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We all know that the goal in boxing is to win fights, which we typically need experience to achieve. You also need a safe way to perfect your game in much the same way as footballers use scrimmages to perfect their games.
In boxing this means simulated fighting, or sparring, which can be performed at a light or hard intensity, though ALWAYS in control. The idea is to work on technique and to polish your craft, NOT to get beat up or to beat up your opponent.
Yes, actual combat does teach you the game of boxing, though skipping the "school of hard knocks" in favour of something you can perform safely in a controlled environment works much better and will keep you around longer.
Plus, it can add an element of fun to your training.
Why Controlled Sparring?
Think of it this way: If you were training to be a fighter pilot, would you want to learn by flying real combat missions? Probably not, and for very good reason, which is to stay alive while perfecting your skill.
The same goes with fighting, which is a sport—love it though we may—in which you can get seriously injured if you don't know what you're doing. Taking a punch is, after all, getting whopped in a manner that's meant to shut your lights out, and fighting is meant to produce a winner and a loser.
Sparring on the other hand—assuming it's done right, which it often isn't—should NEVER produce a winner, a knockout, or even a solidly-landed punch. It should mimic fighting, though without full-on punches. Instead, you need to "tag" each other with your gloves so that only light—or even no—contact is made.
This can be done at different intensities so long as both participants "pull" their punches rather than inflict damage. This also means that during hard sparring, you should never take advantage of a faltering opponent as you would in a real bout. For instance, if an opponent is becoming visibly tired and dropping his or her hands, slow down and let them recover. Going for the kill is fine when it counts, which it never does in sparring.
It's also usually a good idea to have a trainer on hand to monitor the action and keep it from getting out of hand. Yes, the competitive juices can flow during sparring sessions, though what you need to focus on isn't winning an un-winnable bout, but rather, learning as much as you can and figuring out what does and does not work for you. Once you've got that figured out, it's time for the real thing, though in the meantime, let's look a bit more deeply into how controlled sparring can get you there.
But this doesn't mean just throwing odd punches and random moves. Instead, both fighters need to enact responses from each other's punches and blocks as though contact is being made. As a beginner, this will help you get used to predicting and countering in the ring and should entail throwing punches when openings are seen while blocking, parrying, and evading hits in reaction to your opponent's moves. Do this in a spontaneous, free-form manner that mimics fighting rather than working combos like with a heavy bag. You can used hand wraps and even gloves to get used to the weight and feel of them, just don't put them to work quite yet.
Once you've become comfortable in the ring it's time to move on to some jab drills, starting with catching each other's jabs. Do this as the two of you move around the ring in a controlled, calm, and smooth way where no score is kept, and you take turns jabbing/catching. This drill should be easy and deliberate so that both of you share equal jab/catch time.
Above all, don't try to hit hard, but instead focus on easy jabs, your form, and balance so that everything is smooth and purposeful.
Next, change it up so that each participant gets 5-jabs for the other to catch, and you can also get creative by "surprising" the catcher with jabs to various areas, including the head, body, and chest. Stay at arm's length, and the defender can work on different blocks, parry's, and evasive techniques at this time.
Next, you can move into a 3-punch drill in which each fighter will take turns throwing from 1-3 punches (though no more than 3) with their right (or dominant) hand. This is to be done with NO HOOKS OR UPPERCUTS, and the defender should only block, parry, and evade without countering. As with the previous drills, any contact is to be light and harmless.
From here, the two fighters can move to jab sparring that is more free form. Using jabs only and without any hard contact, work on form and balance, and you can also now work on counter jabs and defensive jabs. When throwing jabs, do so in a manner that tests your opponent's defensive skills, which means targeting the head, shoulders, body, and chest rather than just the head.
Now you can add crosses to your slow, deliberate jabs, though this should be at no more than 25% of full power, meaning if there's any audible "pop," sting, or discomfort, you're hitting too hard. Do this with a good trainer on hand to keep things from getting too intense since as you can guess, competitive juices are the bane of keeping things in control. The trainer should be listening for "pops!" while watching each fighter's reactions to ensure they are not panicked, fearful, closing their eyes or flinching from punches.
For the fighters, this means staying out of punching range and focusing on offense only rather than moving in-and-out with defensive techniques. Eyes always need to be open, and if there is any anticipation or flinching, the pace should be slowed yet more. This can become painfully slow and deliberate, though it teaches you to "box with your eyes" rather than from anticipation and memory.
Time to Spar!
Once you and your training partner have become comfortable with the basics, it's time to move on to full sparring with all punches allowed, though still at 25% and deliberate. There should be no flinch blocking, and openings that are not blocked should be taken advantage of—just not with a knockout punch. Don't try to out-speed each other, but instead, develop a mentality of working with each other despite being "opponents." Again, it needs to be stressed that sparring CANNOT produce a winner and loser, and it's to be used as a means of developing skills for the ring rather than as a workout or contest.
There are also some things for you and your trainer to be mindful of when sparring to keep everything in control:
Wrapping it up
While sparring can be performed at a near-fight intensity, it should never do so with unmatched partners or intensity that crosses certain lines. Instead, try for easy sessions with an opponent who is either at your experience, weight, and skill level, or one who is willing to work with you ethically despite being a stronger fighter (a great way to improve your game, by the way). Nobody likes a bully and bullying DOES NOT belong in the boxing gym, especially when it comes to sparring sessions.
What does belong in sparring sessions are skill development, form work, a focus on balance and technique, and above all, FUN.
By establishing these things in the controlled and safe environment of sparring, you can then put them to work where it counts—in real bouts. This allows you to be more comfortable and with a better chance of winning than were you to attempt learning during the heat of battle.
There is, after all, a reason soldiers go through basic training, and the same goes for you!