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 inevitable. You’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:
- Spar for the first time in a gym where you’ve seen great care taken to introduce new boxers to the ring.
- Spar for the first time only after you’ve gotten in shape at least a little bit.
- Spar for the first time only with the support of a trainer you really trust.
- Spar for the first time with an experienced boxer who will bring the game to a level you can cope with.
- 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):
And, if you feel ready for this one (I promise you’ll be okay):
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.