sparring the rancor

Two Things You Want in a Sparring Partner

The transition from the floor of the gym to the boxing ring can be a bitch. When you’re new, you can barely tell a jab from a cross; the prospect of live sparring feels like being dropped into a pit with Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor (pictured above, nomming someone’s arm).

So how the hell do you know what to ask for or expect in a sparring partner? Well, you ask someone who’s been doing it a while. I’ll tell you my experience with it, and then you can ask someone else. Find your tribe and they’ll help you get through this.

Okay, me first. I won’t lie to you: getting started sparring can be pretty miserable.

My recent conversation with a curious onlooker

I had just finished a 2-hour boxing workout with a local team, which we ended with sparring, burning whatever gas we still had left in our tanks. I made it to the bell, crawled out of the ropes, and let my partner get the final round of the day with another bruiser more his size and power. Once his new partner was in, I tapped reset on our round timer. One short round of 2 minutes, everything you got…

They went at it like two saltwater crocodiles warring over the last antelope on earth. It was brutal. I watched in appreciation of the power and techniques on display. I was already nursing a sore place on the hinge of my jaw below my left ear, and had a few bruises coming up on my forearms (the latter being a good sign of a tight guard); I was glad it wasn’t me in the ring.

The man sitting next to me on the benches seemed a little shaken, even after the two guys made the bell, swapped exhausted grins and a sweaty hug, and rolled out of the ring.

“How hard do you guys hit in there?” he asked, waving his hand in the general direction of the ring. “Fifty percent? Seventy?”

I knew what he meant. If he had any interest in getting in there (he was wondering), would he get mauled like those two appeared to be mauling each other?

In a good gym, I told him, the amount of power you use depends on

  • who you’re in with
  • how much you each weigh
  • how experienced you and your partner are
  • what your goals are
  • what you agree to

That’s in a GOOD gym. In a shitty gym, they throw you in with anyone, beat the hell out of you, and laugh if you don’t come back. Sadly, there are plenty of shitty gyms. But there are also excellent, top-notch places with owners and coaches who have a strong interest in cultivating newcomers to the sport, and I happened to be in one of those (in this case, NBS Gym, for any of you wondering).

Before my last round with crocodile #1 — whose name is actually John — I told him I was nearly gassed. I wanted to work slower, and with an emphasis on technique. A couple of times during the round I stopped him and asked for a specific shot or move to be repeated so I could work on my defense and counter. John is awesome for this kind of work, and has plenty of patience. He’s also willing to show you the secrets of his “shocker” shots — the small handful of unexpected combos that tend to take the air out of an opponent’s sails in very short order.

After our round was over, he asked me if his power levels had been okay. That’s a HUGE indicator that you’re in with a great sparring partner. His power levels were fine, for the most part. He has enough experience to control his shots, and even though he’s far more muscular and powerful than I am (not to mention decades younger), he doesn’t shoot to kill.

I mean, unless you just ask for that shit. Which his last partner of the night did.

I do take harder shots from guys like this than I would with a less experienced or lighter opponent, but that’s very much the price of working with someone stronger — even when they control their work, you’re going to feel it. This is boxing, after all. If you’re looking for something cuddly, try knitting.

So, number one thing you want in a sparring partner is experience.

Because experience is going to give them control. The less experience they have, the wilder their shit will be. And you could get hurt, even if your partner is smaller than you are.

Caveat: you will probably hurt some, no matter what.

Back to the guy who was watching those final rounds. I asked him what his sport was. He was thin and wiry and looked like the kind of guy who runs or plays basketball.

Sure enough, he was a runner, and he told me he had actually run a marathon the day before. Which is badass.

Then he asked me the standard question everyone asks, “So does it hurt?”

I was sorely tempted to tell him, “Are you kidding me? Running a motherfucking marathon hurts. That’s like, 5 hours of pain. We only have to do this shit for 3 minutes.”

But I didn’t actually say that. I felt along my jaw, which was sore, and pressed my fingers against the bruises rising along my forearms. I sat on the bench and swiped my sweaty hair out of my eyes. “Yeah, it hurts some,” I told him. Because it does.

But if you don’t work, you don’t learn. You have to sort of lean into the pain.

Which is the second major thing you want in a sparring partner: someone who will give you real boxing WORK.

That means they aren’t self-centered assholes looking to beat you up in order to make themselves look badass.

They bring out your best. Make you work your hardest. Check in with you to make sure power levels are acceptable.

That’s the kind of gym, the kind of sparring partner, you want to look for. Definitely use your words — tell your parter what you need and what level you are. And expect some pain, especially when you’re brand spanking new. But beyond that, search out the best possible sparring partners, and hang on to them.

And finally, work to become the kind of sparring partner you appreciate. Make boxing work for you, and for others who are coming into the sport.

Now you tell me…

What’s been your sparring experiences with new partners? Have you found a good one? How did you do it? What are your secrets? Leave me a comment below and let’s talk.

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24 Responses to Two Things You Want in a Sparring Partner

  1. Hillari February 18, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    My experience with new sparring partners is either a) I get hurt because of taking wild, unfocused punches, or b) the new partner shies away so much during the session that neither one of us gets much out of it. I’m the one who strongly suggests that a new partner and I go light the first few times around. I won’t wear headgear most times with a new person to remind myself to watch my punches, and to remind them not to throw any, either.

    The good ones talk about what they want to work on before getting into the ring and set boundaries. There was a guy I was sparring with, and we always talked about what combinations, whether we wanted to do defense or offense, etc., before the bell rang. I always learned something whenever i sparred with him. Unfortunately, the guy is out of the gym because he teaches in another country most of the year.

  2. Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 18, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Hey, Hillari — It takes so long to break in a new sparring partner sometimes, doesn’t it? And I gotta go to more than one gym to find several that I work well with, which not everyone can do. Whew. What we do in order to get ringtime, huh? I’m so glad you’re doing your thing and not letting anyone or anything stop you. Stay strong, girlfriend!

  3. June March 8, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    My sparring story! Today I got to spar at my gym. Our coach put me in with three different sparring partners and I got to work on defense and offense. Mostly offense, but that worked well for me. I was very nervous and rushed through the first round. Mostly what I learned is that I need to work on my endurance. Dang I was tired! Unfortunately, worked on defense with a fast little gnat of a guy for my last round and I got my butt kicked. And I twisted my ankle in my rush to get away. So my first real sparring session didn’t end on a great note but I’m so glad to put the skills I’ve been working on to use. The folks at my gym are all super supportive so I felt safe and got some good feedback.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 9, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Woo, June! Congrats on surviving your first sparring rounds. You are ON YOUR WAY. I hope you are feeling a huge surge of relief and I can already tell you have a “stuff I gotta work on” list a mile long. And yep, conditioning is top on the list.

      Here’s a small bit of advice on that one, btw: start doing some sprint work, if you have’t already. Doesn’t actually have to be running, you can also do sprint work on the heavy bags, etc. Just short, regular bursts of “all out” activity, with a short rest period in between. Boxing rounds are sprints, and long, slow cardio work does not prepare you for it. But dude, you’ll get there!

      Can’t wait to hear more, June. what an awesome, inspiring, exciting (and a little bit painful, yep) journey you’re on. Way to rock it, sister.

      • June March 9, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

        Thanks Lisa! Sprint work, ok. Does that count on the elliptical and bike too? I was thinking I had to start running but if I can get some endurance training on other equipment, I’ll be just as happy. And, now I know that a lot of sparring work at my gym happens on Saturday when fewer people are there. Thanks for the encouragement!

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 10, 2014 at 11:24 am #

          Yep, you can do sprints on/with anything. Look up “tabata workouts” to get some ideas, too. Once you get your fitness levels up a bit, do your workouts in rounds, too: 2 or 3 minutes at a time, with 30-second recoveries. Those two things alone will help you start to get in better ring shape. Hang in there! 🙂

  4. Solmadrid Vazquez March 20, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Great article! I agree on the points you made. The best sparring partners are those with experience and who can put you to the test without completely overwhelming you. Turn up the intensity and skill just enough that it forces you to adapt and become a better fighter.

    I’ve had various sparring partners throughout the years, some amazing, some ok, some horrible.

    The worst was years ago when I was a newbie. My first time in the ring and the instructor partnered me up with another gym instructor. For some reason, the instructor decided that “Full Blast” was appropriate. Within 2 minutes he broke one of my ribs. Ouch! hah.

    I found a new gym after that with amazing instructors who helped my growth immensely!

    My experience at the previous gym really gave me an appreciation for using the right power level with newbies when I train them. So in some way, the experience was helpful…though painful! haha

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 21, 2014 at 8:20 am #

      What they did to you at that one gym was unconscionable, Solmadrid. I’m sorry it happened to you, and I wish I could say that was rare, but sadly it’s not. And it was another instructor who did it! Even worse. Shame on them. Did you tell them you got a broken rib out of the deal?

      Glad to hear you persisted and found a good gym. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Stay strong, and stop back by any time and let me know what’s going on for you.

      PS: I checked out your site. Nice!

      • Solmadrid Vazquez March 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

        I did tell them about the broken rib. The apologized profusely. However, it should never have happened in the first place. I can only imagine how many other students they must have lost due to similar actions.

        Thanks for the compliment on my site. I’m a big fan of yours as well. You write really well and you speak from experience. I’m always looking forward to your next post!

  5. Charlie Seelig March 22, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Then you take those sparring partners, especially ones who are part of a gym that educates everyone on the ethos of sparring and work everyone into a portfolio of partners (she has a shorter reach, but is quicker and has a wicked left hook; he has fifty pounds and five inches on you; she’s your size and height but has more experience; he’s a newbie just getting started) and learn how to take what you know and work with them on your and their strengths and weaknesses. You can end up with an educational afternoon or evening.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 23, 2014 at 11:35 am #

      Right on target, Charlie — when you get a wide variety of good sparring partners (and sometimes you have to go to more than one gym, which can be worked out), you can learn SO much.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  6. Marilyn Mangini April 12, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    Oh my goodness! So glad I stumbled on you!! First I’m 44 and I’ve been working out at a boxing gym, secretly yearning to spar but fearing that people might think I was a little wacky. How nice to know I’m not alone! Anyway, today I screwed up my courage and asked one of the guys to spar with me. It was so humbling. I’m so grateful to run acoss this article… he was great and he held back but with enough oomph to let me know that I don’t want to keep getting hit and he was willing to work with me afterwards on blocking and timing. I picked him well but man, I couldn’t believe how bad I was. I don’t think I slipped, bobbed, weaved, or rolled at all. It was so frustrating but as bad as it was… I think I might try it again, because now, well, now it’s a challenge.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 14, 2014 at 11:02 am #

      Hah! Nothing like a little sparring to show you your weak spots, no? Welcome to the club, Marilyn, and don’t worry: we ALL started where you are. Hell, some of us revisit that slightly painful situation on a regular basis. 🙂

      The good news is that it sounds like you found a very nice sparring partner! Now find more, and keep on working, because you’ll find your game SERIOUSLY improves the more you spar. Some days, keep your work totally light (work for touches, not hits) or try specific combos, drills, blocks, or other maneuvers.

      So glad you dropped in! Please do come back again and let me know how things are going for you. There aren’t so very many of us women boxing in our 40s, are there? (We get ALL the good stuff!)

      Oh, I’ve linked a couple of other articles I’ve written that you might find useful:

      http://www.theglowingedge.com/first-time-sparring-last-minute-advice/

      http://www.theglowingedge.com/boxing-over-40-how-to-instantly-double-your-gym-time-and-eliminate-your-joint-stress/

      Stay strong!

  7. JONATHAN November 8, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Hi

    Just found your site today , very interesting . My biggest worry is brain damage . First time sparring last night and got hit lightly in the side of my head and a few in the face and today I am wiped out ….. is this normal ?

    I dont mind the face but the head erhh !

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe November 8, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

      Hi, Jonathan — Yep, it takes some getting used to, and yes, you’ll be wiped out after sparring, especially as a beginner. A lot of that is simple conditioning — you need some good sprint training for your cardio. Also you were probably really tense and anxious, and that takes a toll as well.

      With regard to brain damage, it’s certainly a risk, as with any contact sport (American football, soccer, rugby, even baseball, etc.). That’s why wearing good headgear and working with a sparring partner you can trust are so important. In addition, letting your sparring partner know to pull the heat, ease back on their power — especially for beginners — is critical.

      Good for you for taking that giant step and rolling under the ropes for the first time! It does get better, I promise. Here’s another article that you may find useful:

      http://www.theglowingedge.com/what-happens-when-you-get-punched-in-the-face/

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Drop back by and let me know how things progress for you.

  8. Lynette Kelly November 30, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    My first time sparring got out of hand. I got a ruptured ear drum and I couldn’t hear out of the injured ear at all for a full day, which was very concerning. The experience was rough, but I did learn the hard lesson that you prove nothing by getting beat up. If things get too intense, if you actually feel afraid, you’ve got to speak up.

    In the very beginning, learning excellent technique and building stamina is extremely difficult. I look at sparring as the second big mountain to climb. It takes time to get comfortable and it only comes one round at a time.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe December 1, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      Much suckage, Lynette. So sorry to hear that about your very first session. Your coach is at fault for that, and your sparring partner should have known better as well. You are 100% correct: beating someone up in sparring proves nothing (except maybe that the “winner” is an asshole) (Or has a jerk for a coach). I hope you’re taking care of yourself and not leaving your health or your love for the sport in the hands of someone who can’t be trusted with it. Hang in there, because there are good people in boxing, and good sparring partners as well. Stay strong.

  9. June December 1, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

    Hey Lisa, I just read this again. We had some fantastic sparring sessions at our gym over the weekend. I didn’t spar this time but I’ve learned a few things since my first post back in April. I’ve been working on my endurance and that has helped a lot. I also made a decision to train four days a week and see where that takes me. Twice a week just doesn’t seem to be enough to build up the skills and confidence to feel comfortable sparring. I also talked to my coach and let him know that I work best when I have a plan. He’s been working with me on defense and some footwork. I’m looking forward (a little anxiously) to getting back in the ring. I think that a regular sparring partner would be excellent.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe December 2, 2014 at 9:16 am #

      Holy moly, June, I didn’t realize you were trying to do all this on 2 workouts per week. Yep, you figured it out — you (and every other boxer in the universe) needs more than that.

      Here’s the way I do it in my head: 3 workouts a week = bronze medal; 4 workouts a week = silver medal; 5 workouts a week = gold medal. And yeah, sometimes I go for months with only bronzes (which is my absolute minimum), but I try to reach for the silvers as much as I can. And when spring rolls around and the weather gets warm again, dude, just watch me. I sprint into action and I’m winning golds. 🙂 Goofy, but it works for me.

      So glad you’re sticking with it and have a plan. You got this, sister.

      • June December 2, 2014 at 11:56 am #

        Duh, right? I had been splitting my time between boxing and weight lifting. I’m all boxing, all the time now. Thinking about it, it makes a lot more sense. Thanks for sharing your medal system! Now to find a regular sparring partner…

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe December 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

          All workouts count, actually, and weightlifting is a great “partner” to boxing. But you probably do want to have at least 3 boxing workouts per week, then add running, cycling, weights, yoga, etc., as your other workouts.

  10. taylor January 12, 2016 at 10:38 am #

    how can i get into boxing
    because i’m worried about asking to try it even though my dad was a boxer

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 12, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

      Hi, Taylor. You raise a good question, and there’s a fairly simple answer for “how to get started”…

      You can take a boxing class or two at a boxing gym near you. That should give you a little taste of what it’s like. Watch and talk to other boxers. How do they feel about their experience at that gym? How are they treated? Talk to the trainers, coaches, and even the owner, if you can. How do they train new fighters? What kind of team are they running?

      Of course, people will tell you all kinds of things, and you’ll have to sort the fact from the fiction. But you can get a sense of things by hanging out, watching and taking some simple boxing fitness and/or technique classes.

      Your first few months of boxing should be entirely outside of the ring, and at the beginning all your work should be contact only with the bag or on mitts. A reputable gym would never put a completely and totally inexperienced person in the ring.

      Try it out! It can be incredibly rewarding. 🙂

  11. Taylor January 12, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

    Thanks
    I have had experience with my Dad in the gym but it’s always something I have been interested in

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