There are thousands of videos on social media of folks boxing that make the sport look like pure speed and finesse (see Ansel Elgort in the Hamptons for proof). Drills, jabs, and weaves are as smooth as butter. But the minute you swap the equipment for a living, breathing fighter, things change. You can’t just walk into a ring and go through the motions — unless you wanna wind up on the floor.
Sparring is the fastest way to learn how to box — which makes sense, since sparring is essentially a controlled fight. The biggest difference between fighting and sparing is that during sparring, both boxers are under the same understanding that no one is there to “win.” Both parties are there to work on the techniques they need for the actual fight. My coach, Baruc Martinez of Martinez Boxing, has sent me into the ring for sparring sessions with instructions like “jabs and hooks only” and “you’re working on defense today — no throwing punches.”
Since sustaining a moral- and workout-deflating stress fracture to my foot, I had to swear off sparring. That time out of the ring gave Baruc and I the opportunity to work on certain weak links in my punching fundamentals, such as not pivoting on my hook, using my hips to generate more power, and using head movement instead of footwork to dodge hits. The rounds spent punching Baruc’s hand pads with newly found force made me feel more powerful, more confident, and, most dangerously, like I looked good.
Then I got clearance from my doctor to remove that heinous air cast from my foot during my training sessions. With that, Baruc sent me right back into the ring for a celebratory spar.
The woman I sparred could’ve been my boxing twin. She’s around 5’8”, weighs around 140, has a lean athletic build, is a beginner, and is about as blonde as you can get. Total doppelgänger. So when the bell rang, I hesitated. Maybe it was because I was a little rusty, or I was too in my head and didn’t rely on instincts. Either way, it showed in those first three seconds. I tried to get it back, pumping a couple sloppy jabs before Baruc reminded me to move up and down her body. But then she hit me, square in the nose, making me stop dead in my tracks.
When sparring, you have to train yourself not to trade punches — aka I hit you, you hit me, your turn, my turn. No, you have to react and act at the same time. When a punch is thrown at you, slip and throw a counterpunch. As my teammate Abby Fuller put it so eloquently to me, “Make them miss, make them pay.”
I started throwing fake punches (like a pump fake in basketball) to get my opponent to flinch her hands away from her face so I could come in with a real hit. I moved my head and slowed my feet down. I watched her body and her eyes to anticipate what she wanted to throw and when she wanted to throw it.
Sounds easy enough, but there isn’t a lot of time to gather thoughts and focus your energy on correcting your mistakes when someone’s trying to take your face off. That’s why sparring can get sloppy, and that’s why it’s the best time to learn how to get your shit together for a real fight.
During the three rounds that my sparring partner and I went at it, some things looked and felt good. Others were a sweaty mess. My clean, sharp punches from the pads turned into wild swings, misses, a lot of heavy breathing, and some movements that looked more like a strange tribal dance than a boxer dodging punches.
But at the end of the nine minutes, I felt like I’d learned more than I had in the weeks spent in my cast, punching the bags on the gym floor. I was exhausted, my face looked red like a tomato, I was already feeling sore, and my opponent had a steady stream of red pouring out of her nose. Boxing may look good on Instagram, but fighting ain’t pretty.