Sparring How it Feels

When Sparring is Magic

I can’t remember when I last had one of these days, but this week it all came back to me in one of those clear, beautiful, pristine experiences of pure sparring magic.

Sparring is always hard boxing work. It’s actually much more pleasurable than having a fight in many ways — less stress, less endless waiting, more actual time in the ring, and you often learn more as well.

But in the sporadic sparring experiences I’ve had in the past 6 months or so, I haven’t had one of these surreal days in the ring where everything came together like magic. This week they clicked.

Coach Massey was training a team of people in a different gym, and I wanted to get up there to see Eric, a friend of mine, who recently started competing. I also hoped to get some new and different work — working in a new gym with new people is a great way to shake up your training routine and test yourself. I hate it, and love it at the same time.

The dread that comes before

I woke up with the dread churning in my stomach. What if I suck? What if I humiliate myself? Have I been training hard enough? I have to stop slacking on my intervals. Etcetera. I forced down some bran flakes for breakfast and had a banana an hour or so later. I hydrated constantly. I stopped periodically during my morning to get mentally centered, rolling the tension out of my neck and reminding myself to relax.

And of course I took a wrong turn on the freeway and was abysmally late. Ugh.

But the moment I walked in, Coach Massey hailed me from ringside, and I immediately saw my friend Eric shadowboxing in the back. The place was filled with sunshine (unlike every other gym I’ve trained in recently) and the doors were propped open for the breeze. A former trainer of mine was working hard in the ring with a man holding pads and wearing a heavy punching vest; both of them glistened with sweat.

A pleasant surprise

And get this: two women were geared up and waiting to roll under the ropes next.

Two women! Both about my size. About to spar! In case you’re missing the import of this, let me assure you that this is unprecedented where I live. I rarely have the chance to train with one woman, and two is somewhat mind-boggling. I watched them for a moment and realized I was going to get a chance to get good work in — both of these awesome women were paying attention, working hard, and neither seemed out for war or bloodshed. This wasn’t going to be an ego session; it was going to be honest boxing labor.

I was so excited I could barely stand to warm up. I gave Eric a hug and put in a halfhearted round or two of stretching and shadowboxing before I eagerly geared up and stood ringside, waiting for my chance.

Do women box differently than men?

Just this week I had been having an email conversation with Adam Welsh (you’ve heard from him before here on TGE) about a comment pro boxer Anne-Sophie Mathis made recently about preferring to spar with men, because in her experience, “men are much more technical, their body language is more beautiful. The girls are certainly more vicious and aggressive, but they lack a little consistency…”

I’d been turning this thought over and over again in my head. ARE women more aggressive in the ring? If we are, it’s because we know that we have to fight twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. Or at least, that’s my feeling. But I hesitate to paint with so broad a brush, and say that all women are like this…

But I was ready to say that I preferred male sparring partners, too. Not for the reasons Mathis states, but because I’m more used to them, and they don’t seem to need to prove anything with me (most of the time). There’s not much respect to be gained by a male boxer from beating the crap out of a woman — but if she brings game, there can be a good sparring session for both partners.

But yesterday I changed my mind.

Both these women were so good to work with. Christy was — amazingly — a new Master’s fighter. I’m not sure I can name even ONE other female Masters boxer in North Carolina. My opponents are always out of state. Christy and I were exactly the same weight and height. This NEVER happens!

The second boxer, Erica, was perhaps in her early 20s, and had just won the Golden Gloves. A bit lighter than me, but same height.

I would work with both of these women any day of the week, any time. They gave good game, and I know I drew great pleasure out of our work and got some good stuff in.

Burning off the edge

First Coach Massey put me in with Nassir, a former trainer of mine, and he effectively warmed me up and burned off my nervous edge, although it’s hard to box with him because he’s so fast. He can stand in the middle of the ring and never move his feet and you still can’t seem to nail him with a solid punch. If you give him his feet, just hang up your gloves and go home; you don’t stand a chance of landing anything.

If I had to name his weakness it would be that he depends so much on his hyper-speed that he punches less than he probably should. But I wouldn’t be idiot enough to tell him that while I was in the ring with him.

Next I had rounds with each of the women, and suddenly the pace was slower and I could see everything that was happening (which I can’t do with Nassir).

Β The step-off

You know how boxers have a little switch-foot stutter step thing they often do in the ring? They’re in their stance, right foot and shoulder forward and left foot back. Then suddenly, they switch stance (left foot and shoulder forward) and step off? Easy, right? Yeah, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. My sparring partner Sinclair was working with me on this move a few weeks ago. And it was just not happening unless I expended superhuman effort.

In the ring with these women, it suddenly was there for me. I didn’t have to think about it, it was just magic. My brain worked on other things and my feet did the step off at the right moments entirely without my input. It was beautiful.

Coach Massey saw the first one and whooped. I had no idea what he was excited about. I could feel the glide, the move, the pure lack of effort, but I didn’t know he was watching my feet. Both of us paused in our round and looked at him.

“Lisa pullin’ the step-off!” he hollered, and I grinned, taking full credit even though I’d had no part in it.

Boxing is so like this. You work your ass off on something and NEVER get it right for AGES, then suddenly, it’s burned into your muscle memory and it comes together. Magic.

If you do it once, it’s a fluke. But I was doing it regularly, every round, with just the right timing.

What the hell? But I wasn’t complaining.

It made me feel great that Coach called over another boxer and instructed her to watch my feet to see how I was doing it. It’s just a good thing I didn’t have to explain it, because I have no idea how it got there, hah. I probably couldn’t have done it on command.

The slip

This was another muscle memory move that came together nicely, but this one happened because I wasn’t in with Nassir or Sinclair, or any of the regular guys I fight with who are blazing-fast. I was in with women closer to my own experience level, and I could Flat. See. And evade. Damn near everything.

Thank you, Baby Jesus and all those hours spent eating punches while struggling to overcome the hop back, flinch, blink, and turn away reflexes. It was worth every sweaty hour of that work. I was ducking under (!) slipping side to side, and keeping just inches out of range.

I did notice that I tend to slip right more commonly than left, but NEVER have I slipped so many punches that I noticed such a thing before!

Ahh, I love the magic.

The fuel

The last good piece about this awesomely awesome sparring experience was that I didn’t gas out. I had the fuel I needed to do what I was asked to do. Gotta tell you, I CURSE those intervals when I’m running steps, but I am SO glad I suffered through them when I perform well in the ring.

Your heart just needs that kind of hard training in intense, 3-minute bursts with 30 second recoveries in order to be able to show any kind of chops in the ring.

I hate intervals, but I’ll tell you now, I’m a believer.

And I’ll keep doing them.

Meanwhile, I’ll be curious to see if my next sparring experience goes as well as this one did. Can’t wait to work with Christy and Erica again! Ladies, I salute you; you were gutsy, beautiful, and I enjoyed every second of our work together…

Stay strong everyone, and if you’re struggling and wondering if it will EVER come together — it will! Promise.

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18 Responses to When Sparring is Magic

  1. Girlboxing March 18, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    First off, a great post!

    With respect to women’s fighting over men’s — women for reasons unknown to me other than gender essentialist garbage — can only fight two minute rounds in the amatuers and just about all pro fights. In my estimation this changes the game no less that adding the DH in American League baseball changes the game because pitchers don’t hit.

    This certainly translates into sparring because even though it’s three minutes the impetetus is to get it all in — every round, because in a bout there isn’t time to get all cutsey and technical. A two-minute bout means wall to wall fighting: no rev up and new rev down just a giant GO from the moment the bell rings.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

      Yo, GB, good to have you drop in, as always.

      And the thing about the 2 minute rounds — you may be on to something. It’s absolutely true that a 2 minute round feels like all-out war, while a 3 minute round feels like a more “normal” pace. Is that just because we never, never, never train with 2 minute rounds? Maybe if we did, they would feel “normal.” Still, it’s a pretty good theory… I have to say I don’t care for the 2 minute round rule at all, and wish we all got 3 minutes, period.

      Seriously, NOBODY sets up road race and says, “Okay, we’re gonna do a marathon here, except the women only get to run the first 16 miles, ’cause women are such delicate hothouse flowers…”

      Everybody would think they were just stupid for suggesting it.

  2. Adam Welsh March 19, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Very interesting point about length of rounds fought by women, and how the shorter duration encourages them to fight atll-out. In tennis, for example, while women play shorter matches than men (maximum 3 sets rather than 5), the duration of the games and sets is exactly the same as played by men. If boxing followed suit, a women’s championship fight would be 8 or 10 rounds x 3, rather than the present 10 x 2.

    On a more superficial level, I’ve noticed that long-haired fighters such as Braekhus, Holm and Mathis appear totally transformed when they enter the ring with their hair tied back. They suddenly look like warriors (in the eyes of this male spectator, at least). With their faces fully exposed, the ferocity of the action and its effects on their features adds to the sense of savage aggression. Against Mathis, Holm sustained so many heavy head-shots that her hair began to unravel somehwat as the punishment proceeded.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 20, 2012 at 9:45 am #

      The round time issue is even more interesting to me right now in light of the fact that at the gym last night I became quickly aware than the timer everyone was working on was set for 2 minute rounds, 30 sec recoveries — totally unusual!

      Not having worked 2 minute rounds in ages, I was amazed at the difference I felt, and I upped my work intensity automatically… Yep, I think we DO “coast” when it’s 3 minutes…

      • DaveG April 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

        Hi Lisa,

        sparring rounds in our gym are ALWAYS 2 mins with 30 sec intervals, high pace, high intensity πŸ˜‰

  3. Amy March 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Congrats on the little step thingy! I can watch boxers do that over and over and *still* not figure out how. Must practice in privacy of own home.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 22, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      Btw Amy I’m embarrassed to report that I still can’t do it on command with any kind of accuracy or grace. But I *did* notice last night at the gym that it was still there. When I focus on it, it’s like trying to hold water in a sieve… πŸ™‚

  4. Hillari Hunter March 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    The timer in the gym where I train is always set to three minute rounds. The current coach, as well as the coach before, believes that if the fighters can train/spar during three minute rounds, they can easily do two minute rounds that most amateur fights operate on. The Chicago Park District’s boxing shows operate on one minute rounds (!), so there’s no time to feel out an opponent during the fight.

    That’s great that you were able to get some good sparring work in with the two women. It is seldom that I’m sparring with a woman who’s my weight or height.

    I used to always prefer sparring with men because I could hit them harder. I used to feel funny about hitting women hard, especially since most of the women who come to the gym say, ‘I’ve never laid my hands on anyone in my entire life.” But then I’d get frustrated with most of the guys because they wouldn’t hit hard back. I understand the whole, “I shouldn’t hit a woman” thing, but an opponent is an opponent is an opponent in the ring. Nowadays, I appreciate sparring with both because some of the women are aggressive, and I learn things about movement from the guys.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      One minute rounds, yikes! That’s like super speed boxing! So have you competed in one minute rounds before? What was it like?

      I loved your view on sparring with men — it’s true that there are so few women who come through that we tend to want to be careful and not scare anyone away. Just another reason I enjoyed my session with these two women so much.

      There was this one guy at a previous gym of mine who had that “I can’t hit a woman” thing. On the rare nights when he was the only sparring partner I could get, I tried SO hard to convince him to give me some damn work. But he was funny and would move in the ring with me but never throw a punch. So I use to try to knock his ass out! πŸ™‚ Since he was over 200 lbs, he didn’t mind too much!

      • Hillari March 24, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

        I have competed in those one minute round exhibition matches, and they are no joke! A fighter has to come out banging as soon as the bell rings, and never let up on the opponent in order to get the points. All four exhibition fights I had were wars. I only won once.

        Once I sparred with a guy who already had a broken nose from sparring with another guy. That was one time I was worried about hurting a guy during sparring. . .LOL! He encouraged me to keep hitting him as hard as I could, so I did.

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 25, 2012 at 9:24 am #

          One minute — they would *have* to be wars, huh? I was at a fight night yesterday and a couple of the younger kids’ bouts were like that. They only give them 1.5 minute rounds. Punches in bunches!

  5. niamh March 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Great, great post! Loved every par from the bit about the sunshine and the open doors right down to your glee at getting everything right! Take some credit woman, it’s Ok to be proud when it all comes together! Lovely read. And what do I think about sparring – could just be down to experience? The more women get to spar, the calmer they become and less need to prove things too? maybe that’s too simplistic?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe March 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Sigh, I love you, niamh. Thanks for your words of praise.

      And I’m impressed — you may have something with your theory that perhaps if more women got more opportunities to spar, they would be calmer and less crazy out-for-blood in their sparring sessions.

      Experience. I bet you’re right. It makes ALL the sense in the world to me.

      Oh, and I’m glad you liked my little Photoshop hack job at the top! It’s SO true, isn’t it?

  6. niamh March 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    PS – brilliant photo-shopping on top!!

  7. Kelsey April 6, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    You should see me right now–I’m practically bouncing up and down with excitement. I just found your blog through the Women Talk Sports Network website, and this post is beautiful. (I’m off to read all the other posts you linked to from this one.)

    Back to boxing. My experience (of only 3 months) seems to differ from most here. I train and spar with women only, so I’ve never worked with a man before. I’ve sparred with women who were over/under my weight and height, but I’ve also had plenty of opportunities for evenly matched sparring sessions. We do three-minute rounds, though, which feels like the perfect amount of time. I’m training for my first amateur bout in June, and I’m wondering what it’ll be like to go for two minutes. Hm…

    Thanks for the post! I’ve been looking for good blogs about boxing, especially from a woman’s perspective.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 6, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Congrats on winning a slot on the Atlanta Corporate Fight Night card, Kelsey! I just stopped over at your blog — — and left you a comment. (Sorry, I accidentally left you my resume website in the link, urk.)

      ACFN is where I had my first two fights, and I’ve trained down at your gym with Terri Moss and the fabulous crew at the Decatur Boxing Club.

      I can’t wait to hear more about your experience as a new boxer preparing for her first fight.

      You can read about my experience getting ready for my first ACFN here:

      Good for you for taking it on. I’ll be cheering for you, and waiting to hear every single detail!

      • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 6, 2012 at 10:11 am #

        Woops. I swear I’m not (always) a total idiot, but those first two links I gave you are actually about my training for my SECOND fight in Atlanta, not the first. Sorry. But you’ll get some of the idea anyway… πŸ™‚

      • Kelsey April 6, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

        It’s a small world, isn’t it?! Thank you for the links and the encouragement.

        I enjoyed reading your posts about ACFN (and all the other posts of yours I read today).

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