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. 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- What to Expect the First Time You Spar in Boxing
- New Lessons in Sparring: Controlling the Ring
- New Sparring Partner