Secret coach's diary part 2: 'Everyone's been wobbled in sparring'
In the second of a candid and revealing series, an anonymous ABA coach describes his experiences, offering an invaluable insight into the highs and lows of life in and around English boxing's amateur grassroots ...
One of the key aspects of boxing training is, of course, sparring. Lots of people who have never boxed seem to believe that with 16oz gloves and a head guard on, sparring doesn’t really hurt. Having been both on the receiving end of sparring sessions and having watched lots of rounds, I can assure you it really, really does hurt!
If a good boxer hits you flush in the face, it’ll probably bust your nose or lip. And if they land a quick, good shot to the chin, you’ll probably wobble a bit. It doesn’t mean you're chinny or prone to cuts, it just happens.
As a very good, tough pro once said to me: “everyone’s been wobbled in sparring”.
I remember once being hooked to the head by a very good light heavy and, as I looked at him in a daze, all the colour drained out of my vision and it ‘flickered’ like an old fashioned television losing reception.
With this in mind, it’s very hard to decide when to put someone into a sparring environment for the first time. It’s something which is discussed at length on the England boxing course. We were advised, correctly I believe, that ‘open’, full power sparring should rarely be used, especially with youngsters.
As I work predominately with newbies, both young and old, I regularly have to make a choice when I feel someone is ready to spar. Invariably, most people feel ready almost immediately. They’ve “watched videos”, a “friend of a friend has shown me the basics” etc etc. Once, I was even told by one young hopeful that “I'm a good street fighter”.
I understand such bravado is a way of making people feel confident, as well as displaying enthusiasm, but every coach has heard it plenty of times.
The mature student I’ve been working with was very determined to jump into the ring. Eventually I relented as, whilst his defence and shots needed lots of work, he was fit and his footwork was surprisingly nimble for both a new boxer and a late starter.
However, as is customary for lots of gyms, I asked a much more senior fighter to ‘take him round’, which basically means walk forward, throw some very light shots and let the newbie get off plenty of shots. I also asked for it to be a body only spar, as the mature student had no gum shield. (Despite being itching to spar he’d forgotten it!)
With the inexperienced juniors I almost always only body spar. Despite that, some seem either unwilling or unable to follow the instructions of ‘body only’. I remember once putting two youngsters in a small ring and both proceeded to march out and whack each other flush in the face at exactly same time.
Typically for kids, they both shook it off and, after a telling off from me, went back to it. I've found that the majority of kids are truly fearless, and I do believe that the younger people start boxing the better; whereas a 20-year-old understandably feels some apprehension or even fear of getting punched, kids simply go for it.
By the time they are old enough to start being fearful, they have become accustomed to being in the ring and developed their ring IQ to avoid taking too much punishment.
My mature student, however, is older than me. As soon as the first round of his spar started, the boxing basics we had worked on collapsed. He dropped his hands and began almost running away from his opponent. I called a halt and reassured the student that he wasn’t going to get hurt.
I reminded him of the basics. Footwork, chin down, hands up, elbows protecting those ribs, keep your eye on your opponent, and let the shots go.
He went back in and kept it together relatively well, although at one stage began what I believe was an attempt at an Ali shuffle, which not surprisingly resulted in a shot with a little bit more menace to the ribs from the more experienced fighter. At which point my student looked a little taken aback.
I called a few other lads into the ring to spar and told the student he’d done well. He had. It takes guts to jump in. I said I’d give him another go, but to catch his breath and reflect on how it went, whilst stood on the ring apron, watching the more experienced guys.
He fixed me with a stern look.
“It was easy,” he said.
“It’s a slow process,” I told him. “We build everyone up gradually. You can get hurt doing this”.
“It was way too easy. When does it get hard?” he said.
“Just watch their feet,” I replied.