How We Spar
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Sparring = boxing or kickboxing in a friendly/training manner, as opposed to in competition or in a self-defense scenario
I wish I could take credit for my style of sparring, but pretty much 100% of the credit belongs to TSMMA, the school from which I (and 3 of my brothers) learned pretty much all of my fighting skills.
Unlike many other martial arts schools and fighting gyms, TSMMA took a very conservative approach to sparring. From what I recall, I trained for a few years before I earned my green belt - which was the key to the front part of the room, which was for the students who could free spar during the final few rounds of kickboxing class. During my journey from white belt > blue > yellow > green belt, my instructors helped me develop the skills which would set the foundation for sparring.
Distance - As our instructors often repeated, distance is the most important aspect of kickboxing (and boxing, as well). This comes relatively naturally as you begin to do realistic drills and it develops rather quickly once you begin to spar. Simply put, a fighter should always remain out of reach of their opponent. This allows them to both avoid being hit and lunge in to attack without being hit, if they time their strike perfectly.
Stance - The second principle that our instructors often hammered into us was always maintaining a proper stance. A proper stance is one that allows the fighter to move in any direction, strike, and defend themselves in an instant. “If you are off balance, do not strike and do not do anything other than get back into a good stance”, I often hear myself telling new fighters. If you lose your balance or stance, that is okay. Just get back into a proper stance as soon as possible, because your opponent is surely trying to take advantage of your mistake.
Now that we’ve reviewed the foundations that one ought to develop before sparring, let’s discuss what really set TSMMA apart from the other places I’ve trained at: Their super-conservative approach to sparring. In our adult classes, most of the students were professionals who could not afford to get injured and who probably did not want CTE. Even the teenagers in class probably didn’t want those horrible things to happen to them - and those things are generally avoidable. We were trained to spar with around 10-20% power, by my guesstimation. When my sparring partner landed a flush shot on my face or abdomen, it was only slightly unpleasant, and it did not have any chance of injuring me. By no means did this mean that we didn’t train hard. We still trained with full speed and proper technique and timing, but we did not put our full power behind our strikes. Light sparring has multiple benefits:
1) Sparring lightly decreased the incidence of injuries massively, making us more likely to attend class, causing very few missed classes due to injury, and making people more comfortable while training, which is very important.
2) Due to the decreased power, our rounds lasted much longer than our counterparts who sparred hard. I remember boxing with Julio Arce for 50 minutes in one round after my normal 2 hours of training, one day. I would have been fatigued after one minute of sparring an elite boxer and current UFC star. Because we were sparring lightly, we were able to go forever. Of course, this resulted in greater growth than if I had sparred hard for a fraction of the time.
3) If you spar hard, you injure your opponent. If your opponent has a concussion, broken nose, bruised ribs, or bloody lip, you sparring session is over and you may not be able to spar for weeks. Even for selfish reasons, you should spar lightly and only ramp up the intensity in the final weeks before a fight. I hypothesize that heavyweight boxers have such severe CTE due to sparring hard for decades more than from their few fights throughout their careers. If you take 12 hard shots to the head in each fight, even if you have a long career, I would imagine that you’d have little to no cognitive effects from the trauma. It’s the hard sparring on a daily basis that’ll kill you, if you ask me.
Headgear: Like all sciences, fight-science is constantly evolving. Although headgear has always been used in all scenarios other than professional boxing (and professional kickboxing and MMA), Olympics boxing has recently ditched the headgear due to the most recent science. Headgear only absorbs a tiny amount of energy from powerful punches and it does prevent cuts, but it also makes the head much bigger - meaning that it causes fighters to take many more hits to the head. In a study with 15,000 boxers, researchers found that the group without headgear had a concussion rate of 17% while the group with headgear had a concussion rate of 38%.
*quietly throws headgear in the trash*
Does this sparring method work?
Using the fundamental principles described above and sparring super lightly, I have gotten friends with zero experience comfortable sparring with me within one 60-minute session.
As for fighters, the method seems to work quite well, because TSMMA has multiple (seven that I know of) fighters who have had success in the UFC - the world’s top MMA league.