Heavy Sparring: Yes or No?


“Well, if you look at my training, if you see my helmet, it is like two inches thick… I got a big nose bar. And… I don’t take head shots. The reason why is that you don’t get paid in the gym – you get training in the gym. I want to save them for in the Octagon, and I think that’s what helps me a lot.

“Every time you get rocked, it’s a little easier [to be knocked out], and it’s a little easier, and it’s a little easier, and it’s a little easier. Look at a lot of guys that take punishment. They get dazed, and the next time it’s easier. And the next time it’s easier. 

“…I don’t know how many knockouts you get in your lifetime. I don’t know how many times you can get dazed in your lifetime. But I want to save those for the important moments. And that’s in the Octagon.”

–       Johny Hendricks

“I didn’t spar for four or five years… I was still knocking a lot of people out. I felt like I already knew how to f–king fight, and now I had to get in shape. I didn’t want to do too much hard sparring.”

–       Robbie Lawler

UFC 171, held at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas on May 17 saw Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks contest the Welterweight Championship title. Hendricks took it from former champion, George Saint-Pierre, at UFC 167. Post-fight, Saint-Pierre delivered what will probably become one of the most significant features of his legacy; a retirement speech that alluded to brain damage. No wonder: his face looked like someone had landed a military helicopter on it.

Joe Roagn, UFC commentator, has been up-close to Pierre for much of his career. He interviewed him for his podcast after the fight and said,

“One of the reasons I think Georges should retire is he was on my podcast and he was talking about being abducted by aliens. I was going, ‘You think you’ve been abducted by aliens?’ … He starts talking about missing time. He started talking about how he’s driving his car and all of a sudden he’s at home and he has no idea [how] he got there. … I think it’s head kicks and punches.”

Ben Edwards is one of Australia’s best heavyweight kickboxers, making an international name for himself on the Glory Roster. His recently fought against Errol Zimmerman at Glory 16 in Denver, USA.

“I start sparring a month out from a fight. You only need to spar to get your timing in and a bit of conditioning. Even with headgear, your head is still bouncing around. Part of the reason I have a good chin is because I don’t take heavy shots in sparring. No damage. Save all that for the ring, when it counts. It’s important to remember that sparring’s sparring, and fighting is fighting. That said, sparring’s the most important part of training. It’s the closest simulation to a fight.”

Sam Greco is similarly circumspect on the issue.

“Heavy sparring? Probably once or twice a month. And when I say heavy, I mean ‘Let’s go.”

When I mentioned the daily heavy sparring at Dekkers’ Gym, Sam asked, “How many guys were in that gym?”

“Twenty or so.”

“Exactly, he replied. “I mean, you’ve got to be professional about it. What about cuts, broken bones, that sort of thing? Don’t tell me you’re going to back that up the next day. You’ve got to give your brain time to heal.”

When asked about Lawler and Hendricks, Greco’s answer is sophisticated.

“They might not have been doing any sparring three weeks’ out. If I’m rolling with you every day, doing drills with you every day [I’m getting the necessary contact]. Getting the sparring in [is necessary] for sorting out your timing. When you’re sparring, it’s at your leisure. When you’re doing drills, you’re working at your opponent’s leisure. That’s the difference.”


I retired from kickboxing because of head trauma. I fought over an eight-year period and only managed seven fights due to a scarcity of opportunity, but was fortunate enough to spar many of the best fighters in both Australia and then the world. A lot of that sparring was very heavy.

I noticed that the steepest improvements in my skills were always the result of being immersed in the cauldron of heavy sparring with a stronger opponent. In fact, one thing about Western gyms is that the best fighters seemed to emerge from the places where they get the heaviest sparring. In my early days, I was handed a number of summary hidings by Phil Fagan and Chris Chrisopoulides, both K1 Oceania regulars. After being belted by those two, all of my actual opponents seemed like a holiday.

Those experiences didn’t adequately prepare me for what I walked into at Golden Glory in Breda, Holland, however. Almost every session started with leg kicks. Fighters would pair up and hold for one another as we did three minutes of leg kicks, alternating from right to left.

The idea was that heavyweight fighting is about damage and therefore, when exhausted, you would default to the leg kick. The kick shields were old and broken, barely providing any more protection that a few folded bath towels. I remember picking one up and thinking, ‘These people are crazy!’ Then, Errol Zimmerman kicked me and I felt like I had whipped with a fence post.

I hit a hanging bag maybe twice in three months, when we had odd numbers at training and couldn’t match into pairs. Everything else was done with a partner. Sessions were split in half. Generally, we did five rounds of drills and then anywhere between three and eight rounds of sparring, rotating between opponents every round.

The sparring was the hardest I’d ever seen; broken bones and knockdowns were a reasonably regular occurrence. Similarly, these were far and away the toughest people I had ever seen. My acid test came a month in when a couple of prospects arrived from Romania. One of them had over seventy amateur fights and held an amateur title of some kind. My body was hard and my timing was right. I ground him into the mat.

Also, I wasn’t scared. After being belted from pillar to post by Saki/Overeem/Chalid Arrab and Zimmermans Benjey and Errol, how bad could a Romanian be? All of this was presided over by the late great Ramon Dekkers, who was the progenitor of the method we employed.

I improved dramatically, but was pretty dazed most of the time after training. I wasn’t knocked down often (after the first month, anyway), but had a really heavy day toward the end of my tenure. I remember looking out my lounge room window at the streetscape at night. All the colours flowed outside the lines; the whole street looked like a dissolving photograph.

After that, I realized I was forgetting things. Losing my keys three times a day; forgetting appointments, that sort of thing. I’d had a nasty scare in Australia after being knocked down twice in a week, also. I spoke to a friend of mine’s father, who was a doctor, and decided it was time to stop. I was struggling with my vocabulary, which had never been a problem before. It was like I’d reach for a word and find I’d misplaced it. That scared the hell out of me; at 35, I decided it was time to choose writing over fighting.

I also found that meditation cleared up the problems, but that may have been because the damage was minimal. Prior to reading Hendrick’s and Lawler’s comments, I would have told anyone that heavy sparring was a fighter’s portal to success. It gives you your fitness, conditioning and timing. After reading their comments though, I’m not sure. To begin with, the fact that the worlds two best fighters in that weight class both avoided heavy sparring and laid down a hell of a contest raises significant questions.

The truth is, if I was told before leaving for Europe that kickboxing would give me cancer, I would have kept going. That said, now I’m finished, I’m glad it didn’t. When training in Thailand, I was surprised to discover that Thai fighters don’t spar. They also save it for fight night when they’re getting paid.

In my case, it was so difficult to get fights, I had to resort to heavy sparing to simulate competition in order to develop. But if the Thai model was available here, you would be fighting regularly enough – possibly every week or two – and wouldn’t be as reliant on sparring.

It certainly makes better sense. And it’s working for Hendricks and Lawler.

2 Responses to “Heavy Sparring: Yes or No?”

  1. Really enjoyed this. Have been thinking a lot lately about blood sports. About the ‘incidental’ head trauma of contact sport (especially NFL) and the targeted trauma of combat sport. Race, class, intelligence, economic opportunity – I wonder had you not had writing, were you not an intelligent and aware man would you have turned your back on your talent no matter how dangerous. And furthermore had you less opportunity, if your talent in the ring was your only way forward, and given you had been informed of the danger to your health would we still be remiss not to call for a banning of blood sport as the American Medical Association demands?
    I’d be really interested in your thoughts given this post and the one some time ago about the young boy you were training.

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