I have written about what you can expect the first time you spar, but my friend Amy Scheer — also a boxer — recently asked me what I thought a new boxer should know before getting in the ring for the first time.
She also framed the question this way: Which Comes First, the Learning or the Doing? You should definitely click through and read about her experience. The post below is my response.
There are two schools of thought in boxing.
The first — and the one through which I came into boxing — says that you have to earn the right to get in the boxing ring.
The second says throw ’em in, knock ’em around, wait to see if they are “man” enough to come back for more.
I’m sitting here trying to think of a justification for the hard knocks school, and I can’t. I think it’s bullshit, to be honest. I think it’s usually a way for the guys who are already “in” to keep all the others out. It’s all about who’s king of the hill. A boy’s game, not even a man’s.
But the way I came in isn’t easy either. Anyone who has ever rolled under the ropes knows just how frightening it can be. You don’t know what will happen, how you will hold up; you may not even know who you’ll be in with and whether or not you can trust them. That’s why I say again and again that the single most important thing you can have going for you in boxing is an outstanding, trustworthy trainer.
A good trainer trumps everything else
From the outside, boxing looks like an individual sport, but that isn’t actually the case. Not only do you need a great trainer, you also need a crew of boxers around you to encourage, support, challenge, and work with you. But even if you don’t have a team, you must have that trainer.
My trainer made sure I had several things before I got in the ring for the first time. And since I had such an outstanding trainer and such a great experience coming in to the sport, I’ve naturally copied her in pretty much all of my basic approaches to boxing. (Any mistakes I make, however, are my own!)
A rant, before I move on
I need to get this out there. Putting two inexperienced boxers in the ring for the first time together is minimally useful at best (what can they possibly learn?), and dangerous at worst.
Would you ask someone who doesn’t know how to swim to get in the pool and help your child learn to swim? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.
Sure, they can both splash around in the shallow end and maybe they’ll be fine, but did they learn to swim? Did they gain skills? Have they moved forward?
About the only good thing you can say about that situation is that they both got to get in the water. How much better it would be if they both got to get in the water with someone who can teach them something and also keep them safe?
Okay. I feel a little better. Onward.
Have some basic conditioning
Before I began sparring, my trainer ensured I had a basic level of conditioning. I had come to her gym with what I thought was decent cardio (I’d been running regularly), but I didn’t realize that boxing is more like a series of hard, three-minute sprints rather than a lovely string of 10 minute miles.
She got my cardio up enough to make it through a single round my first time. Ever try to sprint for 3 minutes without stopping? Yep, that’s pretty much what it felt like.
She wanted to instill in me from the beginning a principle of boxing that sounds easy but is actually incredibly difficult: you fight until the bell rings. You don’t quit partway through. You come out working and you finish the round. Period.
Bonnie made sure I could go a round before she put me in for one.
Use your jab
Before I got in the ring for the first time I had a crappy but dogged jab.
I knew from repeated drills that a jab was the foundation for all of the punches in boxing. I didn’t yet know how to advance on the jab, but at least I had something to get out there in front of me so that I could force my opponent to stop an advance.
I know a jab can also be offensive, but most new boxers need some basic defense before they worry about offense; chances are that they’ll be in the ring for their first sparring experience with someone who is — hopefully — much better at boxing than they are. A solid jab will help protect you in this situation.
Keep your gloves up
It was the one piece of advice Amy got before she rolled into the ring for the first time, and it’s good advice. “Cover up,” her trainer said. “Protect yourself.”
This goes with a defensive jab; you need to bring that glove right back to your chin and keep it there, parallel to the other glove. It’s like having two big pillows in front of your face; they will deflect and dilute the power of a punch to your face.
It’s also good to keep your elbows in and your chin down, but that’s more advanced. Still, a tight guard is what you need for protection, because slips, ducks, and other evasive moves won’t come until later.
Never mind about footwork
I’d love to say that a first-time sparring student should have footwork, but it isn’t likely that they will. You might have practiced some footwork, and you should certainly understand the basics of stance, balance, and how to move without crossing your feet, but chances are that once you get in the ring for the first time all that will fly out the door and you will mostly forget about your feet because you just have too many other things screaming for your attention.
The four biggies, and knowing what’s coming
So there are basically four things I think a boxer should have before getting in the ring: a good, trustworthy trainer, some basic conditioning, a jab, and a tight guard (gloves up, chin down, elbows in).
The thing for a new boxer to know is that they are going to hit and be hit.
That is a crazy thing to get your head around for someone brand new to the sport; especially if they’ve never hit anyone in their entire lives up to that point.
Bonnie didn’t actually throw any punches at me the first time I was in the ring. She just let me throw them and feel what it was like to be in, moving hard, working my jab. The second time she threw easy punches, let me feel about half of her power. It was terrifying at first, but once I realized I could take it — and give it! — I was amazed. It was invigorating. I loved it!
Sticking with it
It got harder, of course, and I nearly always dreaded sparring nights, but I went.
Because I knew what every boxer knows after a while: you can work the drills and train for cardio all you want, but the real learning happens in the ring.
Image by Steve Tolcher