Boxing has a built-in, natural progression to it when it is taught properly and this applies to defense as much as it does anything else. Some coaches adhere to a sink or swim method. They throw their new protégé into sparring within a couple of weeks or have them competing within a month or less.  Some coaches feel like this weeds-out the weak fighters while it develops mental roughness and helps mold character in the more natural-born survivors.  They believe that the ones with heart, passion and a real aptitude will stick it out, while the ones who are only trying it out will move on and not waste their time.  Considering that boxing is a rough sport and unforgiving in many ways, this approach may not sound totally unreasonable to some people...especially those who practice and preach this method.  And, then again maybe, just maybe it's worth looking at from a different perspective?

When a baby is born, do doctors or parents get them on their feet right away and encourage them to walk?  Of course not!  First the newborn needs to gain enough leg strength to stand, develop balance, a sense of coordination and even enough upper body strength to catch themselves when they fall.  They learn in progression; first to crawl, then to walk and finally, to run.  They even eat, sleep and grow in between, better preparing themselves for walking upright and absorbing the physical pounding they'll take when they fall.

Comparing that scenario to boxing, how many times have you seen a boxer, with only a few days training or few weeks in the gym, thrown into a combative situation, without a full understanding of the ring, defense or proper conditioning?  Don't you think, considering that this is a sport where another athlete is trying to hit you as hard as he can, as many times as possible and basically render you unconscious, while you're trying to do the same thing, you should be fully versed in all aspects of his or her game?

Full-on sparring isn't meant for beginners, but for the coach who's willing to take the time, there's a simple step-by-step process to get them there.

Step One:  Learn defense.  Sounds basic enough, right?  Yes, but grasping it fully isn’t so simple. Learn to block the jab, block the right cross, slip the jab, slip the right cross, block the hook and roll under the hook.  Learn how to defend against the uppercut, block and absorb a body shot. You have to know how to block, when to slip and how to perform every defensive move without opening yourself up even further.  Two key aspects are knowing how to time your move, so that you don’t defend too soon or too late, and also being comfortable enough to use your opponent’s defense against him.  Both are intricacies that a beginner won’t grasp.  You don't get behind the wheel of a car without knowing the rules of the road and how to respond to the most common situations and you shouldn't get in a ring with any less of an understanding of the situations you might encounter there.

Step Two:  Practice defense until it's intuitive.  This is best achieved when a coach methodically runs through the various punches, the correct defensive responses and makes adjustments. This should be done often enough to where the new fighter's response is natural and he doesn't struggle to intuitively know the correct response, which hand to block with or how far to duck to avoid getting hit.  He's able to just do it, focus on his response and practice it, knowing something is not coming back at him.

Step Three:  Experience friendly fire first.  Before getting thrown in with a fighter who is looking to mix it up, it's best if a beginning fighter is able to practice some of what he's learned with a real, live body in front of him first.  Pairing him up with another fighter who is not trying to knock his block off, but who can work with him is ideal.  He can lightly throw and catch punches, running the new fighter through the various defensive moves in a more realistic back and forth exchange.  Ideally the partner would be an experienced boxer who can control his punches and throw them with just enough speed and power that a beginning fighter can see what's coming and has time to respond in the right way.  If this pairing works and the beginning fighter seems to be picking upon the concept of defense and how to counterpunch, then the
pace and intensity can be picked-up each time these fighters work together.

Step Four:  Get real.  Once a beginning fighter has been guided through these stages, he likely can't be considered a beginner anymore and should be ready for actual sparring.  If this phased process has taken place over a period of months and not days, then he's gotten a good taste of what real time sparring would be like and should be fairly adept at defending himself.  Now he can be let loose a little.

The process of toughening a fighter is not only good, it's necessary.  Baby him and he will whine his way through the workouts, look for reasons to quit when the going gets tough and ultimately he will fail to respond when he's seriously tested in the ring.  The toughening process should happen over time though.  You can't expect a fighter to gut his way through every session, unless he has been given the proper time to learn the basics, understand how to defend himself and know how to respond.  Having that knowledge and then executing it is part of the evolution of a fighter.  Knowledge is power.  Fighters aren't made from being broken down.  They are made from building them up, one step, one punch and one phase at a time.

Doug Ward is the President and Trainer for the Underground Boxing Company.