There is a visually simple way to understand where you are — and change your position — on the fear scale in boxing.
Sparring can be scary, of that there’s no doubt. And there’s always dread to overcome when making the decision to roll under those ropes. But there’s actually a very physical way to shift yourself forward and make it into the ring.
The first thing you need to understand is the difference between a regular sparring night and a hard sparring night, because if you are going to see the absolute truth about where you stand and make real progress in shifting yourself forward in boxing, you need a hard sparring night.
On a hard sparring night, things get very clear, very quickly.
A single look at the gym will tell you everything, and you can make your decision about whether you decide to fold and watch or play and win.
And you absolutely will win if you play.
Because just being willing to get in the ring during a session like that will move you forward, no matter how you actually perform during your sparring.
But there’s more to it than that. Let me see if I can explain…
The typical sparring order and match-ups
In most of the gyms where I’ve trained the littlest boxers typically go first in sparring. Maybe it’s because they’re small or young, and their parents will be waiting to get them home, fed, and off to sleep.
After the younger ones have their ring time, the rest of the team begins to work, not necessarily by rank, but simply based on what the coach wants to achieve with each boxer. I might get paired with someone who is a fast puncher because the coach wants me to practice my defense, for example. Or a heavyweight will get put in with a visiting heavyweight because the home boxer rarely gets a chance to really unleash as well as experience the power and pain that another person of the same weight brings to the ring.
If a boxer is behaving poorly, refusing to take instruction, and allowing their emotions and issues to cause them to brawl rather than box, the coach might put them in with someone who is technically better and who can pound a physical lesson into them. Incidentally, that lesson is called “get yourself under control, boy” and it’s still hard for me to understand, but my husband says it’s a guy thing. It looks like a street fight, and it’s often bloody, but it seems to be a part of the way boxing works.
And as I mentioned earlier, there are also different kinds of sparring nights. Some are more easygoing and filled with stops and starts, and some are all-out war.
War nights are good to have on occasion, because a real boxing fight is not about patty cake. It isn’t you and your buddies, messing around. It’s serious hard work, and it can be brutal.
Every gym has war nights. My gym had one recently, too.
What happens on a war night
There were maybe 15 to 18 boxers training in the gym when the coach sent everyone to gear up and went and took his place ringside on a painted wooden stool.
The young kids did not go first.
Instead, Coach put in two of the top boxers in the gym, instructed everyone to ignore the bell, and calmly uttered the one word that causes every fighter’s engine to roar to life, “Box.”
Those are the first two clues to a hard sparring night. Different order of business, no bell boundaries. Your gym might keep to the bell, but no bell means you’re about to work quickly all the way to failure (and then you’ll work some more).
The top boxer stayed in the ring as multiple fighters rotated in and out. I’ve been in that “stay in” position in other gyms (with less skilled people than Second Round) and it’s something everyone should experience once in while.
When the coach puts you in and makes you box to the end of your ability with a string of fresh fighters, you not only feel great to be in that position, you learn a lot about your strengths and your limits. You find out what areas of training you’ve been neglecting. You discover how long you can last. You learn how to defend once you’re played out.
The top boxers at my gym went in, one after another. The shots were not training level. No one pulled punches. No one messed around. Everyone threw full power, all out.
About 5 minutes in, someone went over to the boom box and turned the volume way down until all we could hear was the relentless slam of leather against flesh, the bright pop of a glove against headgear, and the dull thud of a perfectly executed body shot.
The church of boxing had been called to order, and the supplicants focused all their attention on the ferocious litany in the ring.
This is the time when you can see, visually, exactly where you are on the fear scale.
Where boxers stand
On a hard sparring night like this, the unspoken code is: watch or leave.
Every heavy bag hung undisturbed. The constant chatter of speed bag was silenced. There was no intermittent clang of weights being racked. No one skipped rope, or shadowboxed, or chatted aimiably on the ragged, garage-sale couches at the back of the gym.
And if you find yourself in a holy moment like this, look around to see where everyone stands. Physically.
Most of the fighters were ringside, leaning up against the ring apron, watching the action through the lower two ropes.
One man stood, jump rope in hand, about 6 feet back. Periodically he would wander over to the heavy bags. I was fairly certain he would not get in. (He didn’t.)
A thin young teenager stood nervously next to the freestanding pull up machine. I thought he might not get in, either. (He didn’t.)
Anyone further back than that is most likely doing their best to avoid the battleground and stay out of the fight.
Which is perfectly acceptable.
But the phrase “know where you stand” is particularly useful here. If you want to shift your fear, you need to walk forward. If you want to tell your body that regardless of what your brain says, you intend to spar, you need to stand where you are actually touching — connected to — the ring.
And here’s another piece of that same puzzle…
Are you ready?
Last night I suddenly realized, during this moment, that although I was leaning against the ring apron, peering intently through the bottom two ropes at the action, I had not geared up.
In fact, neither had the guy with the jump rope in hand, by the heavy bags.
It’s true, I was late coming in, and was only warming up as everyone else was getting ready to spar, but now that the game was on, what did my relative unpreparedness say about my willingness to get in the ring?
It was clearly a war night. I’ve been here before; in fact, the first time I experienced it I bailed. I needed to take stock and make a decision about how much I would allow my fear to rule me.
I turned and walked to the back of the gym, quietly gathered my gear, and returned to the side of the ring and began to gear up.
The unspoken request
If you expect to be put in the ring on a night like this, you have to mentally request it. Your posture, your attitude, your engagement level all have to tell your coach that you are willing to get in if he calls your name. He’s not going to call everyone, because the stakes are higher, and there needs to be room for people to keep themselves out of the fight even if they stay in the gym.
This is about eye contact. About listening intently to whatever comments and instruction the coach is giving the fighters. It’s about leaning in, both mentally and physically, no matter how much the edge of the ring feels like the edge of a blade.
The test of fire
The coach at Second Round is phenomenal.
A former pro boxer himself, Coach Massey completely understands the dynamics of fear, and the geography of boxing guts. He works with, rather than against his boxers. He rarely raises his voice, but instead trains us to hear his voice anywhere in the gym (no matter the din) and respond to his instruction. He will take me farther than I would go on my own, and I can count on him to judge accurately when to push and when to leave be.
Last night there were many other issues to be worked out among our top fighters before I could get a chance to box, but I was ringside, I was geared, and I was mentally asking to fight, despite my fear. I knew he would call my name, and finally I heard him say, without even looking in my direction, “Lisa. On deck.”
I swallowed hard, levered myself up onto the ring, and waited outside the ropes for his signal.
As it happened, I was in pretty good shape for my challenge. I’m keeping up with my workouts and doing my sprints. Earlier in the week I had gone 6 rounds or so with no bell, working on inside fighting only. Trey, a beautiful, powerful light heavyweight had given me plenty of hard work, forcing me to stay knee to knee, leaning into me and making me bump him off with my shoulder and dig in with right and left uppercuts before finishing with a left hook to his head. Over and over. Slowly I shed my fear of his powerful shots to my body, and quit hopping backwards to my more comfortable outside fighting position.
On war night my gas was good, I wasn’t already tired out, and I felt mentally as solid as you can in these situations.
My first opponent was a fierce young man named Shaq. He’s fast, but he’s smaller than I am, so I knew I could take his power. I intended to give him a taste of my hard right, and I was primed to stick with the inside game if he forced the issue. I planned to employ every illegal tactic I could (our coach is pretty lenient on this issue) to tip the scales in my favor. I’d already seen some damn messy (and bloody) brawling, and I’d heard the coach tell us that just because a shot was ugly didn’t mean it wasn’t effective. I was ready.
No bell, just the word from the coach. I rolled in with guns blazing, and Shaq let me dominate the first minute or so.
He’d already been fighting and I was fresh, but I started to suspect he was “going easy” on me, so I pinned him to the ropes and growled at him. “You better bring me something to work with, dammit,” I told him, and before I could finish up with a suitable threat, he had spun out and rocked my head back with the most beautiful, crispest jab ever thrown.
“Nice.” I commented, “Thank you.” And we were on.
We worked a couple of rounds I think (no bell, hard to figure it), before the coach switched up fighters again, and I ducked out feeling wonderful. I knew he would put me in again (he did, with a very tired Trey), and I might not look as fresh or fight as well, but I’d already won the real victory.
I’d gone forward. I’d shown I was ready. And I got in.
And that’s the most beautiful part of boxing.
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, creative commons license