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Beginner’s Guide to Learning how to Spar

Sparring is one of the major means for translating gym skills into practice. Many people take up boxing for the exercise value, and sparring is usually the closest such people come to a fight. For both amateur and professional boxers, sparring is an essential part of any training regimen. Some boxers, notably Julio Cesar Chavez, have built entire training routines around nothing but sparring, and the failure to engage in vigorous, challenging sparring has seen many a fighter stumble on fight night. If you want to really learn how to fight or improve your skills as a boxer, you can’t do without sparring.

Sparring for Beginners

Most novice boxers have been in few if any street fights, and are therefore at least a little glove shy and unsure of how to put their basic slate of boxing skills together. The beginner often forgets to move and punch, doing either one or the other, and usually has a very poor understanding of how to use distance and measure timing. This is in addition to any fundamental flaws that might exist in a beginner’s style.

Some beginners have the character to take a severe thrashing and bounce right back (it’s hard to imagine Joe Frazier doing anything else as a beginner), but for most getting your head handed to you is a discouraging experience, reinforcing rather than dispelling glove shyness. The best practical advice for a novice in early sparring is to start with other novices or with more experienced opponents who have excellent control and won’t take advantage of you. Every boxing gym has its lowlifes who are licking their chops for the opportunity to use a new guy as a human punching bag, and even intermediate boxers need to be wary of unknown fighters wanting to spar.

Jab sparring, or sparring with jabs only, is a sound method for beginners to focus on skill development and gain experience in a suitable environment, with a minimal risk of injury. Your opponent is still free to move and punch at will, as well as to mix things up by throwing to the body or doubling up on the jab. This degree of unpredictability is crucial if a novice is to actually learn anything from the experience. However, the sparring is still controlled by the fact that all the punches are coming from one arm, introducing a level of predictability while minimizing the amount of power deployed. Once a fighter has learned about how distance and timing works with the jab, as well as how to block, parry, and the practical use of head movement and footwork, they have put the basics together and are ready for full sparring.

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Skill Development

Sparring is educational in its own right, but sparring with a purpose is more so. Just as with bagwork and mittwork, a boxer who wants to improve his skills should pick one or two things to work on before climbing through the ropes. That means worrying less about “winning” the sparring match and more about practicing particular skills. For example, you want to improve your left hook to the body, throw that punch even when it means getting countered or landing on the opponents arms. In getting countered, you’ll learn about your defensive flaws and when not to throw a left hook to the body; even if you land on your opponents guard, you will learn how to translate the power you generate on a heavy bag into hitting a real target. If you go in with that attitude, you accomplish your objectives in the practice, even if you get thumped a little in the process.

This idea can be toned down into technical or conditional sparring if you have a trainer or some regular sparring partners. This type of sparring is not done with the intent of recreating real combat, but is instead about perfecting a very specific technique so that it can then be taken into normal sparring for further work (as described above). Obviously this requires the full cooperation of your sparring partner, which is why it is sometimes more difficult to arrange. One example is learning how to parry and counter a left jab. Your partner agrees to throw half-speed jabs, which you then parry with your right and follow by throwing the right over the jab into empty air. The partners can take turns and then take the rudimentary skills developed into some free and open sparring.