When I walked into the gym for sparring on Sunday I saw not one, but two pro boxing women. In a sport with a sparse population of women, two female pros in one small gym is nothing short of amazing. Of course, my trainer Bonnie is one of the pros, and I see her all the time. But Sandy is one I only see working there periodically. She’s been boxing for more than 15 years, and is a fury in the ring. She’s actually pretty small, tipping the scales at 110, but she’s a force to reckon with.
I’d seen Sandy spar with some of our other boxers, and she’s so incredibly fast and relentless that one time my trainer and I counted her punches just because it seemed impossible for anyone to throw so many in a single three minute period, round after round. We waited several rounds thinking she would tire out and we’d get a more accurate count. We started in round 4. And in two separate counts Sandy threw more than 250 punches, most (at least two thirds) of which landed.
Just for a little comparison, when Evander Holyfield beat Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the World Boxing Association junior heavyweight title in July 1986, both boxers threw an average of 154 punches a round and landed half or more. Granted, these are heavyweights, but they are definitely no slouches in the ring, as their records attest.
In our gym, the amateur boxers frequently aim for 100 punches in a given round. That’s pretty high, and most of us throw more like 60-70 per round on a good day.
And if you think Sandy’s 250 punches are cotton balls dropped by butterflies, you need to experience them up close and personal. I did not think I ever would, but my trainer had other plans for me. When I realized I would be sparring Sandy, my anxiety level went through the roof. It may have been the first time I ever actually thought I might puke before getting in the ring.
Sandy and my trainer did the first couple of rounds. The gym was utterly silent except for the constant pop of leather meeting flesh, a sound that rose and fell in an eerie rhythm with the explosive hisses of the two women’s breath, and the creak of the canvas-covered ring beneath them. My blood pressure soared as I watched the unbelievable display of power and speed in front of me. I vainly hoped they would do another five or ten rounds before remembering I was there, but when the bell ended the second period, my trainer sent Sandy out of the ring and told me to get in. For two rounds she warmed me up, got me focused, and made me work. And when the third round bell sounded, she ducked out and Sandy rolled in.
My gut churned. I leaned against my corner pad and tried to breathe slowly in through my nose for a two count, out through my mouth for a four count. It wasn’t working. The bell rang, I bit down on my mouthguard, and stepped out to the center of the ring to fight.
It was my main goal to eat what punches I had to (and I knew it would be a lot), but to not let Sandy completely shut down my offense. In order to do this, I knew I would have to work as hard as possible to keep my eyes on her; it takes tremendous concentration and will to continue to look at your opponent when you’re being hit so frequently, but I knew I had to watch for a break in the onslaught and try to capitalize on it.
Sandy is a grabber — she tends to want to fight in close and she frequently traps her opponent’s right/power hand and hangs on while whaling away with her own right. In the amateurs, a ref would break this up immediately, but in the pros they let a lot more go. I was expecting her to close with me right away, and sure enough she did, trapping both my gloves and releasing them one at a time with lightning speed to land a punch, then return to the pin. Damn, this woman was fast. She thrashed and struck, thrashed and struck with her whole body; it was like wrestling an alligator. I tried to use my 30 pound weight advantage to pull her down, to make her want to disengage. And eventually she did spin out to dance around me, grinning even as she released flurry after flurry all over my head and shoulders.
I threw a shot when I could, a combination here and there, and every time she clinched I tried for the hooks to the head, landing them periodically and wishing for a solid uppercut to magically break through the whipping blur that was her head to connect with her jaw. I’d seen my trainer land a couple in those two initial rounds, but I couldn’t get one on Sandy. The hooks seemed to work, though, and after I landed one or two she would turn me loose, expanding the distance with a volley of parting shots.
As it turned out, I prefered the clinch. Every time after Sandy released and spun out, she measured the distance and sent her bullet of a right straight for my face. This is not a woman who cares particularly to kill you with body shots, but she’ll take your head any day, all day long, including plenty of patently illegal rabbit punches, which land behind the ear and at the back of the head. She was sparring with 8 ounce gloves (mine are 14 oz, damn near pillows in comparison), and the first time she rocked me hard I felt like I’d just been hit with a kitchen appliance. “I need a second, I need a second,” I panted, trying to clear my vision and reorient. I heard my trainer’s voice talking me through it, urging me to fight off the dizziness, focus, and stay in the fight. Sandy bounced lightly on her toes, banging her gloves together.
It may have been the thing I was proudest of, making it through that first ungodly hit. My trainer supported me with a calm, steady stream of instruction and I eventually felt steady enough to give Sandy a glove tap, indicating that I was ready to resume. We circled and engaged, and it was on again. It was a little like dropping from a helicopter into a river in the middle of a hurricane. I held my ground and beat my way upstream, never gaining ground, but also never letting the current take me under.
The bell rang, the round ended, and I sagged against the ropes. I looked at my trainer, but I already knew what she was going to say. I had made it, and I had another round in me. She was going to send me in again.
Midway through the next round with Sandy I could feel myself crumbling under the onslaught, and after taking a second staggering hit to the face, I switched gears, and began to stay exclusively on defense. I worked to stay out of range, tried to slip punches, kept my elbows in and protecting my ribs, and held my guard up, a small defense against her explosive 8 and 9-punch combinations. I could hear my trainer supporting me in this tactic, calling out reassurance and telling me that I was doing well. And so long as I didn’t have to take any more of those devastating face crushers, I really was doing okay.
I got trapped in the corner for the last 20 seconds, and found that although I couldn’t escape, I could hold up under heavy fire by keeping myself well covered. I even lashed out with a hook to Sandy’s head once or twice before ducking back into my shell. “You’re making it,” Bonnie called. “You’re taking care of yourself and making it through the round. Keep covered and finish the round!”
I did finish. When the final bell rang and Sandy tapped my glove in acknowledgement of my good work, I shook my head and saluted her. She’s a demon in the ring and I’m proud to have stayed on my feet for two no-holds-barred rounds with her. She didn’t treat me like a novice, she gave me a hard fight. I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis, but I took the hits, stayed upright, and finished the rounds with honor.
A few minutes later, Sandy cornered for me as I boxed my last two rounds with my trainer, and again I was struck at how skilled Sandy was. Effective cornering calls for a deft touch; Sandy knew what I’d been through already, and she kept a steady stream of solid advice that I could act on coming from the sidelines. She called simple combinations that she knew I could throw, timed her calls for clear openings, and encouraged me with praise when I landed my throws or successfully evaded an attack. My trainer grunted in surprise as I repeatedly snapped off and landed a jab-hook combination that Sandy called. Even I got a little chuffed; there was something left in me! I was still in the ring! I threw high-low’s (one to the head followed by one to the body, or vice versa), keeping mostly to double-punch combinations followed by a pivot out and a jab.
Nothing kept me from having to take a motherlode of punches from these two pro boxers; Sandy’s punch count was simply overwhelming, and my trainer matched me step for step and never let me rest. She also landed at least two solid blows to the ribs (where Sandy didn’t get any). But almost every single one of Bonnie’s deadly left hooks met my glove instead of my ear, and I even evaded a few of her overhand rights.
After we all geared down, Bonnie talked to me about that first bad hit I took from Sandy. “When you think back on this,” she said, in that calm, intense way she has, “you remember that you stayed on your feet. You remember that you took the count but got back in the fight, and that’s more than most people can do. You boxed with pros today.” She nodded solemnly in approval. “You look back on all this and be proud. You should be proud.”