Competitive Boxing isn’t for Everyone

Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott

In a recent entry, I stressed the significance of amateur boxing. I emphasized just how important it is for aspiring boxers to accumulate as much experience as possible. As I’ve said before, a boxer learns by boxing so it is essential for amateurs to spar and compete regularly. That’s how a boxer develops and progresses throughout the ranks. The Cuban program serves as a perfect example. It’s not uncommon for top Cuban amateurs to accumulate a few hundred fights. No one can dispute their success. The question that I often receive however is whether or not such frequent competition is dangerous. Is there such a thing as too much? And should boxers limit how often they spar or compete?

Sparring and Competition Frequency

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer to the question of frequency. How often a boxer spars or competes depends on several factors. For example, the boxer’s ability and experience are both relevant. What makes sense for the seasoned veteran may not make sense for the beginner. Furthermore, who and how the boxer spars or competes is just as relevant as how often. One session might involve light work while another escalates into a war. Naturally, the damage inflicted during each session will be entirely different. And it is those differences that highlight the limitations of focusing solely on frequency.

With that in mind, it is extremely important for a young boxer to be working with an experienced trainer. A good trainer will match his fighters appropriately and closely monitor how much damage is inflicted. The trainer will also intervene if a sparring session begins to get out of control. He isn’t just there to teach the fighters but also to protect them. Thus, while hard sparring becomes important at higher levels, there’s nothing macho about leaving your best action in the gym.

Boxing is a Tough Sport

When discussing sparring and competition frequency, it’s important for fighters to realize that boxing is an extremely tough sport. Society may promote equality, but there is no equality inside the ring. Anyone can use the sport for fitness (ex. bag work), but competitive boxing is not for everyone. Referring back to the Cuban example, not every Cuban amateur racks up a few hundred fights. It’s only those who continue to win that last so long. The one on one nature of the sport is the essence of survival of the fittest. Unfortunately, not everyone is fit to survive.

Boxing may be considered a sport, but it is unlike most games that you play. When you step inside the ring to compete, you must understand the reality of the sport. It is a fight.

As Thomas Hauser once wrote in his classic book The Black Lights:

“Getting punched in the head is an integral part of boxing. The basic idea is to inflict as much damage as possible on an opponent.”

Although Hauser’s words may sound barbaric, I’ve never met a serious boxer who wasn’t eager to win by knockout. Speaking for myself, I still have vivid memories of knockout victories from 20+ years ago. Even after all these years, I can replay each detail in my head as if it happened yesterday. Winning by knockout is one of the most amazing feelings in all of sports. Anyone who cannot handle that reality is not suited for the sport.

As Rocky Marciano once said:

“There’s nothing personal about it. What it comes down to is, it’s the other guy or you. Anybody in there with me is there to get me, and I’m there to get him.”

At this point, some might be wondering what the two quotes above have to do with boxing frequency. The answer is quite simple however. In boxing, there are winners and losers. If a fighter continues to find himself on the losing end, there is a good chance that he is taking too much punishment. I’ve seen it happen at every level of the sport. If or when it happens, the trainer must speak up to protect the fighter from himself.

Honesty from Trainers

Considering the nature of the sport, I’m all for brutal honesty when stating that boxing isn’t for everyone. I’d rather tell someone that competitive boxing isn’t for them, rather than turning a blind eye and seeing that individual get seriously injured down the road.

Just like any other sport, boxing at a high level requires an extreme amount of skill. Not everyone is going to make it to the top. Therefore, when a fighter begins to take too many punches, someone needs to step up and protect the fighter. It is irresponsible to put a fighter in the ring who lacks the ability to adequately compete and protect himself. I’d rather hurt his feelings than see him take a punch that he carries with him forever.

Final Thoughts

I wish I could provide a single answer about sparring and competition frequency. Unfortunately, there are no universal suggestions that can be applied to the masses. Boxing can be a very dangerous sport, so there will always be a fine line between too much and not enough. You obviously want your competitive boxers sparring regularly so that they learn how to fight, but you also don’t want to leave their best work in the gym. Therefore, it’s important that each fighter’s odometer is tracked individually. High mileage doesn’t necessarily mean a high number of rounds, but rather too much wear and tear during each round.

In summary, I always encourage those with interest in boxing to visit their local boxing gym. Everyone is welcomed to participate. It’s important to realize though that there are levels in boxing just like any sport. For example, not every little league baseball player is going to make it to the big leagues. At some point, he will be told that he didn’t make the team. The same concept should apply to boxing. As much as I encourage athletes to work hard to fulfill their dreams, I never want to see a fighter’s health comprised by the sport. With that said, the trainer’s job isn’t just to prepare a fighter to fight, but also to protect those who are no longer capable.

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  1. Great post, Ross. It actually makes me realize what a crappy trainer I had. The boxing gym I went to for years had open sparring every Saturday and boxers from all levels would attend. The trainer would do his best to match you up with somebody comparable to you. But, it really broke down to who was actually there when it was your turn to step into the ring. If it was your turn on a day with a thin turn out, you might get a guy who won Golden Gloves, a professional, or a 17 year old with a 0-0 record, it didn’t matter. The gym motto was “You’re not doing anybody any favors by going easy”. But there was a general understanding of if you’re bigger or more experienced, don’t injure the rookie. However, there was also an underlying theme of weeding out the “Marshmallows”, as they called them. Rather than the trainer simply telling these people ahead of time that they weren’t ready or right for sparring, it was the job of the more experienced fighter to not injure them, but bloody them up enough and make them feel foolish enough to quit on their own. Yes, the sport itself brutally honest. But looking back, my trainer relied too much on the sport to break the news rather than his own words.

  2. Thanks for this Ross. It really answered a lot of questions I had. The biggest problem I had was teaching new people how to get hit. To not be afraid of punches and learn from them. But I recently ran into someone who wasn’t afraid to get hit but he never learned from them. He just kept getting hit with the same shots over and over again and his partners didn’t want to spar with him any more because they were not improving either. Unlike basketball and baseball, you can’t just tell someone to keep at it relentless until they might get better. It is a sport with much higher consequences and needs to be treated as such.

  3. Punch Combinations For first Amateur Fight

    Hello Ross

    I have always liked boxing and enjoy training at it. I like your web site and find it informative, it’s a great resource.

    I have a question then about combinations to learn for amateur boxing.

    Question: What is the minimum combination list to know ‘automatically’ before taking one’s first Amateur fight? You have said a lot about amateur preparation in terms of fitness, general skill, sparring and competition, but I can’t find a minimum list of punches specified.

    The reason I ask is some coaching manuals recommend only basic 2, 3 and 4 combination lists for the first fight, as they reckon defences, fitness and endurance are key. I could make a list of around a hundred combinations including many with feints, slips and rolls but do we need this many when starting out?

    What do you think is best and the minimum combo list to drill and ‘work up’?



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