Is Punching Like A Girl A Neuromuscular Obstacle - And If So, Is It Fixable?

Have you ever been punched by a girl? How about by a boy? Which one hurt more?

I will bet dollars to donuts that most people reading this have received a harder punch from a boy than from a girl. And something is slightly screwed up about that - beyond the kids getting punched by other kids thing. After puberty, men generally become bigger, stronger and faster than women. However, before puberty and in the post-toddler ages, boys and girls generally perform at similar athletic levels. So why does a boy's punch hurt more? And why do boys throw things farther than girls from age 4 onwards?

These are the thoughts spurred by the terrific Washington Post Article, Throw Like A Girl? You Can Do Better, by Tamar Haspel and published on September 10, 2012. Certain segments of that article were eye-opening:

After looking at 46 meta-analyses, Hyde found what she defined as a "very large" difference [between men and women] in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance.

The throwing gap has been researched for more than half a century, and the results have been consistent. According to Jerry Thomas, dean of the College of Education at the University of North Texas in Denton, who did the throwing research Hyde cites in her paper, "The overhand throwing gap, beginning at 4 years of age, is three times the difference of any other motor task, and it just gets bigger across age. By 18, there's hardly any overlap in the distribution: Nearly every boy by age 15 throws better than the best girl."

Around the world, at all ages, boys throw better - a lot better - than girls. Studies of overhand ball throwing across different cultures have found that pre-pubescent girls throw 51 to 69 percent of the distance that boys do, at 51 to 78 percent of the velocity. As they get older, the differences increase; one U.S. study found that girls age 14 to 18 threw only 39 percent as far as boys (an average of about 75 feet vs. about 192 feet). The question is why.

I am not here to answer the "why" of this question - and Haspel goes only a bit further than I do - I am here to create more questions like this one:

Does this throwing gap between genders mean women MMA fighters knock each other out less?

Please note that I am not asking you whether Junior dos Santos or Ronda Rousey hits harder. That is a foregone conclusion. This is about the development of us and others as children - which has affected our adult lives and thus our MMA. After the jump, there will be some statistics and pictures to present key concepts and questions.

The Washington Post article (found here) has a spiffy picture to go along with it that shows an artist's representation of the mechanics behind how boys and girls throw differently:

W-girlthrow_medium

via www.washingtonpost.com

The man behind the experimental data here, Dean Jerry Thomas of the University of North Texas, has a hypothesis (not a theory) about why this is so:

The difference, he suspects, isn't in the arm or the torso or the shoulder. "I'd bet my bottom dollar there's something neurological. It's the nervous system."

This explanation, while not explicitly provable, would make evolutionary sense. "Men threw rocks, and, if you could throw well, you got the women," Thomas points out. "Women did the gathering, and often brought a baby with them. People have speculated that [one-piece] rotation came from women having to throw while holding a baby."

I doubt that this hypothesis will ever be proved true and the evolutionary biology logic does not seem right to me. What kind of a mother goes hunting while carrying a baby? Wouldn't they be using something like a papoose or a sling? However, I am a combat sports writer and he is a research scientist. Please take both our conjectures with a healthy dose of salt and skepticism.

This difference between men and women is astounding, as the Olympics and other big-scale athletic tournaments show us continually that women can bust out impressive athletic feats and even perform at roughly 90% that of men in the same sports and events. The 90% ratio comes from a terrific article that the Atlantic had during the 2012 Olympic Games on how women's athletic performances have compared to men's over time. So... why are girls throwing 50 to 70% worse than boys and does this affect MMA?

Hypothesis:

I do believe that striking and grappling are harder for girls and women to learn than for boys and men - due to cultural factors and that pesky physiological differences thing. I also believe that there may be an initial neuromuscular barrier that is higher for girls and women, but that proper training and attention to technique during a fight can overcome this barrier.

Part of my hunch regarding this potential neuromuscular phenomenon is that the throwing motions are not technically built into boys and girls, as counter-examples can be readily found (boys who throw terribly and girls who throw amazingly well). However, enough data and personal experiences can be put together into this phenomenon that I believe there may be something physically different between the genders in the initial development of throwing motions by boys and girls.

There might be a legitimately higher barrier to athletic success within the striking combat sports that is not the sole result of culturally-imposed ideas about women being non-fighters or even non-athletes. The brains and muscular systems of girls and women may have influenced their athletic development to the point where learning how to throw a punch correctly is actually more difficult than it is for a boy or a man - but it is not impossible.

Thus, I wonder what the adjustment process for girls and women picking up striking for the first few months really entails regarding retraining the body versus what a boy or a man experiences. Throwing a punch is not an enormously different motion from throwing an object and the population of women who do pick up a striking-based combat sport may have to learn more and drill more than their male counterparts regarding the technique of punches. We combat fans still get women like Lucia Rikjer, but the majority of women MMA fighters prefer the submission for finishes and they usually choose to employ ground and pound strikes and big kicks over powerful punches for KOs. These women fighters will go with what works - and if punches aren't getting the job done, the kicks and the submissions will be employed.

Statistics

Note that my statistical sample is extremely limited due to time constraints. The majority of Japanese women MMA fighters do knock out their opponents at a far lesser rate than their male counterparts in the same weight divisions - but the North American, South American and European female fighters like those shown on Invicta and Strikeforce numbers have much higher KO rates - but the lower sample size makes for some tough predictions down the line.

At Invicta 1, three of eleven fights were finished by knockout. The weight category breakdowns are as follows: 1 of 3 atomweight (105 lbs), 1 of 3 bantamweight (135 lbs), 1 at catchweight (supposed to be one of two featherweight fights at 145 lbs, but neither match had two fighters making weight).

At Invicta 2, five of fourteen fights were finished by knockout. 1 of 2 atomweight, 1 of 2 flyweights (125 lbs), 1 of 6 bantamweights, and 1 of 1 featherweight. Thus far, the Invicta strawweights (115 lbs) have not had a KO finish.

For the weight divisions with UFC equivalents (flyweights, bantamweights and featherweights), the knockout rates make for interesting comparisons. Using Mookie Alexander's numbers for 2012 UFC fights alone, we get the following numbers.

UFC Flyweight (5 fights) - 80% decision, 20% KO/TKO, 0% submission

UFC Bantamweight (22 fights) - 45.5% decision, 18.1% KO/TKO, 36.4% submission

UFC Featherweight (32 fights) - 53.1% decision, 21.9% KO/TKO, 25% submission

Invicta flyweight (3 fights) - 67% decision, 33% KO/TKO, 0% submission

Invicta bantamweight (9 fights) - 22% decision, 22% KO/TKO, 56% submission

Invicta featherweights (3 fights) - 33% decision, 67% KO/TKO, 0% submission

The Strikeforce numbers are a bit wonky, as Cristiane Santos, Julia Budd, Amanda Nunes, Germaine de Randamie and others are KO artists, but the cards feature some very uneven matchmaking and several of the fights were finished by something other than a punch. A more in-depth examination of the Strikeforce women's matches is in the works.

Jewels, the Japanese promotion that features women fighters in a card filled with MMA matches, grappling matches and kickboxing matches, has had something like 4 KOs over ten cards and dozens of fights in the past two years. For Japanese fighters, submissions are the overwhelming pick for finishes and decision victories are the dominant norm.

The Brazilian cards may never get a full statistical work-up, but of the few female fights that I have seen from that region, the KO rates are relatively in line with the Invicta numbers.

Analysis:

Working with elite MMA events simplifies things considerably, but it also chops out all the interesting statistical stuff. It also removes all the women who didn't get to the elite level for whatever reasons and those left overwhelmingly know how to do most phases of MMA at an acceptable level. Even getting to the amateur or professional fight stage is a considerable achievement for most people and they are the ones that would be of most interest to this kind of analysis. However, that takes a legitimate research budget and probably academic ties I don't have. C'est la vie.

The problem with straight Xweight/Xweight comparisons between men and women is that by adulthood, the genders are on different athletic plateaus. Male athletes are bigger, faster, stronger and can usually cut more weight - not to mention that they carry more muscle than fat than women at the same weight. The physiological differences make for even greater dissonance in MMA when the fact that the meta-game, skill packages and physical features of the women's featherweights are more akin to the male heavyweight division of the late 1990s than the current male featherweight division. The divisions aren't the exactly same between genders and some bodging of perspective is needed to make the numbers fit right in this limited sample size and perspective.

Overall, the numbers are surprisingly cheerful for KOs in the women's MMA world. The numbers may drop slightly for Strikeforce and Invicta, but I doubt that drop will be drastic and several of the number crunching posts done here on Bloody Elbow by community members and writers show that the numbers for the UFC/WEC merger levelled out in similar territory to the current ones.

The numbers shown here for women's MMA are very limited, but the higher number of submission finishes and ground and pound finishes than straight KO finishes seem to show that women generally have worse takedown defense, grappling defense and submission defense than they do striking defense. This might explain why someone like Ronda Rousey can tear through her division with a gameplan that involves clinching and submissions far easier than someone whose gamplan revolves around striking and counter-striking like Sarah Kaufman (who has great boxing for the MMA world, by the way). The best counter to Rousey's gameplan would probably be to take the Chuck Liddell route - develop a great sprawl/clinch disentangling tactics and a way to land powerful punches on a charging opponent.

Punching right may be more difficult for women initially, but learning how to take a punch (or better yet, avoiding them) is as tough - or tougher - for men and women. The KO numbers from elite women's MMA events show that proper training, diligent practice and the desire to learn how to fight right will get our women combat athletes to the right places technique-wise. A girl can learn quite well how to knock people out - and the numbers back that up.

Those interested in more statistical overviews of UFC events can find brilliant posts by community members like theslynx, who dropped this piece of brilliance on us in January and then followed it up with a look at trends over time.

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