had quite a bit of personality outside the ring and it is certainly reflected in his writing. As far as what “Bombardier” recommends: plenty of physical training (usually Boxing related drills and calisthenics), fresh air, healthy living, a sound diet, mental clarity, building ‘nerve’ force and other methods of training that are as simple as they are effective.

Mr. “Bombardier” also wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind either and has some pretty interesting observations on a few topics that I will share with you at a later date.

Train hard
John Wood

In strength training, there are many books that are well thought of as ‘classics.’ One great example from way back in 1926 is Super Strength by Alan Calvert, and another more recent example is ‘Dinosaur Training’ by Brooks Kubik. I’m talking about the books that are well-known and highly regarded, in terms of the quality of information as well as the reputation of the author.

If you are seriously interested in training you can’t help but run into classics like these either though word of mouth or through your own individual research. Even if they haven’t read them, most people are at least familiar with the titles and so they are pretty well-known in most circles.

There are, however, some outstanding training books that have somehow slipped though the cracks. To me, these books are like buried treasure since they often contain information written from a totally different perspective than the typical stuff you’ll find.

You would be every surprised at some of the names who have written training guides – many people you would not expect although most are written by very obscure authors who simply thought enough of their experience to put it down on paper in order to teach others what they have learned.

Quite by accident, I ran across a great training book written by ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, a well- known English prize fighter from the early part of the last century. Wells was British Empire Champion from 1911 until 1919 and was the winner of one of the first Lonsdale Champion belts. Evidently he had quite a bit of personality outside the ring and it is certainly reflected in his writing. As far as what “Bombardier” recommends: plenty of physical training (usually Boxing related drills and calisthenics), fresh air, healthy living, a sound diet, mental clarity, building ‘nerve’ force and other methods of training that are as simple as they are effective.

Mr. “Bombardier” also wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind either and has some pretty interesting observations on a few topics that I will share with you at a later date.

Train hard
John Wood