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Choosing Headgear for Boxing

If you are ready to make the leap from learning to box to actually sparring in the boxing ring, one of your first major decisions will have to do with finding the right headgear.

It can be daunting to figure out what, specifically, you need, especially since there are so many choices. And if you’re still fairly new to your gym, you may not know who to ask or whether to trust what someone tells you.

Since your decision about headgear can cost you more than a hundred bucks, here’s a little information that may help.

Here’s what I know about you…

You’re scared. And with very good reason. You know you’re about to take straight, hard punches direct to your face and you are BRAND NEW at this. Holy shit, that’s enough to scare anyone. But here’s the deep dark (not really) secret that may help you: everyone — and there are NO exceptions — everyone begins here. Every single badass in that ring has faced this knowledge (I’m about to get punched in the face!) and had to do the serious soul-searching that it takes to suck it up and do it anyway.

However — and this is important — headgear is not going to help you avoid getting punched in the face. You’ll still get punched, and it will still be somewhat of a shock, and you’ll still freak out a little bit every time it happens for a while. Headgear is not a way to avoid the inevitableYou’re going to take a shot. A bunch of them, most likely. (I think you’re gonna do great, and I have some advice that may help, so hang in there with me.)

I’m saying all this because I was so fucking scared the first time I got in the ring I wanted to put on a suit of armor and a full-face motorcycle helmet. I was terrified of taking my first punches. But since there were not any suits of armor or motorcycle helmets handy, I looked for the next best thing: a face cage.

Sigh. Let me explain about face cages.

Why face cages suck

I call all of the headgear types pictured below face cages. But technically there are headgear styles with mouthbars (green Ring to Cage, below), nosebars (red Cleto Reyes, below),and actual wire cages (black Fight Club, below). Our gym had the nosebar variety, and I didn’t care how nasty that thing was, I was not getting in the sparring ring without it.

What I didn’t know then was that I would barely be able to see in the face cage. Even the best styles (and if I had to pick, the mouth bar style is probably the least horrible choice) significantly obstruct your vision, which is a very bad thing in the ring. In my opinion, it’s not worth the sacrifice.

However, there is one decent reason to wear a face cage. If you are a heavyweight, sparring hard multiple times a week with other heavyweights, you might consider it. I don’t think this is the best way to train, but I know at least one heavyweight guy who wears one, and this is why he does it. Those dudes are no joke; they throw power, and they aim to destroy. I recommend the Cleto Reyes above, because it has a lace-up top, but the Title version in the picture to the right has a chin buckle rather than velcro, which is good. More about these features below.

And be of good cheer, ye faint of heart: If you will do the things on the list below, you may find yourself feeling less desperate for a face cage than I was when I first got in…

How to significantly reduce your desire for a face cage

This part is simple, and you can read more about each one of these items in the posts listed at the bottom of this article. But the gist is this:

  1. Spar for the first time in a gym where you’ve seen great care taken to introduce new boxers to the ring.
  2. Spar for the first time only after you’ve gotten in shape at least a little bit.
  3. Spar for the first time only with the support of a trainer you really trust.
  4. Spar for the first time with an experienced boxer who will bring the game to a level you can cope with.
  5. Consider asking your trainer if you can spar for the first time on offense only. (You’re the only one throwing punches.)

Of course, I had ALL of these conditions, and still wanted my face cage like a baby wants her mommy. Sometimes you just gotta do what it takes to get your ass in the ring. Kudos to you, no matter what you decide about headgear.

Just remember that even if you DO wear a cage, it doesn’t lessen the shock of taking your first shots; it just makes it harder for your to see well enough to do anything about it. Mine left an enormous bruise on my chin from where the not-very-well-padded chin bar hooked under my face. I only ever wore that damned thing once.

And whether you decide to buy or borrow one, I’m betting you won’t wear it more than a time or two before you decide you’re ready for less sucky headgear. Which make me sooo glad I just wore the disgusting communal gym version and didn’t pay $130 for one of these suckers.

Read on, warrior.

Stage One: Borrow Headgear

First of all, if you’re not sure yet and just want to test things out, I would *borrow* headgear rather than buying it.

Most gyms have communal headgear that you can use, and they very frequently have face cage headgear, if you’re determined you want that. In some cases they have Masters headgear with extra padding and bigger cheekguards. More on that below.

Borrowed or communal headgear is a little bit disgusting, but if you’ve made it this far in boxing, you’re probably not a clean freak and you’re at least somewhat used to sweat, spit, stink, blood, snot, grime, and germs. (Sorry for reminding you of the disgust factor. Part of the deal, no?)

A slightly better borrowing tactic is to find someone at your gym with a similar build as you and ask if you can borrow their headgear. Most people don’t like to do this, but once in a while is not such a big deal. I’ve loaned mine out and borrowed other people’s a time or two.

Either way, you probably don’t want to borrow headgear for very long. And truthfully, you won’t have to. Once you start getting some experience in the ring, you’ll have a pretty good idea about whether you’re ready to lay out cash for some headgear of your own.

 Stage Two: Buy Cheap $30 Headgear

After my first time sparring in a face cage, I went straight to the Dick’s Sporting Goods and ponied up for the thin, cheapo version of headgear. That’s the Everlast headgear I had, in the picture, except mine was red.

 Why cheapo headgear?

Because I’d been through my first sparring experience, and had learned that I was a fucking superhero. Didn’t know I had it in me! Which is NOT to say I looked awesome in the ring because I emphatically didn’t; my biggest revelation was that I could take a punch just fine. Holy shit, who knew??

So when I went to the local sporting goods store, I was plenty happy to shell out $30 and walk off with thin-ass, shiny new headgear that no one had sweated, bled, spit, or germed in. Yet.

And you know what? It was fine. Not great, but fine. And I used it for several months while I decided whether I wanted to get an actual amateur boxing fight.

The reason that this was my next decision point was that in order to fight, you have to wear USA Boxing certified headgear, and my cheap stuff was definitely not that.

Stage Three: Leveling Up to Great Headgear

I spent a lot of time researching, buying and returning, and finally purchasing my top-level headgear, and it’s served me incredibly well for several years. I ended up buying the same headgear that my trainer, who was a world-ranked pro fighter, wore. (And she even let me borrow hers once to try it out.)

My headgear is made by Fight Gear (I’d give you a link, but I don’t see it online anymore), and has all the features mentioned below.

Here’s what you want in the headgear you are going to pay $100 bucks or more for.

  • A lace up top. Check out the photo. That’s me, in my lace-up-top headgear. The funny little white thing (you see it poking up in the air in the photo at the top of this post) is where I’ve taped the laces together to keep them from flying around and popping someone in the eye. A lace up top is CRITICAL because you want to be able to adjust your headgear, and the “standard” kinds, like the Everlast that was my first version, rarely fit correctly.
  • A chin buckle, NOT velcro. Velcro wears out; you’ll learn this if you have boxing gloves for very long. But on a glove, worn out velcro can be fixed with athetic tape or glove cuffs; on headgear, you’ll have to pop for a new one. So get the buckle kind to start with, and you’ll be good to go.
  • USA Boxing Certification. You’ll either read this in the description (if you’re shopping online) or you’ll see the official patch on the side of the headgear itself. You can see the patch on my headgear in the picture above as well as the top of the post. You MUST have this if you plan to compete, but even if you don’t plan to compete, this is headgear you know is decent.
  • A velcro or lace up back. Again, this is all about securing the best possible fit for your head size and shape, including your hair. Mine has a wide velcro flap, but the lace up ones work as well.

You want your headgear to fit pretty tightly when you’re cold, because as you warm up and start to sweat, you DON’T want it slipping around on you. Again, this is critical, because you need to be able to see, and you might find yourself taking a knockout punch while you’re busy futzing with your headgear in the ring (I pulled off a nice one once this way).

Be willing to order and return until you get the size right. Incidentally, mine is an Adult Medium. And yes, there are youth sizes in headgear.

Finally, about Masters Headgear…

“Masters” is the term used to denote the category of competitive amateur boxers over the age of 35. That’s me.

Don’t get Masters headgear if you can avoid it. Sadly, a few major boxing tournaments require it if you fight Masters, and in that case, you might try borrowing one because I’d sure hate for you to spend all that money for one of these things.

The reason Masters headgear sucks is the same reason the face cages suck. On Masters headgear they heavily pad everything so that the thing weighs a ton, feels incredibly stiff, and sticks out a lot. There are also ridiculously prominent cheek protectors that impede your vision.

You can see the red Fight Gear Masters headgear in the picture; I’ve tried it on but not sparred in it. How can anyone see through that thing??

The Whole Enchilada

If you skipped to here, this is what you want to know. Borrow headgear (face cage or otherwise) your first time in the ring. Or pop for cheap headgear until you’re sure you’re ready to level up. When you’re ready for really good headgear, expect to spend about a hundred bucks, and get a lace-up top, buckle-style chin strap, USA boxing certification, and a lace-up or velcro back. Don’t get Masters headgear if you can possibly avoid it.

All my opinion, of course, and I’d love to hear your experience and comments below.

And I want to give a special shout-out to Jackie Haidar, a boxer who is making that huge step into the sparring ring. She emailed me to ask about headgear, and said some really nice things that made me grin like an idiot.

I *LOVE* to hear from you guys, and it makes my entire week (month!) when you drop me a line. You can always reach me at Lisa [at] The Glowing Edge [dot] com.

First Time Sparring Advice

Here’s some more advice about sparring for the first time (they all open in a new window):

What to Expect The First Time You Spar in Boxing

What You Should Know Before You Spar

First Time Sparring: Last Minute Advice

And, if you feel ready for this one (I promise you’ll be okay):

Sustaining Damage During Sparring

 Now go do it! And be sure to check back in and let me know how it went, you ass-kicking superstar.

Image credit: The two pictures of me sparring were taken by my friend Melissa Eggleston, who was kind enough to show up one afternoon to Second Round where I train, and actually climbed into the ring with very expensive photo gear in order to get some of her own “shots” off… You rock, Melissa.

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25 Responses to Choosing Headgear for Boxing

  1. Jackie October 4, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Thank you so much for that absolutely amazing post! Your advice and knowledge is beyond helpful as I begin my search to buy headgear, especially since I’ve felt clueless about what headgear to look for. Your posts are so inspiring and make stepping into the ring for the first time seem a little less daunting!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 4, 2012 at 9:59 am #

      Hiya Jackie! So glad this was helpful for you. There shouldn’t be so damn much mystery when it comes to boxing gear, but the simple fact is that the choices have expanded dramatically and it’s hard to know exactly what to do. And any new person has to figure out so much already

      I hope you have a great experience with your headgear AND your boxing. Would love to hear your story if you get a chance to share!

      • Jackie October 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

        Got my headgear today! It’s Ringside Deluxe Face Saver. It’s definitely well padded. My one complaint would be that it’s a little stiff and tight on my temples but I’m hoping it will break in a little. Now I just need to get in the ring and test it out!

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am #

          Yep, it will most likely break in a bit as you wear it. You don’t want it loose, that’s for sure. And according to the description online, you got all the right features, from chin buckle to lace top to adjustable back. Rock on! Be sure to let me know how it goes when you get in the ring!

  2. Pink Pearl October 4, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Hey Lisa – this is a great post with a lot of really wonderful info. I’d go one further, though, and distinguish between competition headgear and sparring headgear. My trainer’s got us all using Mexican-style headgear in sparring (unless it’s the middle of the summer and 120 degrees in the gym, and/or we’re fighting soon – then the competition-certified headgear comes out!) and while vision does get a little restricted, I think the extra padding is at least psychologically helpful.

    Also, how do you clean yours? DO you clean yours? I’ve been spraying the fabric interior on my sparring gear with a diluted rubbing alcohol solution once a week or so just because if I don’t, my face breaks out like crazy. It doesn’t seem to be damaging the fabric, but I’ve been afraid to try it out on my all-leather competition headgear. If you have any better tips, I’d love to hear them.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 4, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      Hey hey, Pink Pearl!

      I had to look up “Mexican-style headgear” to see what you meant. It looks like just a slightly heavier version of regular headgear, much like the Masters style headgear.

      Obviously, I haven’t heard much about it in my gyms, but that’s not unusual; there’s such a wide variety of practices in boxing. So I’m glad you raised the issue. 🙂

      Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not generally willing to sacrifice vision and mobility for extra padding. I’ve gotten more comfortable with taking punches, I have better defense than I used to, and I don’t spar “all out” every week. In fact, I often spar with NO headgear when I’m in with my favorite pro sparring partner. That just means we work without heavy power, which is awesome. But I don’t recommend that for everyone.

      Re: cleaning. Yeah, I do a haphazard wipe with a damp towel or an anti-microbial wipe once in a blue moon (be careful, alcohol will sting your eyes next time you wear your headgear if you don’t get it all off) but I don’t worry too much about it. And I’m not sure I would do that at all on those headgear that are sueded inside.

      My mouthpiece I definitely clean, and I clean the case too. Headgear, not so much.

      Thanks SO much for commenting, and bringing up a couple of very good angles. Boxing is about community, and this is how the sport grows. Glad you took the time to contribute!

  3. Laura October 4, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    This is great, thank you! I’m several months away from working up to this. Took me forever just to find a mouthguard.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 4, 2012 at 11:33 am #

      Re: taking forever to find a mouthguard: LOL! Me too. I went through several before I finally got one that worked, and I used that thing for far too long before deciding I could find one even better. That’s definitely a post in itself, isn’t it?

      Which one did you decide on, Laura?

      • Laura October 4, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

        Brain Pad LoPro Female Mouthguard. So far it’s worked out OK, I cut it down to the smallest size.

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

          Wow, I haven’t seen gender-specific mouthguards until now. Yours is a double — does it let you breathe comfortably?

          I’ve been reluctant to use a double mouthguard, and my most recent one is the super cheap Everlast clear single. I paid $7 for a two-pack plus a case. The two-pack was handy, because the first one I cut down to fit BEFORE I boiled and fitted it, and I didn’t know it would shrink after molding. But the second one worked out perfectly.

          • Laura October 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

            I’m back to eat my words (why not? I almost ate a mouth guard) after sparring for the 2nd time last night I’ve discovered that this mouth guard is great for drills, not so great for sparring. I was gasping for air and gagging.
            I’m pretty close to asking for a custom guard for Christmas, my dentist said he could do it for me, and my coach knows another dentist he’s used.
            OK, I’ll stay off the Sparring Headgear thread now and wait for the mouth guard one!

            • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

              Aaargh! So sorry to hear it. I’ve had the same issue myself, which is why I went to my super cheap and amazingly effective (and guaranteed, I think) Everlast single version. Consider running to the sporting goods store for an interim mouthpiece like that!

              And yep, will get you a mouthguard post up soon… 🙂

            • Pink Pearl October 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

              I have a Shock Doctor Gel Max mouthguard that I absolutely love. It molds really well (I’d say nearly as well as the custom one my teammate has!) and takes months of abuse before it needs to be replaced. I mention this to you because it breathes really well. (It’s only a single guard, very lightweight, and it’s got strategic holes in it that seem to help with both circulation and drying out.) At about ten bucks a pop, it might be worth trying before you take the plunge and get a custom guard.

  4. james March 15, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Thanks for this, excellent!

  5. Schweppes May 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Anyone with any advice for my nephews who are 10 and 13 years old, what would be the best facebar headgear. They have just started and wanted some independent advice. Thanks folks.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe May 19, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

      Just don’t spend too much if you can avoid it, Schweppes. Because almost nobody wears headgear with facebars for very long. They just are too difficult to see out of and too hard to maneuver in, and eventually you get over your fears about boxing and want regular headgear. It would be great if your two nephews could share one headgear (that can work if the boys are close enough in size), that way it’s less expensive. 🙂

  6. erin June 8, 2015 at 7:51 pm #

    Hi, so. . . I have a question. I really really want to spar, but, I have TMJ. Have you met or heard of many boxers with TMJ who spar? Like, when you get slammed in the face, is it your jaw that’s getting rocked, or your whole head, or what? Thanks for the advice 😉

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe June 9, 2015 at 8:32 am #

      Hi, erin! Welcome to the boxing crew.

      I don’t know anyone with TMJ who boxes, and I would definitely not recommend sparring to anyone who has medical concerns like that unless you have the clear go-ahead from your doctor. Yes, you can take a shot to the jaw in sparring, just like you might take a shot to the nose, or ear, or forehead. All of those are completely normal in boxing, if you actually get in the ring. So it might make sense for you to train without sparring…

      However, I will say that I don’t often get “slammed” in the face when I spar with people who are skilled and trustworthy. When we spar, we aren’t trying to hit each other really hard; we’re controlling our shots. The more experience you have, the better you get at this. But you *DO* take hard shots now and then, and even with your protective gear you are going to feel it once in a while.

      So you do need to be careful as you look into this. Good luck!

    • Jess June 9, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      Hi Erin – I have TMJ (not seriously, just, like, a little clicky noise in my jaw that causes occasional headaches) and I competed for several years (and still spar). It was never an issue for me – you get hit in the jaw less often than you’d think. I took a few hits there but it never seemed to aggravate anything. It’s probably worth checking with your doctor or dentist but unless yours is extremely serious, I doubt it would totally exclude the possibility.

      • erin June 9, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

        I’m not sure how serious mine is on the scale of seriousness, but I know it used to lock shut a lot. Unfortunately no dentist would tell me it’s ok to get punched in the face, so I guess I’ll just have to use my best judgment. I’m considering training as though I were going to spar, then see how it turns out 🙂 Nice to hear from someone who has it though, thank you!

  7. erin June 9, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    Thanks for the quick response! I pretty much already knew the answer, sadly. It’s hard to train knowing I’ll never get in the ring. Oh well, I’ll just have to become a badass fitness boxer!

  8. carol October 2, 2015 at 7:53 am #

    hey guys im planning on buying a head gear soon. i would like a headgear that is well padded to take in heavy hard punches and not feel it so much in my head. someone told me a gel padded headgear like the ringside gel sparring headgear is the best. any suggestions? has anyone ever tried it? is it good?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 2, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi, Carol — I’m sure gel headgear would be fine. I have gel gloves and I love them. But don’t forget that your first line of defense is to choose trustworthy sparring partners who aren’t going to try and take your block off. 🙂

      Report back if you get a chance and let us all know what you think of the gel headgear (if you get it).

  9. carol October 3, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    thank you, i definitely will let you guys know. im still trying to look around and decide. i would like one that is very well padded but not to heavy and one that protects the nose area.

  10. Al Pallone May 29, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    Masters boxing talks about safety al the time yet will not allow you to wear full face protection headgear. Even with 16oz gloves the masters headgear is soft & a glove can make contact with the eye socket. So why not let masters wear full face protection? Is it some ego thing with USABOXING? What’s the difference they score a hit a hit no matter what head gear! The older you are (67) the less reflexes & movement so let me wear full face protection. At the last RINGSIDE MASTERS they said no beards & the master competitors said ok we ain’t coming & they guickly said ok beards are ok! USABOXING NEEDS TO GET IN THE MODERN ERA!

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