I HAVE been sparring in gyms since as far back as 1980 and I have sparred more than 1,000 boxers in my life. The one that sticks out as the most memorable was actually two sessions over the course of two days with former middleweight contender, Lamar Parks. It happened in March 1992 in New York City.

Lamar was a fast and skilled fighter with sizzling combinations and brutal power. At Jimmy Glenn’s famous gym in the heart of Times Square, with the likes of former and future champs Saoul Mamby and Luis Santana watching from ringside, Lamar and I put on a show that drew ovations from everyone watching. We’d fought each other as amateurs, I had defeated him both times, and I guess we had a bit of a rivalry still going on and he brought his big guns that day. I distinctly remember thinking that it felt like he had miniature bowling balls packed inside his gloves instead of fists.

Probably the best high-level sparring I’ve ever witnessed on the other side of the ropes was in early 1992 at Roy Jones’ gym in Pensacola between Roy and another future champ, “Sweet” Reggie Johnson. Roy was obviously a phenom with gloves on but Reggie was a real pro, still young but with a lot of experience at the time and he was very skilled and game. That was probably as solid and intense as any sparring you are ever going to be lucky enough to witness in person.

The scariest thing to happen to me while sparring was back in the summer of 1994 against a cruiserweight from Trinidad named Don Smith. Don was a very good fighter, similar to Mike McCallum. It was very hot that day in the gym and the walls were made of cinder blocks, the gym had no windows or ventilation. On one of the walls next to the ring there was a large mural of graffiti in bright red and orange. At one point Don hit me with a big shot and immediately I felt it. It appeared that his head had grown to five times its normal size and when I looked over at the graffiti it looked like the coloured lines were vibrating and jumping from side to side, like the wall had actually come to life. I hid the fact that I was so affected long enough for us to do three or four more rounds. I thought to myself that if this had ever happened in a real fight I would need to deal with it so I sucked it up and finished several more rounds even though at times I couldn’t even see his arms or his gloves, only his apparently oversized head. I knew boxing was a super dangerous business but that day magnified the fact for me 10-fold.

Honestly, I believe that when you get into the boxing game you need to do whatever it is you have to do to prepare for the toughest fights and sparring is a huge part of that. Sparring in a gym is the next most dangerous aspect of boxing next to the real fights and it stands to reason that it is the best way to prepare for a real fight. Some may believe that too many rounds in the gym might be detrimental to one’s health but, the flip of that, not enough rounds in the gym might actually lead to even worse outcomes on fight night. Preparation is vital and sparring is a huge part of that.

The only way to make sparring safer is to make sure you have extremely competent people in your corner who know what they are looking at before, during and after the action commences every day. A lot of boxers get damaged in the gym because of incompetent people who think the only ‘good sparring’ is an all-out slugfest with no focus on slipping punches and exercising defence.

Sparring is perhaps the most important part of a boxer’s training but there’s a way to spar and that isn’t to just ‘fight’.