What Makes Sparring with New Boxers Really Good, or Really Awful

Thursday night is sparring night in our gym. Not everyone gets to spar; only the boxers who have been showing up regularly, putting in hard work, listening to the coach, and proving that they want to move up are invited into the ring.

But all that doesn’t guarantee a good sparring performance. I’m always fascinated about the ways our coach, Willie “One Bad Jab” Massey subtly rewards the boxers who give him what he’s looking for…

Last night there was a huge crowd; it seems like boxers come in waves to the program at Second Round, and we seem to be in the midst of a heavy influx. I counted four young women (ages 12 to 17, I’d guess), which is fairly unusual; and we don’t have a high retention rate for females.

So I was surprised when it came time for sparring, when Coach Massey pulled about 6 guys (all of whom I’d seen in the ring before)…and a young woman from the crowd.

Our gym typically spars the youngest or newest fighters first, and since the young woman was new, the coach didn’t put her in headgear, just gloved her up and put her in to work offense only with me. I noticed that two of the other girls pushed up through the crowd of guys to watch at the ring side.

Good: A straight, clean jab to the face (and body)

She had a completely respectable jab. It was straight, fully extended, and powerful. But even though we are about the same height, her first shots were aimed at my gloves and shoulders. “Punch to my face,” I told her over my mouthpiece, and she raised her eyebrows, hesitated a moment, then fired an easy one. I turned it neatly in the palm of my glove and nodded. “Yep,” I said, “Again.”

As she began to realize I could avoid all her punches, she gained confidence. Punches began to smack as I turned each one, and a few didn’t make any sound when I began to add slips to my defense.

Good: Throwing shots with varied timing, doubles

She started out a bit predictable, her shots coming at me as if they were being fired by the second hand on a clock, but again, once I told her to vary her timing, she immediately adapted, which gave me a rush of satisfaction.

And she didn’t immediately forget, either. I saw the coach starting to notice her from the side of the ring. “Double the jab,” he said, and after a few tries, she delivered. The tendency, when you’re new, is to not know that you have to bring the jab back to your face before shooting again — you try to throw once, tap twice, and it doesn’t work for a beginner. She fumbled the first few, but then got a double going.

Good: Finding and maintaining the right range

I realized she could do more, and I began to add footwork to my defense. She was a bit too squared up (most new boxers are), but I began to pivot and shift, forcing her to come to me to land her shots.

The first step in starting to move around the ring with a sparring partner is learning how much room you need to land a shot on your opponent. Some shots fall short, some are smothered (if your opponent drives in); you have to find just the right range and work it. She had a pretty decent sense of range for a beginner, and I could tell more would come quickly.

Once I turned on a little footwork gas, she ended up doing a fair amount of chasing me around the ring, but learning to “cut off the ring” will come later as well. She had basics, and she had…

Good: Sufficient cardio for at least 1-2 rounds in a row

It’s not at all unusual to think you have enough gas for a single round of boxing, and be dead wrong. Boxing demands anaerobic capacity, which is only developed with sprint training. That might be running sprints, but it can also be sprints flipping a tire, or doing kettlebells, hill cycling, or any exercise where you can get to your max heart rate and go for 2 or 3 minutes, then recover in 30 seconds and go again.

This young woman stuck it out for two rounds before rolling out, and I think she had another one in her. Of course, being on offense only is a bit easier, but even so, her ability to work until the bell sounded was reassuring.

I’ll look forward to seeing her back in the ring again, and I’ll hope that the other new girls will learn from her example.

After she and I did a couple of rounds, and I worked a few more with two other boxers, I rolled out and let a couple of brawlers in.

Awful: Brawling

There are so many reasons why we decide to roll under the ropes, and ego is often a part of it. But mix ego with bad technique (or no technique), and you typically end up with a brawl. We don’t always have two brawlers in the ring, but just one is enough to make a mess of the round.

And the unfortunate truth is that the brawler often won’t listen to instruction, which means our coach probably won’t waste much energy trying to teach him. Which is a shame, because that leaves the brawler in the same low position in the gym and ring, not improving his boxing.

Here’s what you typically see in a brawler:

  • Superman-style punch launches, where both feet come off the ground
  • Off-balance fighting, sometimes falling to the canvas
  • Illegal shots to the back of the head
  • Lengthy clinching, sometimes with with knees thrown
  • Sloppy, slappy shots with wide, windmilling arms

Sometimes you get profanity too, when a brawler feels he can’t get the better of someone. We don’t hear too much of that at my gym because Coach Massey will shut down the offenders pretty quickly, and he’s not prone to let them box again if they can’t control themselves.

I don’t often get in with beginner brawlers, and prefer instead to let the big, experienced boxers take them on.ย But you don’t always have that, so sometimes you just end up with a mess.ย And, it’s there in pretty much every boxing gym you’ll ever be a part of.

Interestingly, there ARE great boxers who are good at what they call brawling. But you’ll not see the messy stuff in the list above in their style. Instead, you’ll simply see an agressive, powerful, sometimes non-technical match — it can be incredibly exciting to watch.

What about you?

What do you see in your gym? Leave me a comment and tell me about what it was like when you started, or boxers and brawlers you’ve seen in the ring…

Image: Marco Crupi,ย cc

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22 Responses to What Makes Sparring with New Boxers Really Good, or Really Awful

  1. Erin March 11, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    The first time I sparred I got exhausted in just a couple minutes, and later realized that I lost so much energy because I had every muscle clenched. Every time I take a break from sparring it takes me a few rounds just to remember to loosen up.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 11, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      Yup, that’ll do it to ya. And it will absolutely kick your ass in a fight as well. It takes focus and mindfulness to keep relaxed before and during ringtime, doesn’t it?

      It also HURTS worse if you get hit hard on tight, clenched muscles. Increased suckage, yay! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      It actually takes me a round nearly every time, to start to relax into boxing…

  2. Kim March 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    I can count on one hand the number of times sparring has turned into brawling at my gym. It rarely happens, and if it does, usually both fighters are OK with it and never any profanity.

    I actually wish I would have had a little more experience brawling though! I had my first fight about two weeks, and wow, did it turn into a brawl. I was able to out box her the first round using my jab and reach (I had to be at least 4 inches taller than), but the second and third rounds though she came at me full steam, and ended up winning the fight. Ugh! Seems like a lot of the fights I’ve see between newer female fighters turn into all out brawls. Now I’m trying to learn how to balance being able to keep up good form/technique while being able to turn on my all out brawler side, if needed.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      You make a really good point, Kim. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to TURN ON the brawl, when needed…

      And I’m curious about why you’ve not seen much brawling. Certainly my gym, which is a program for at-risk and gang-related youth, has a high incidence rate, but I also see it at other gyms I go to. I mostly associate it with newbs. Maybe your gym has a higher rate of experienced boxers, which is actually quite nice!

      Don’t worry about that first fight — your next opponent better tighten her guard ’cause you are gonna be able to go all BEAST mode, at will. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Kim March 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

        I agree — the lack of brawling is almost certainly on account of experience level. Almost all the the women and men I spar are open fighters so they’ve been around the ring. They won’t begin a round by brawling, but if I roll in there trying anything too crazy, they are sure to let me know who’s in charge ๐Ÿ™‚

        My next fight is next week — part of our city’s Golden Glove — so I am definitely looking forward to unleashing beast mode!

  3. Cyndi March 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    I’m not a great sparring – I’m so new. But I’m willing and I listen to my partner and boy, I’ve had some good partners. I tend to throw predictable punches b/c I worry about form. Most importantly, I tend to forget to keep the gloves up! d’oh! Sometimes I have a great, experienced partner who keeps popping me when I forget (pop pop pop). But I did recently spar Muay Thai with a more experienced guy. We were supposed to be working form at about 30% power. Well, he kept popping me in the face and then I realized – he wasn’t kicking me. So I kicked after every punch. pop, kick, pop, kick. I think we probably looked silly.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 11, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

      That’s actually a pretty good tactic, Cyndi. I frequently tap down a jab and punch a straight right over the top of it. If they don’t “catch on” (ie, defend against the tactic), I just keep doing it! Score, score, score, score. Nothing silly about that!

      So good on ya, fighter chick. Keep up the awesome work.

  4. Nat March 11, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    To be completely honest, and I think I can be completely honest here, what I’ve been experiencing as a newbie myself is a lot of frustration. My gym isn’t the most supportive and community oriented kinda place at least for now anyway. Maybe because I’ve only been there a month or maybe because I’m one of the few white folks there or maybe just because I suck, I’m just not getting a lot of guidance or advice, much less any kind of respect. I haven’t actually sparred sparred yet, but I’ve gotten in with my coach and a few other guys without headgear or mouthpiece to sort of play spar (if that’s any kind of term), not exactly shadow sparring because we’re actually touching, but not exactly sparring because we’re hitting very lightly. My coach never really hits me, he just sort of tags me to let me know when I’ve made a mistake, another guy did actually hit me in the gut, which was nice because I felt taken seriously, and yet another just refuses to swing at me at all and just stays in shell defense and lets me hit him (condescending). Then, there’s that general huffing and sort of surprise when the coach assigns any of them to me. Ugh. No one seems to want to teach me anything. Frankly, I’m at a low point in terms of drive and/or motivation because on the one hand, there’s quite a bit of pressure in our gym to learn and know and figure out combinations exactly as they’re called when they’re called, and on the other, there’s no pats on the back going around at all about a job well done. Something tells me though that I’m being a spoiled little privileged white girl that needs some kind of signal that she’s doing something right? Is that what’s going on? Am I being a whiny little bitch? I don’t want to be that!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

      Two quick things, Nat:

      1. ASK for what you want.
      Tell them to give you some damn jabs to work with. Come prepared (headgear, mouthguard) for contact. Give them (increasingly hard) contact. Let them know you’re okay with contact. REPEAT until they hear you.

      2. This whole thing really does take a while.
      It takes a while to build trust between sparring partners, it takes time to develop ANY remotely decent skills in the ring, it takes time to get acclimated to a gym or team. You’ll get there.

      Keep after it, girlfriend. Stick in there.

  5. Stace J March 12, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    I totally agree about the cardio. It is vital to be able to last all rounds. I remember when I first started sparring I had no technique and even less cardio. After several of months of training I noticed a huge difference. These two are key fundamentals when you are starting. And as for Nat, Lisa did a good job explaining what to do to in your case. Best of luck to you and I hope you earn the respect you deserve.

  6. Yvonne Caples March 12, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Lisa, I was so overjoyed to see your latest email and blog post…don’t you know that some of us really depend on your pep talks to get us through the week!? Glad to see you back to blogging…can’t wait to see you in person.

    I think getting relaxed is the hardest thing to do…and is near impossible for a beginner. I think that partner drills where you alternate throwing punches and working on defense are great for simulates sparring in a more controlled atmosphere. I notice they do that a lot here in Germany, though not so much in the US. Also, round robin sparringing where more than two people are in the ring, and you can switch off frequently who your partner is and get exposed to many different styles is great too. Plus it allows for anyone to bow out or take a rest and if there are more than just two people in the ring then you don’t feel so much like you are up on stage and everyone in the gym is watching you.

    I’m leaving Germany on Friday and will be back in Raleigh in 3 weeks…can’t wait for us to get our spar back on! Miss you!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 12, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

      Yvonne!!! Damn, girl, I miss you. And I can’t wait for you to come kick my everloving ass for me in the ring. I have a few new tricks to showcase, but I’m not telling you what they are. When I’m being mercilessly pummeled I’ll pull ’em out and show ’em to ya up close and personal. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Seriously, thank you for the email/post love. It makes me remember why I love blogging!

      And for any of you who are NOT on the email list (this week I wrote about grocery shopping as foreplay, and delivered an adapted T. Rex and a killer hill sprint workout) please do click the link below and SIGN THE FUCK UP ALREADY.


      Cause we need you, badass!

      • Yvonne Caples March 13, 2013 at 2:55 am #

        I don’t think I’ll be kicking our ass, but I’m definitely looking forward to your new moves. See you soon!

  7. Hillari March 12, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    The first I sparred was at a different gym than the one I’m at now. It seemed that everyone there was full of experience except me. The guy I sparred with kept telling me to aim my punches at his face. I was nervous because I didn’t want to hurt him, and I didn’t want to get hurt, either. I was very sore afterwards.

    Last night, I sparred with a woman who had only sparred lightly once before. She wasn’t too keen on doing it again, but she did. I took it easy on her, despite the fact that she came in with many wild punches. But I knew that she was willing to learn and improve.

    Unfortunately, I see a lot of other people showing up at the gym who want to spar the first day they are in there without having learned much technique. There are the people who’ve had numerous street fights who erroneously believe “I don’t need to listen to the coach’s instructions, because I know what to do.” I’ve seen many guys who claim they’ve had many fights – usually a claim that can’t easily be verified – who have a “I can lick anybody!” attitude when it comes to sparring. My favorites are those – and we have such a person in the gym – who wants to pick and choose who they will spar with, and only people whom they think will be easy to “beat”.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 13, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      Hillari, you and I agree — it’s so unhelpful to come into a boxing gym and tell everyone you want to jump in the ring right this second. In addition to being stupid, it also feels disrespectful. This happened last night at my gym — new guy came in and said “I wanna HIT somebody.” Day one. He doesn’t even know what a jab is. Sigh.

  8. Laura March 15, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Hey Nat! I’ve thought all week about your comments, being a newbie myself and experiencing some of what you have.
    I’ve been training Muay Thai for a little over a year and have billions of things to learn so am a newbie still.
    Lucky for me, the philosophy at my gym is that you can never practice your technique enough. So if there is any whining about getting partnered with a “newbie” it gets tamped down pretty fast. It does make your heart sink a bit to see the eye rolling, but it’s their loss.
    Hang in there! Keep getting in there for training, work on your technique, speed, power and endurance…you got so much to do why worry about the noodle heads who are losing out by not working with you? The “clamshell” guy? Perfect. Human target. Keep at it and work hard…it’s so much FUN!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 15, 2013 at 11:10 am #

      We need a like button for what you just wrote, Laura.

      Actually, an “I fucking LOVE this shit” button.

      If only we were developers as well as badass fight chicks…

  9. lynn March 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    I just started boxing in July and love it! I have sparred with my private trainer, who doesn’t even break a sweat, and a few kind male souls at the local boxing gym. I would like to spar a woman, some day! Where are all the women fighters? There are none in Richmond, VA.

    Oh, I think I can relate to the “badass” classification.

    I enjoy this blog. It is nice to know there are others out there.


    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 17, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Lynn! You’re not too far away (2.5 hours) to come down to Raleigh, NC and spar with OUR group of badass fighting chicas. There are about 6-8 of us, in the whole range from new to experienced. Just email me and I’ll get us set up. We may even be able to find someone you could stay overnight with, if you like… I’m lisa [at] theglowingedge [dot] com. We’ll look forward to seeing you sometime soon!

  10. Bonnie March 18, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    I spar with a lot of newbies, I’ve gone to gyms several times and just had round after round of inexperienced women throwing punches at me while I work my defense or lightly counter. The thing that makes the biggest difference in the quality all stems from the leadership, how the coach tells them to handle sessions.

    I’ve had coaches screaming at their students to “take her head off”, “go at her”; and I’ve had coaches explain that I am going on defense and not really hitting them so respect that (and the fact that I could easily hurt them if I chose) and work lightly but at a good pace, and I don’t even need to say which sessions always end up better for both parties.

    The key (in my thoughts) to newbie sparring is constant supervision by a well-trained coach, ready to stop the session at any time and calm everyone down.

  11. Travis March 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Hi Lisa,

    I got to spar last night with a 187lb female boxer who just started training for a Cops vs. Firefighter show in Wichita next month (she is stepping up for an injured boxer). It was interesting for me to 1. spar with a woman and 2. spar with a total newbie. We just did 1-minute rounds and I let her go full offense the first 2 rounds. Then I gave her a couple of counter shots to keep her honest and the hands up. It was actually fun and she enjoyed it. You might have a new sister in your community out in the heartland.

    Anyway, much respect and as always love your writing.


  12. Tulisa April 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Your advise is really good, I was thinking of ways in which to help me get fitter so you helped me in my decision to start boxing. I also do swimming as well. I was looking for sports in which I could get a whole all round body workout and get my cardio in order too.

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