Whenever I tell folks I’ve boxed for a decade, they often ask “How does it feel to be punched?” or “I’d want to box, but does it hurt?” Just imagine: if a bare fist punches your nose right now, it’d definitely hurt. Not only would it hurt from lack of protection, but it’d also hurt because the punch landed on a sensitive area. Other factors, like the weight of your opponent, the direction of your movement, and even your opponent’s technique, also influence how much a punch hurts. But in this post, I’ll focus on the pain from a punch (instead of its damage) and explain how punches generally don’t hurt.
When Would a Punch Hurt?
First, if you’re really wondering this question, it’s more useful to ask when would a punch cause pain. In boxing, you’re constantly moving, wearing certain sized gloves1 and (most likely) headgear.2 Many punches would be flying between you and your opponent, and you may have adrenaline pumping. Your goal would be to hit and not get hit. Assuming you’re sparring with a similarly sized opponent, it’s primarily your responsibility to minimize the chance that a punch lands and causes pain. Even if a punch lands and hurts, many, many other things would keep your attention than the pain you may feel from punches. In general then, punches won’t hurt because you likely won’t notice any pain.
Most punches that land would actually feel like “thumps.” Unless your gym’s culture regularly has you boxing someone with much more skill than you, most punches would not land with enough impact or in the ideal place for it to hurt or for you to notice it hurt. Boxing gloves also play a role here. They hide the bony parts of your fist and are comparatively soft. They’re constructed to absorb the force in punches, lessening the impact from a punch. So given both your opponent’s lack of power and your boxing gloves lessening a punch’s impact, it’s not surprising that most punches would instead feel like forceful pushes.
But you can bet that certain punches would hurt. Punches hurt when they land forcefully and cleanly on a sensitive area. The first factor increasing the risk of pain is the force with which a punch lands. This landing force matters much more than the force a punch has because a punch must land properly and on target to really cause pain. Your opponent’s weight matters here too, as it contributes to the force of their punches. A heavyweight’s punch would very likely hurt due to their punches’ force, even if you’re also a heavyweight. The second factor is whether a punch lands cleanly. A punch lands cleanly when all of its force lands flush on its target. A punch that doesn’t land cleanly would have much of its power dispersed away so that it has less chance of causing pain. But landing cleanly often isn’t enough to cause pain.
The next factor, hitting a sensitive area, would ensure a clean, forceful punch causes pain. Sensitive areas include the nose, temples, jaw, chin, solar plexus, and liver. It’s difficult to hit these areas: the nose is relatively small; the temples, jaw, and chin protected; the solar plexus and liver relatively small and protected. But even if not clean, a forceful enough punch to a sensitive area is likely to cause pain. The bottom line is that punch force, punch cleanliness, and landing area determine whether a punch causes pain, and the more you have of each, the more a punch would hurt.
Punches may cause two types of pain: sharp pain and dull pain. Sharp pain is intense, more localized, and stinging or stabbing. A clean punch to the nose would cause sharp pain. In contrast, dull pain is persistent or longer lasting, heavy, and aching.3 This pain is harder to describe, but it includes pain ranging from punches tightening and straining your jaw to multiple hard punches landing on your arm. The type of pain a punch causes depends on how clean it lands, where it lands, and how much force with which it lands. A clean punch with enough power would cause dull pain unless it lands on a sensitive area. If thrown with enough power, punches to sensitive areas would cause stinging pain.4 Sharp pain can certainly become dull pain, but not vice versa.5
Imagine pounding your chest with closed fists (like a gorilla)—what you feel when your fists land is what most punches feel like. If you can imagine feeling that for other target areas, you should now be less concerned about punches hurting and more confident about taking punches.
- You’ll likely wear 16 ounce gloves, the standard size glove for sparring. The smaller the glove, the more chance there is of it causing pain. The right boxer can use big gloves to cause more dull pain due to the weight from the gloves, but big gloves (more than small gloves) would slow your opponent’s speed. Less speed means less impact and less pain. 16 ounce gloves are relatively bulky too, so compared to smaller gloves they’ll more likely catch on your own gloves/arms, be slowed down, and cause less pain.
- You’ll most likely wear headgear, especially if you’re an amateur or a beginner boxer. Only pros have a valid reason for sparring without headgear. If you find yourself boxing without headgear and you aren’t a pro, you may want to find a different gym.
- Adrienne Santos-Longhurst, Types of Pain: How to Recognize and Talk About Them, Healthline (Nov. 29, 2018), https://www.healthline.com/health/types-of-pain.
- Punches to a sensitive area would also cause real damage. Some damage, like a concussion, can be painless. But pain generally includes some type of damage. Please note also that sensitive-area punches can cause dull pain too.
- Someone asking whether a punch hurts may also want to note that pain can arise after the fact and it can be collateral. Pain from lockjaw is an example of pain arising after the fact. And collateral pain includes a bone breaking after your opponent lands with enough power.
One thing I never hear boxers talk about is the feeling of your brain moving around in your head. I had only one spar, with an experienced boxer who wasn’t hitting me lightly, but also wasn’t teeing off, and I felt my brain slap the back of my skull every time he touched me. Is that normal? Seems like nobody talks about that sensation. I didn’t feel any other pain
That’s strange—I can’t say Le or I have ever experienced that feeling. You might be describing some feeling derived from a concussion or other traumatic brain injury, which would be concerning. But the feeling you described sounds like it could be a combination of shock, the feeling of headgear suddenly moving, and/or an aggravated headache. Punches from experienced boxers can be pretty sharp and can definitely make you “rattled”! In any case, I hope you can have a better time during future sparring.
Your brain cannot feel pain, or any sensation for that matter; it doesn’t have the nerves or pain receptors to be able to feel anything. I’m sure you felt a sensation while getting hit, but if it makes you feel any better it wasn’t actually your brain moving around in your head.