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Sustaining Damage During Sparring

A boxing sparring session is radically different than an actual match. If I had to choose between the two, sparring wins every time. It can be unbelievably beautiful to watch, particularly when the two boxers agree — implicitly or explicitly — to maintain a certain flow, to match and challenge each other but not overwhelm.

You see this kind of beauty in many professional fights, although not as much in amateurs since both fighters are jazzed on nerves and gunning for the knockout. It’s rarely as controlled.

Dave G. sent me the link to this incredible sparring session between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Vanes Martirosyan, and I’ve watched it several times now, just soaking up how fabulous it is.

But it’s clearly between pros who are at the top of their game and ungodly strong. Did you see all those uppercuts Martirosyan landed? Holy sh*t. Of course he got his nose bloodied by Chavez, but I’d rather have the bloody nose than have to take those punishing uppercuts.

And these guys are working for the cameras… This is not your average-Joe sparring session. (I’m fighting the urge to add “Do not try this at home, kids.”)

Dave asked a question about sparring, as well:

What is the damage you sustain after an average sparring session?

I sustained a bloody nose and again a bruised lip this week. Since a lot of the fighters matching my skill don’t show up anymore, it’s slim pickings. People tend to drop out a lot in martial arts I noticed. πŸ™‚ Anyway, if I want to spar I have no choice but to fight against the competitive fighter who is always around. I outweigh him about 30 pounds, but he sure is fast.

I am aware that you seldom get out unscathed from a session, maybe I should switch to headgear with a nose guard but those seem way too bulky.

I’d love to hear your take on this!

The main injuries are fairly simple.

I often have a headache the next day after a hard sparring match, but it’s usually treatable with an ibuprofen or three. I don’t really count that as an injury, but it’s part of the package.

My single most common issue is bruised lips, which isn’t surprising, since your lips and nose are the least protected parts of your face when you’re wearing headgear.

I have a friend (Hi, Eric!) who seems to get nosebleeds a lot, and that’s not too unusual for the same reason. We both hate the headgear with the bar across the face because they are so bulky and they obstruct your vision more, but it’s an option.

The black eyes are less common, but I’ve had a few. I would guess that heavyweights get them more than lightweights like me; our punches just don’t pack the same kind of power. I got every single one of my black eyes when sparring with a heavyweight partner.

I also got my broken rib during sparring, but that was more unusual. I’ve only seen that happen two other times in the years I’ve been boxing.

There are several things that go into determining how much injury you commonly get during a sparring session.

  1. The weight match of the sparring partners. I typically expect bigger partners to control their shots so that I don’t get hurt, but it doesn’t always happen that way.
  2. How hard you both agree to work. It’s best if you can be explicit, but sometimes you think you have an agreement, but one person starts to increase their power. You have to continue to communicate — either with words or with force — or you can get in trouble here…
  3. Experience level (whether or not you have good control of your punches). Newbies are notorious for causing damage, but more experienced boxers should be able to move faster and avoid the damage. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
  4. What kind of gear you’re wearing. Like I mentioned, I hate the face-savers, but I love a no-foul. You can see that both boxers in the video above are wearing groin protectors and both of them got shots that landed on them. These take the edge off rib shots, too, not to mention the dreaded liver shot.
  5. The number and length of rounds you spar. I like being a part of a team session where we’re trading off rounds; you can endure for longer and get a lot of learning in. But there’s great value in sparring the same number and length of rounds you do in a fight, too. I almost never get to do this since I’m usually the only woman in the gym, and men’s rounds are 3 minutes rather than 2. But when I’m getting ready for a match I insist on 2 minute rounds so I can get used to the rhythm.
  6. What kind of trainer you have. Sometimes one or another coach who is overseeing the sparring is out for blood, and is urging their fighter to rip you to shreds. I hate being in that situation, but I’ve definitely been there. I try to avoid this kind of session and this kind of trainer; I don’t respond well to being screamed at. But you do see it in boxing gyms, that’s for sure.

The truth is that I try to avoid bad sparring matches, although I’ve had a few, and I will go out of my way to set up sessions with partners I know I can trust and get the best work with. I’ll travel to another gym if I can’t get good sparring where I am, and I really try to maintain good relationships with several area gyms so that I can do this.

I also don’t spar all that frequently, since it’s pretty hard on the body. At my last gym we sparred every Friday, and you better believe there were plenty of people who showed up once or twice for a Friday, then dropped out completely or only came on other team nights.

There’s a huge (huge!) difference between training for boxing and actually boxing, and it’s definitely a big hurdle for people. I completely understand why lots of people would not want to spar; I really do. It’s not for everyone.

But I think it could be for more people if gyms would set the right tone, and help make the matches better.

I’d love to hear what everyone else has to say; leave a comment below and let’s mix it up!

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30 Responses to Sustaining Damage During Sparring

  1. DaveG January 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Hi Lisa, great to see you turned this into a topic πŸ™‚

    The bruised lips sound very familiar, since I’ve had corrective eye surgery I always spar with full face headgear and this prevents against a black eye. It does not prevent against a bloody and sore nose as I mentioned.
    At first I thought I’d broken it but this seems not the case, just have to be careful when wiping my face and…kissing πŸ™‚

    My colleagues know that I box so I don’t have to explain each time I turn up with a fat lip. I have looked into the nose bar headgear and wouldn’t mind trying it, but I’m with you on the visibility issue.
    Let’s accept the fact it’s boxing and get punched in the face πŸ˜‰

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

      Hi, Dave — thanks for being the genesis of this post, and for always being game for a conversation about boxing.

      I admit to some curiosity about the corrective eye surgery — so many boxers over 40 elect to have Lasik or, and here’s another big curiosity — botox (!), and I always wonder what the possible complications could be.

      Btw, I don’t think I’ve ever met a female boxer who’s had botox or something similar; or at least I never knew about it. I think it is true that you can’t compete if you have breast implants… Lol, this is a funny subject. But I bet lots of women (and men) have wondered.

      Re: the eye surgery. Did your doctor clear you to box? Is it something you worry about every time you step into the ring, even with the full-face protector? What are the possible repercussions of serious blow to the head?

      Can you send a link to the full-face headgear you use? I’ve only ever boxed in the kind with the nose bar. I’ve tried on others that called themselves “full face” and I gotta tell you, I could barely see. But it sounds like you’ve found a way to make it work for you.

      Here’s my big curiosity: I would love to do a round or two with someone I trust without headgear. Just to see what it’s like… (Don’t tell my mom, ha.) I got no interest in sparring in little 8 ounce gloves (been there, hated that), but doing a couple sans headgear like the pros… I’d love to try it.

      • Amy Scheer January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

        When I had my physical for USA Masters Boxing, my doctor and I both had to sign off saying I had never had Lasik.

  2. DaveG January 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    Hi Lisa,

    to clear things up: I had corrective surgery in ’92 and back then, Lasik was a fairly new procedure, so the doctor at the time opted for Radial Keratotomy.
    You can read about it here:
    This is a procedure that is now seldom being performed, due to Lasik’s popularity. However, I am very happy with the result, and was lucky to have an excellent doctor who was very skilled.

    I’ve done a lot of research on martial arts and corrective surgery and Lasik is considered to be ‘risky’ because of the flap that is created and that can possibly be dislocated after a direct and heavy blow. I’ve read on several forums that PRK is the procedure of choice for people that wish to engage in contact sports, but I would definitely consult a trained physician in case you should consider it.

    I wouldn’t say that I was ‘cleared’, imagine walking into an optometrist’s office and asking advice on being punched in the face after having corrective surgery. Of course they will strongly advise to exercise caution. That being said, I specifically asked her and she’d seen 2 serious cases of eye injuries both caused by…a squash ball. Yes, due to the small size it directly hits the eye and causes more damage than a soccer ball or a boxing glove.

    Nevertheless she advised to wear full face protection. I looked around a bit and first bought karate style headgear with a face mask. It sucked. The mask fogged up after a couple of minutes and the things was way too bulky. After that, I switched to more traditional headgear, this is the one:

    A normal boxing glove can’t directly hit the eye because of the elevated cheek protectors. Mexican style headgear such as this also looks very nice.

    Excellent protection for the eyes and cheeks.

    So yes, there is a risk and yes, a serious blow to the head can cause a detached retina but that can also happen with people without corrective surgery. That is why I’m limiting myself to sparring sessions and always with the full face headgear.

    Having said that, it doesn’t protect against nose injuries. I’ve bloodied my nose last week and it still hurts so I’m starting to suspect I might have a small fracture. I’m definitely not sparring for a couple of weeks, which sucks. Unless I temporarily switch to the the nose bar headgear.

    I did notice that a lot of boxers do wear it when sparring. In the sparring video, Chavez is wearing it in the beginning, 2min20secs in he seemed to have switched to the open face type. So it must have some use. Cleto Reyes has a selection and I would like to get my hands on this model from Everlast, that looks very promising:

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 16, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      @Amy: Now I need to go back and look and see if that’s in our regs, too… Don’t recall seeing it, but could be there for us too.

      @DaveG: Lots of interesting stuff here. (Sorry it got flagged for a bit; that was due to the number of links included.)

      I checked out your headgear links and I just wonder how hard it must be to spar with this kind of protection. But you’re smart to be cautious; your vision isn’t something to screw around with. But you’re having to work harder than I am, I think!

      And I hear ya; I’ve yet to have a doctor who didn’t freak out just a bit over the whole boxing thing. I’ve learned to be cautious, and I work pretty hard to explain everything to their satisfaction. But it’s still not something most traditional doctors are going to be happy about. (I have a totally unsubstantiated view that they’re even more upset with us women than with you guys.)

      A squash ball! Wow.

  3. Jake January 20, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    I love to watch sparring sessions and yes I agree that you can only see a more controlled fight in a professional match rather than in amateur ones. Sparring though has a lot of rules depending on why the sparring was held in the first place. I’d love to watch more of your fights. Keep it up.

  4. Girlboxing January 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Another great column, Lisa. Especially about ensuring that you agree to the level of effort with your sparring partner. There is nothing worse than getting in the ring expecting to fight at one level only to find yourself on the receiving end of an unplanned barrage.

  5. Cynthia January 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Usually things like this do not make one mean. However it could bring out to a more full extent what was already there to begin with. Basically amplifying the problem. I know women who are cold like this, it is sad. Technically it is hard to say, brain damage can make you more impatient. It just depends on what part of the brain was affected.

  6. niamh January 29, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    Have a go without the headgear – well worth the pain for the buzz afterwards. Just make sure you’re not with some machismo who will hit you too hard just to prove a point. Would worry a little about the headaches though especially if you are getting them while wearing head-gear? What size gloves do you guys spar with?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

      I only get the headaches if I’m doing a lot of sparring in one night, or working with a heavyweight. I try not to spar with anyone wearing 12 ounces or below. Always prefer the 14s or 16s for sparring.

      Thanks for the go-ahead — I think I know just the right sparring partner to work with! I’ll be curious to see if she’s willing to work with me… πŸ™‚

  7. Suzanne Grey February 1, 2012 at 1:52 am #


    I have a question when does a cut becomes so serious that a boxer can no longer compete in boxing?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      Eh, boxers fight all the time with cuts. It’s just part of the deal. πŸ™‚

      • Sine Botchen February 4, 2012 at 10:58 am #

        How do they treat blood leakage/drippage/flowage? One of my friends used to fight (karate) and they would shut down a match if someone got a bloody nose for sanitary reasons. They would even go as far as to mop the gym floor with some kind of disinfectant or bleach solution. Just curious..

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 6, 2012 at 10:19 am #

          Sine B, so good to hear from you! I miss your regular biking updates… Great to have you stop in and say howdy.

          And to your question:

          In a pro fight, everyone has had a blood test and they can’t fight unless that comes up clean. And no bout will be stopped for blood, but since MMA fights tend to be bloodier than boxing matches, in NC you’ll see them have all the MMA fights first, then roll up the mat in the ring and have a fresh canvas under there for the boxers.

          With regular sparring, it depends on the gym and how much blood there is.

          Most of the gyms I’ve been in will (eventually) stop the bout, clean up the fighters, and then keep going. Minor blood isn’t typically a reason to act immediately, but at the bell it gets addressed. And by “addressed” I mean “wiped off.”

          I hear myself saying all this, and I know very well the potential risks of blood-borne disease. However, it doesn’t seem to touch off massive alarm bells in boxing, maybe because it’s such a normal part of the ebb and flow of the sport.

          Boxing isn’t clean in general. All that sweat and close bodily contact. All the bruising, cuts, and bloody noses. It’s incredibly germy, and definitely *not* for people who are deeply concerned about top-notch sanitary conditions.

          Even if the people are clean, the equipment isn’t. Heavy bags get wiped down periodically, but what about the boxing gloves? I can’t remember the last time I wiped mine down. Although I *do* wash my wraps or hand gels (which go inside your gloves).

          And if you’re boxing on an actual canvas (far preferable to a vinyl MMA mat) then you can’t even really clean the canvas up. They get sent out for cleaning maybe once every few years, but mostly they stay covered with blood drips and sweat stains, etc. They get swept off with a broom periodically.

          Gym floors are a variety of surfaces, from carpet to concrete. At my current gym we have mostly concrete with areas that are covered by rubber mats. We hosed them down when we first moved in, but I have no idea if they are regularly cleaned. I’d be afraid to ask. Yikes.

          Scary, when you think about it, right?

  8. Paula Jones February 15, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    From a womans perspective I agree with you, I can’t help but wonderwhy anyone would want to put their body through such punishment or undertake the rist of permanent enjury to mind ore bod?. But then I am not a boxer, enlighten me.

  9. Kim March 7, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Lisa,

    I came upon your blog while frantically googling “what to expect when sparring for the first time” in anticipation of my first sparring session last night πŸ™‚ You definitely called it as it is, and I’m glad I had wasn’t totally doe-eyed walking into the ring. To be fair, I did get my a$$ handed to me, but I learned a lot, and most importantly, can’t wait to do it again.

    I was amazed at how much more difficult sparring is to anything I had done previously and how everything I thought I had down — footwork, head movements, etc. — went right out the door. Oh well, definitely a learning experience!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 7, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Kim, and welcome! It’s AWESOME to hear from another woman testing out the ring!

      If you’re new to sparring, getting your ass handed to you is fairly normal, lol. The first time I ever sparred was with my trainer, who is a heavyweight world champion, and I was shocked at how hard it was!

      In my case, the first time I was in, my trainer didn’t actually throw a single punch, but the bitch of it was that I couldn’t land anything and I hyperextended my elbows, which really hurt the next day. I also thought I would die of lack of oxygen. Boy was I gassed!

      After that first time, I took my shots like everybody, and it really does create a challenge, doesn’t it?

      It happened to me, too: all that stuff I worked so hard to learn went right out the window and I stood there like a moron and would have got clobbered into a mushy little pile if I hadn’t been in with a good person, who was helping me learn. Still makes me smile and groan to think of it.

      So *glad* to hear that you can’t wait to do it again! I promise, it gets better!

      Please do keep in touch and let me know how things progress for you. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

      Thanks for dropping in, Kim. Stay strong!

  10. Hillari March 9, 2012 at 12:59 am #

    My former coach only allowed sparring on Friday nights. The current coach allows sparring each time the gym is open.

    I usually spar each time I’m in the gym. There are several women in the gym right now, so I’ve been sparring with them, and not so much with the guys. As much as I spar, I’m surprised I don’t get cut open more often. My lips have been bloodied sometimes.

    My main injuries come from being bruised up on my arms, chest, and sides. I’ll feel a sting and nothing else when the contact initially takes place. Two days later, I’m very sore and moving around sluggishly. It has become a running joke between the pastor (my boss) and myself. He’ll hear me groaning or seeing me shuffling painfully and ask, “Hillari, you did you beat up yesterday?”

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 9, 2012 at 10:15 am #

      Wow, Hillari, that’s a lot of sparring! I think it’s more than I could take, for certain. And how lovely that you have enough women at your gym that you can spar pretty much exclusively with them.

      In my own experience, cuts primarily come from accidental head butts rather than from punches. Is that how you get cut open?

      Bruises, bruises, bruises. Yup. Me, too. πŸ™‚

  11. Hillari March 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    When I get cut, it’s always from a direct punch. Some of my bruises come from me falling down after tripping over my own feet as I’m backing away from punches. . .LOL!

  12. Kim April 18, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    I’m back!! Well it’s been a month and half now and I’m up to sparring 2 times a week. I love it but I agree it does take it’s toll, esp. sparring the boys. But in only a month and half I can see substantial improvement in my endurance and in the amount I am getting punched in the face πŸ™‚

    My only problem now is finding head gear that fits properly. I’ve been using the gym stuff which in addition to smelling like a foot just doesn’t fit properly. I definitely have a peanut sized head so I’ll have to find something pretty small. I was curious, Lisa, what head gear you use? Does your gym have stuff that fits your properly, or have you had to bite the bullet and purchase your own? Seems like protecting your head is probably a worthwhile investment!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 18, 2012 at 9:59 am #

      Hi, Kim!

      Re: Headgear — I went ahead and bought my own cheapie headgear from Dick’s Sporting Goods shortly after I began sparring; nothing in the gym ever fit me, and you’re right, the stench is atrocious. I fairly quickly graduated to higher-quality headgear that I ordered online — the key to good fit is to get the kind with laces on the top so that you can adjust it easily. Mine is a size Medium from (I can’t find my specific headgear online for some reason.) It has a velcro back, a lace top, a chin BUCKLE (don’t get velcro), and it’s USABoxing approved for competition.

      Here’s another article that you might find helpful:

      I don’t recommend sparring twice a week if you’re doing hard sparring, by the way. It’s just too hard on the body. But if you’re just working easily, moving and getting your speed and reflexes up, that’s probably fine. And of course, you should be spending more time on boxing training than actually in the ring.

      But it sounds like you’re doing incredibly well, Kim! I’m so glad you dropped in to report. (I’ll see if I can get a headgear post written soon…!)

      • Kim April 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

        Thanks so much for referring me to your other article and for the additional information! I’ve just found one online; fingers crossed it works my peanut head!

        I totally agree with you about sparring twice a week. Both psychologically and physically, it pushes me to my limits. I had one girl at the gym that I loved sparring with because she is taller than me by a few inches (and I’m 5’11”!) and she is pretty thin too, so we were well matched. Unfortunately, she decided she doesn’t want to spar anymore so I’m back to sparring with the boys who seem to want to make a slug fest. Sigh. I think going forward I may try to limit it to one good session a week and use the rest of the time to build up my scrawny chicken arms πŸ™‚

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

          You will never go wrong by spending time training. It pays off in the ring!

          Great to hear from you, come back soon! Let me know how the headgear works out. Meanwhile, stay strong!

  13. Jem C July 24, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    I’m only new starting out martial arts (not boxing but still), I regualrly end up with swolen bruises on my wrist and arms from blocking. Managed to avoid any bleeding noses or black eyes though. πŸ™‚

  14. Mrs Schmitt January 17, 2015 at 12:16 am #

    Random thought…. Do they clean the mat or replace it after every match? Probably NOT the question of the day, but y’all answered all my other ?’s in previous posts πŸ™‚ wish my husband liked watching a much as I do!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 17, 2015 at 9:27 am #

      If there’s blood, the mat may be wiped down (or the bloody spots swabbed off). Where I live, there are often mma + boxing events, and all the mma matches are done first, then the mat is taken up to reveal a boxing canvas underneath.

  15. Riki May 25, 2016 at 1:55 am #

    I received a Lisfranc foot sprain during a mixed martial arts match when my partner stomped on my left foot as hard as he could. He was about 4 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than me. That was 15 months ago and I’m still out! The injury went misdiagnosed for 3 months. I hope this injury is not career ending. I have read depressing horror stories that many Lisfranc injuries are career enders. ;’-( I miss training so bad! I never even got to have a real fight yet! I would usually leave the gym after sparring classes bruised, bloodied, and limping. Geez men hit so hard! If I ever get to train again I will just spar only with other women for my safety.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe May 25, 2016 at 9:58 am #

      So sorry to hear it Riki.

      But you also don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking all men are bad sparring partners and all women are good. A good sparring partner may be male or female, but the one thing they do is work at a level that you both agree to. Good sparring partners are worth SO MUCH, because as you have already discovered, they can be hard to find. Here’s an article I’ve written about it that may be helpful:

      And the key to this is good, clear communication. So you have to be extremely clear about when someone’s power is too high, or they’re being more aggressive than you can handle.

      I hope you are able to get some good healing in, so you can get back in there and do the this crazy sport we love… πŸ™‚

  16. J June 28, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

    You’re not always going to be able to pick your opponent or sparring partner, some you will work well with and others will just be “out for blood” as mentioned earlier. But if you’re going to box, you need to be able to deal with both sides of the spectrum. I like not having a say in my sparring partners, it forces me to work harder, think harder. Not “work with the other person” . in boxing, you can truly only rely on yourself in the ring, and not every opponent will want to “work with you.”

    I’m a female and i fight at 60 – 65kg, but my sparring partners range from 80kg to as heavy as 120kg and all male. I’ve gone out of sparring rounds bleeding bruised and half broken, but i always take something away from it even though it is a hard lesson to learn. And i wouldn’t have developed so much as a boxer if i wasnt put in those situations by my trainer. If i had a say in all my sparring partners it would have certainly stubbed my growth.

    In saying that, if you want to focus on the technical side of things, then finding a partner you can do that with and learn with would certainly help.

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