How to Go From Fitness Boxing to Sparring
Hitting a stuffed sack of leather at the gym is one thing, but going face-to-face with a competitor is quite another. Learn how to master the transition.
Imagine walking into a small room, being greeted by a person you’ve never met, staring him in the face and knowing that your task for the next handful of minutes is to punch this person as hard and as often as you can. When it’s over, you will shake hands and leave the room, agreeing to meet again at some determined time in the future to repeat the whole process.
Basically, that’s boxing. It’s a daunting and exhilarating sport, and one that takes a bit of getting used to. Like most people, I didn’t grow up getting into regular fistfights. Going in for a live spar-ring session was the first time I’d ever been in a real fight. It takes a certain personality to appre-ciate both the toughness and finesse of boxing, and to willingly accept that as part of the sport you will get hit in the face (even though many of the best boxers will tell you they HATE getting hit in the face).
“Boxing is the art of hitting without getting hit, with the understanding that you will definitely get hit,” explains Johnny Argrow, coach and owner of BlackBoxx Boxing in Boulder, Colorado. “So don’t get down on yourself when you don’t look as good in the ring as you did on the bags.”
I got my first experience sparring while training for my first amateur fight through Haymakers for Hope, a Boston-based non-profit that puts on USA Boxing-sanctioned amateur boxing exhibi-tions at venues nationwide in an effort to raise funds and awareness for cancer. Over the last 11 years, they’ve trained more than 790 first-time amateur fighters, hosted 27 gala-style boxing events in New York, Denver, Washington D.C. and Boston, and raised more than $14.5 million in the fight against cancer.
During this process I got to learn from the absolute best. Haymakers for Hope co-founder Julie Anne Kelly is a coach, a cancer survivor and a two-time NYC Golden Glove champion, and she remains a constant inspiration to myself and many others. She knows the challenge for recrea-tional boxers of transitioning from bag to ring and has some tried-and-tested thoughts on the best ways to do it. To start, she says, add stretching, yoga and speed-focused cross training to your weekly routine to improve your flexibility and agility (which you’ll call on more often in the ring than you did punching a bag). Then what? I asked Kelly for a few pointers.
What are some of your tips for people who want to spar?
Kelly: Be patient and don’t get discouraged. Everything new is hard at first. It is easy to get frus-trated when you start to spar. Remember the basics and look for the little wins each time you get in there and work. Focus each individual round on something you need to work on; for instance, focus one round on making sure you never drop your hands. It is not going to go the way you imagined it to the first time. Don’t let it discourage you from going back in. Every day is a new day to keep learning.
For someone who has been going to kickboxing class for years and is a fan of the sport, how does he or she get into the ring?
Kelly: First, approach a coach or trainer and talk to them about wanting to take the next step. It is important to have someone you can trust to work your corner and be certain to have you matched up with a partner that is at the same newbie skill level as you (or has experience and will work with you).
What are your favorite training routines to get you ready for actual sparring? Can any-thing replicate that experience?
Kelly: There is nothing like the real thing, but shadow boxing and footwork drills are incredibly helpful. Get in front of a mirror. Focus on your stance, where your feet are, your hips, shoulders, hands and chin. Shuffle back and forth and then add in punches all while focusing on proper hand and elbow placement after each punch. Do rounds and rounds of shadow boxing to rein-force that muscle memory. Also, make sure to add sprints or HIIT to your routine. Your lungs will thank you!
What equipment does someone need?
Kelly: Once you commit to sparring, you’ll want to have your own gear. All of your personal gear gets very sweaty and especially during the time of COVID, it’s best to have your own wraps, gloves, mouth guard and protective equipment. In addition, you’ll want ring-appropriate boxing boots or training shoes, tanks, compression wear, shorts and socks. For gloves, most coaches will require you to use 16-oz. sparring gloves, but check with your coach or gym before you in-vest. You’re going to be sweating, so breathable clothing that doesn’t restrict mobility is best.
What scares people most about getting into the ring?
Kelly: The hardest part to overcome is your own mind and the fear of getting hurt. Learning to get comfortable being uncomfortable takes time. You need to get out of your head and into your body. Focus on your breathing.
What else would say to someone who wants to spar?
Kelly: Just like in life, you’ll have good days in the ring and you’ll have bad days. Be patient. Each time you get in that ring and work, you’ll learn.