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.