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).
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.
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 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.