Sparring Smart



Sparring with Peter Graham probably wasn't very smart.

International Kickboxer Magazine, Vol 16, Number 6

January 2009

Sparring is the business end of training. All forms of conditioning (weights, bagwork, padwork, running, drills, etc) should be integrated into a training regimen to serve this most crucial of activities. The quality and intensity of your sparring will be the most important determining factor in pre-fight preparation.
There’s no doubt that sparring is scary stuff. It can be very hard to find good sparring, and it is an all-too-common experience that a young, optimistic newcomer will have his enthusiasm beaten out of him by a ruthless trainer seeking to feed anyone with two fists, two feet and a pulse to his most valuable prospect. Sparring is a way to not only develop your own skills, but investigate your trainer’s interest in you and your ability to work with him. The fighter/trainer relationship should be a two-way street which doesn’t lead to a dead-end in his pocket.

A good trainer will do his best to gain knowledge of your opponent in order to defeat him strategically. In the case of a first-time fight, your trainer will use that first round as an opportunity to get a sense of his strengths, weaknesses and game plan. The way you and your opponent work together. After his first-round knockout win over Paul Slowinski, Ghokan Saki said to me that he had never fought so well in all his life. Over the screams of 18,000 fans packed into the Amsterdam ArenA, Saki heard one voice – the one belonging to Cor Hemmers. “Whatever Cor said, I did. Cor said low kick, I threw low kick. He said right straight, I threw right straight.” This illustrates how much a good trainer is doing when you fight, and the fact that he can see things you can’t. Make sure you listen to him and practise doing so. I also like to listen to the other corner, too – it’s amazing what they say thinking you won’t pick it up. This is often more important than the noise coming from behind you.   

This may sound obvious, but to fight well, you need to do a lot of fighting. It is important to be fit, strong, co-ordinated and have a handy set of combinations, but all too often those first few fights are about having hard-earned technique that the other guy just won’t stand still to let you knock him out with. For a beginner, a gym spar is a great way to test the water. Essentially, it’s like a semi-contact martial arts event, but the real value is in getting used to being in a ring with a referee, in front of a crowd. 

Sparring will point out your technical weaknesses. As most fighters know, there is no better way to teach you to cover your chin than to have an opponent punch it. It will also make you fitter, as unfortunately, no amount of sprints or distance running is really going to build your fitness as effectively as working in the ring. You can also gauge your speed off a faster opponent. At a more advanced level, you need to seek sparring partners who can replicate the size and reach of your opponents, and also employ certain techniques and combinations that they are known to use.  

It is also important to absorb abuse, and both the Dutch and Thai approaches to this are stone-age. Absorbing punishment requires a special kind of fitness of its own. The trauma of having your muscles minced, as a smart opponent will seek to do with his thigh kicks, is important to develop resistance to before competition. Your body can go into shock from injury, and it’s another aspect of the game you must prepare for.  

It is of vital importance to avoid this approach to your chin, however. After a solid knockdown, it is vital to rest long enough to allow the consequences of a concussion to fully dissipate. Many ‘old school’ fighters and trainers think this is weak, but the practical fact is that it can destroy your ability to take a knock. Fightsports are littered with glass jaws as a result of coming back too fast from head injury. At Golden Glory, many fighters were training with broken bones, especially ribs, but after a serious knock-down, Cor Hemmers insisted I take a week off to fully recover. 

Sparring is a lot like sex. Aside from being hard work and involving the exchange of fluids, it’s pretty difficult to find your rhythm with someone the first time. It generally takes a few attempts before you can really work together. Having said that, however, it will be unusual for you to fight the same opponent more than once, so becoming too settled with one person can be every bit as bad as not being able to work with them at all. I used to spar Chris Chrisopoulides over a long period of time, at least once a week. I found it was like trying to tango with a three-ton-truck – dangerous and painful, in equal measures. While he was one of the strongest, most experienced (and smartest) opponents I faced, I soon found myself fighting an opponent of three fights who was very awkward and simply wouldn’t let me find my rhythm. While trying to hit the guy, I remember wishing I was back sparring with Chris, even though he was far more dangerous.  

Once you reach a certain level of ability and experience, you’ll know how seriously you want to take your fighting. And if it is something you want to pursue professionally, you will be aware of the fact that you need to get as close to actual fighting in training as possible. In Holland, we sparred every session. Which meant doing between 6 to 12 rounds a day, 5 days a week, with every possibility of broken bones or knockout waiting for you when you got into the gym. This is extremely difficult to cope with psychologically, but the stress is just like the pain; the more you can tolerate, the better you are going to be.

Lastly, a professional fighter, painter or fish-tank cleaner is defined by a professional attitude. In regard to sparring, it means focusing on the job at hand, reading your opponent, listening to your trainer and doing what you’ve practised in training. There are as many different reasons for fighting as there are fighters, but it is vital not to take it personally. An overly-aggressive lunatic who reduces every session to a slugfest becomes a fighter that other people avoid. Remember, you’re there to enjoy yourself and without your opponents, you won’t improve. The goal is a productive sparring session, even more than ‘getting it over’ the other guy, who has been good enough to help you.  

It is essential to climb the ladder slowly but surely with people you trust. Your body will adapt to almost anything, but it takes profound reserves of mental strength to get there. Remember that improvement is progressive, and pushing too hard, too fast will at best result in injury and at worst can force an early retirement. Most of all, we do this because it’s fun. And sparring is where you should really enjoy yourself.

Jarrod Boyle is a heavyweight fighter who became the first Australian to train at the Golden Glory gym under Cor Hemmers and Ramon Dekkers. He spent every day of three months sparring K1 stars like Errol Zimmerman, Gokhan Saki and Chalid ‘Die Faust’ Arrab 

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