In my last entry, I stressed the importance of becoming a student of the sport. To emphasize that point, I posted a documentary of a young Mike Tyson. Within the video, Tyson demonstrates his boxing knowledge by analyzing several legendary fighters. The video doesn’t just highlight Tyson’s historical knowledge however. Within the first few minutes, he also provides valuable wisdom that all boxers will benefit from hearing.
Wisdom from Mike Tyson
In a matter of seconds, Tyson shares one of the most important boxing conditioning lessons of all. When asked if he could prepare himself to fight more rounds, Mike Tyson responds with the following:
Going rounds is a state of mind. If you can go 4 rounds, you can go 6. If you can go 6, you can go 10… It’s a state of mind.
Many viewers likely heard these words while watching the documentary, yet failed to grasp the true significance. It is difficult to appreciate the mental aspect of this sport without direct experience. When a casual fan sees a boxer fatigue, it is natural to assume that the boxer did not train adequately. The reality though is that a boxer could be in tremendous physical condition but still struggle with endurance.
When considering the mental aspects of boxing, you’ll notice how the discussion shifts towards a theme that I have highlighted before. In short, it is impossible to condition yourself for boxing without boxing. All of the calisthenics and running in the world will not give a boxer comfort inside the ring. These exercises may improve the physical condition of a boxer, but there are mental facets that can only be enhanced through actual ring time. Boxing efficiency is a prime example.
To perform a task efficiently is to perform that task effectively while minimizing unnecessary effort. More experienced boxers are naturally more efficient than beginners. In layman’s terms, a beginner and advanced boxer could both throw 100 punches, but the beginner would expend more energy performing the same work. The experienced boxer is more relaxed while navigating through each round. The beginner on the other hand is tense, thus expends energy even during periods of less activity. He lacks the comfort and familiarity that is necessary to box in a relaxed state.
As for examples, Willie Pep (picture above) could be a case study in efficiency. Pep was so relaxed that he could literally stand in front of an opponent and make him miss while expending little if any energy. That level of comfort can only be developed inside the ring. It does not happen on the heavy bag or while racking up miles of roadwork. Such comfort only comes through hundreds of rounds of sparring and experience in actual bouts.
Physical vs. Mental
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that there are certain amateur boxers who are in better physical shape than some seasoned professionals. The difference is that the younger boxers expend much more energy than the experienced pros. I have known amateur boxers who were so tense on fight night that they’d need to be in world class condition just to last 3 or 4 rounds.
I have also seen high level athletes from other sports who transitioned to boxing and struggled to spar even a few rounds. Physically, these athletes were in tremendous condition. They could run all day and perform any assortment of exercises. Lack of physical conditioning wasn’t the problem. What they needed was experience. That’s the only way to develop comfort and efficiency.
Unfortunately, certain trainers overlook this seemingly obvious fact. When they see a boxer run out of gas, they assume that the problem is physical. Their solution is to prescribe more exercises than before. These trainers fail to realize that boxing shape is different from being in shape for a physical fitness contest. Yes, physical conditioning is important, but it is only as useful as your ability to apply it in a skillful and efficient manner.
Been There, Done That
Another important mental aspect of boxing is familiarity. An experienced boxer knows what it is like to be tired. They’ve been there before, and know that they can recover. A novice on the other hand may panic when fatigue sets in. If such a fighter experiences fatigue in the 4th round, they will doubt their ability to last six rounds. I see it all the time when young boxers spar at the gym. They want to jump out of the ring as soon as they are tired.
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” – Vince Lombardi
Experienced fighters understand that fatigue is all but inevitable. It comes with the territory so there is no reason to panic. For instance, a veteran boxer may engage in a busy 4th round and feel fatigued towards the end of the round. When this boxer goes back to his corner, he takes a deep breath and relaxes. He knows that he can recover. He also knows how to buy time and look busy without being busy. Examples could include feinting more the next round, turning his opponent, tying up without looking like he’s trying to hold, and so on. These are all veteran tricks that eat up time within a round while the boxer actively recovers and awaits his second wind.
Conversely, the inexperienced boxer will often assume that he’s done once fatigue has set in. He doesn’t know that there are ways to recover both during the round as well as in between. He’s been misled to believe that if you are tired, you didn’t train hard enough. He doesn’t know that all fighters will eventually face fatigue. And it’s how you deal with the fatigue that separates champions from contenders. To succeed in this sport, you must learn to manage fatigue. You can’t just run out of your corner and expect to throw hundreds of punches each round. You must learn to pace yourself according to the fight.
In many ways, boxers need to manage the clock just like athletes from other sports. Consider NFL football for example. There are times when a football team may slow the game down by running the ball. At other times, that same team may be pressed to score so they work at a faster pace without huddling in between plays. Ultimately, the situation of the game dictates the tempo.
The same idea applies to boxing. A boxer needs to know where he is within the round as well as the fight. An intelligent boxer won’t blow his load in the first round of a championship bout when he knows that there are 11 more rounds ahead of him. If however he sees that his opponent is hurt, he may open up and try to finish him.
Learning to pace yourself based on the fight and the opponent is extremely important as you begin to face higher level opposition. Unfortunately, even the best corner in the world can’t give you this knowledge without experience. Only through experience can you develop the mental resiliency and awareness to efficiently navigate your way through each round.
In summary, Mike Tyson highlighted one of the most important aspects of a fighter’s development. Boxing requires mental toughness and intelligence. The significance of these mental aspects cannot overstated. I truly believe that boxing is as mental as any other sport in the history of athletics. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to develop mental competency inside the ring. It must be earned one round at a time. There is no other way.
I probably sound like a broken record, but I’ll say it again. If you are serious about boxing, the bulk of your time and energy should be spent boxing. Don’t let supplemental training distract you from what is most important. Training with the gloves on matters more than anything if you wish to advance in this sport.